Smart quote-marks for smart translating

I wrote on 21 July about quote-marks — how to decide whether you should be using curly (smart) or straight quotes and, once you’ve decided, how to type them using keyboard shortcuts where necessary.

Translators, however, need to decide not just which quote marks to use but whether or not to “translate” them. For example, several languages use the guillemet style of quote mark, or angle quotes, «which look like this».

Since we don’t normally use guillemets in English, we shouldn’t simply carry them over from the source text (Italian, say) into the English translation. They should be translated into standard English quote marks, “like this” (or ‘like this’, if you prefer).

Here are three reasons why translators (some of them) fail to translate quote marks.

  1. They don’t know their source language well enough and think that the guillemets are being used for emphasis or to achieve some special effect, rather than being standard use. So an inexperienced translator will carry them over into English, where they hope to create the same effect (whatever that may be). This is bad.
  2. They don’t even notice that the quote marks in the source language are different from those used in English. In this case, the translator copies the guillemets over without thinking. This is bad.
  3. They don’t know their own language (English) well enough to realise that we don’t use guillemets. This, in my opinion, is the worst of the three.

Some people probably wouldn’t consider this misuse of guillemets to be an error. The translated text will still be comprehensible, although the reader might think it looks a bit odd, without necessarily realising why. But to my mind it is an error, for precisely that reason — it will bug and distract the reader. And the translator’s aim is to produce a text that reads smoothly in the target text, without sloppy mistranslations interrupting the reader’s concentration like a pesky mosquito buzzing around their head.

What do you think? Am I being too pernickety (yet again)? Have you got any pet punctuation peeves?

By the way: I originally thought that the word for angle quotes was “guillemots” because, taken singly, they look a bit like a child’s drawing of a bird and a guillemot is a type of seabird. Sadly, that’s wrong. According to Wikipedia the correct term, guillemet, derives from the name of Guillaume Le Bé, a French printer.

By Marian Dougan

6 Responses

  1. I totally agree that mistranslated quote marks distract the reader. Reading texts in Spanish, where they don’t generally even use any marks, just a hyphen at the beginning of the speech, is really confusing for me!

  2. Hi Marian,

    I would argue that when it comes to translations, nothing is ‘good’ or ‘bad’ in essence, as long as it has a purpose. But I do agree with you, foreign punctuation can be very disturbing, even more in other languages, because they get constantly contaminated by the dominant language of the Internet – that would be English.

    In French for instance, we rarely use the ampersand and the hyphen. Okay let’s rephrase this, the ampersand has nearly disappeared and we rarely use the hyphen in the way English does. I’ve found that English hyphens often correspond to a colon in French, but I sometimes maintain hyphens when they have the same purpose as brackets.

    In terms of etymology, I would have liked ‘ampersand’ to come from ‘amber sand’ but it’s actually ‘and per se’. The French word is far more poetic. ‘Perluète’ originally comes from the Latin pronunciation of ‘et’ (which in French is ‘ète’). But in the French schools of the 19th century, they use to have the children spelling the alphabet in chorus and the ampersand was the last letter. So to make it a singing finish they used to sing ‘…x, y, z et perlu-ète!’. Or at least, that’s what my etymological dictionary says.

    1. “Amber sand” – that would be lovely!
      Here’s the wikipedia entry on “ampersand”, and here’s the Online Etymology Dictionary’s version.
      I’m not sure that I agree with you that in translation, “nothing is ‘good’ or ‘bad’ in essence, as long as it has a purpose”. I see plenty of translations from Italian that contain much that is bad.
      That said, it’s interesting to see the question of punctuation from the non-English viewpoint.

  3. Hi Marian,

    I couldn’t agree more that anything in the text that distracts readers, makes them backtrack to check something, or leaves them with a feeling of unease is a failing. In marketing contexts and/or on the web, in particular, it is likely to be fatal.

  4. Thanks, Kim (not least for reading my blog when you’ve got your hands full with the wee one!)
    Some of the Italian texts I work with jump from one style of quote marks to another for no obvious reason, other than that they clearly don’t use a style guide.

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