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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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