Punctuation is certainly important in any kind of text as can be verified by a comparison between the following two exhortations:
- Let’s eat, Grandma! and
- Let’s eat Grandma!
Then there’s the old joke about the panda, which goes into a fast-food restaurant for a snack, takes out a gun and shoots someone, then ambles out the door. On being interrogated in a police station, the panda said it was the description of a panda that was the reason for the unusual behaviour:
“The panda – a large, black and white furry mammal that eats, shoots and leaves.”
It is obvious from these two examples just why the role of punctuation is so important in a familiar language, but in fact even more so when a chunk of text is translated from one language into another. Although, in general, the rules of punctuation are similar in many different languages, even those that use pictograms like Japanese, or are read from right to left rather than left to rights like Arabic and Hebrew, there are often unique rules that translators must be aware of.
What is the role of punctuation?
Punctuation is used to show where there are natural pauses in a chunk of text. The different punctuation marks give an indication of just how long a pause should be and also help to provide clues to the link between adjacent words or phrases.
There is little that is known about the origins of punctuation, but the development of punctuation has gone in tandem with the development of writing itself. Some say that the earliest punctuation arose to provide orators an idea of how they should give a speech. By ‘punctuating’ their speech with natural pauses of different duration, they were able to convey more precise and often more meaningful speech. In the early days of the written word, there were no punctuation marks, which would have made it more cumbersome to read. Even today, within a single language, the rules of punctuation are often ignored which can then give rise to the absurdities exemplified in the examples given above (Poor Grandma!)
It is thought that by the beginning of the twentieth century that similar rules of punctuation had been adopted by most of the major written languages, albeit with some unique variations. A question mark at the end of a sentence signals a question being asked in most languages, although for emphasis in Spanish, for example, there are two question marks: one at the beginning of the question and another at the end. The two question marks are inverted as in ¿Como Esta Usted?
Full stops are used in most languages to indicate the end of a sentence and therefore a longer pause, but in Japanese, the full stop is a small open circle rather than a dot. The Japanese comma, indicating a shorter pause, is reversed in direction, as it is in Arabic as well.
For those translating from English into Armenian, it must be remembered that the full stop is not a dot, but a colon, while the English colon is a full stop! Just to confuse things further, there is no question mark as in most languages, but an open circle is used instead at the upper right-hand corner of the last vowel in the question.
Some languages, like German and Russian, tend to be noun heavy or are replete in lengthier text. This often means that there is more liberal use of commas just to break up the flow of speech.
Whatever the languages used by a professional translator, punctuation is both useful and important. If you don’t want Grandma to be eaten or allow pandas to go on a shooting rampage, you must know the rules of punctuation in both the source and target languages if you are a translator!