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Punctuation in literary translation
Thread poster: Kathryn Litherland

Kathryn Litherland  Identity Verified
United States
Local time: 01:20
Member (2007)
Spanish to English
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Apr 25, 2008

What are your opinions on preserving punctuational habits in literary translations?

The background is that I'm editing a translated work of fiction for a U.S. publisher--the original was published in Hindi in the early 20th century. I've come to learn that Hindi uses the same punctuational scheme as (British) English. I am wondering how far you would go in Americanizing and/or correcting the author's original punctuation choices--some of which are correctly British, but others of which some of which are the sorts of "mistakes" that even the best English-language writers make (hence the need for editors!) intentionally or unintentionally.

For example, in proper English, one uses a comma to separate two parts of a complex sentence (two subjects, two verbs) joined by a conjunction with a comma: The dog ran away, and it got run over by a car. If it's a compound predicate, however, the comma is omitted: The dog ran away and got run over by a car. If two independent clauses are not joined by a conjunction, then a semicolon is called for: The dog ran away; later it was run over by a car. The punctuation in the original occasionally fails to conform rigorously to these rules. The publishing house that I'm working for (and for whom I've done editorial work for a long time now) is generally rigorous about such things.

If it were an academic text, I'd have no problem just standardizing everything. However, when dealing with a work of fiction (published in the foreign language in several editions, by an author now dead), I'm uncertain where the poetic license of the author to use punctuation idiosycratically ends, and the translator's/editor's license to bring the text into conformity with conventions of the local conventions of the new audience and "house style" of the publishing house.

In other words, I'm having a hard time figuring out the dividing line between local *convention* (which I feel is within the translator's purview to alter to fit) and authorial *intention* (the author may have employed technically incorrect punctuation to achieve a particular effect).

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Giles Watson  Identity Verified
Local time: 07:20
Italian to English
Ask the client Apr 25, 2008

In general terms, you might want to distinguish between instances where the author is using standard British punctuation, and you are justified in Americanising the text to achieve equivalent impact on your expected readership, from those where s/he is using non-standard punctuation for effect, in which case you might have to make a judgement call.

Most publishers have a house style sheet or preferred style manual (Oxford, Chicago, Webster, MHRA etc), though, so why don't you ask your client for guidelines? The main thing is to get this sorted out before you have to start fielding queries from the copy editor!


[Edited at 2008-04-26 08:27]

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Tina Vonhof  Identity Verified
Local time: 23:20
Member (2006)
Dutch to English
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Agree with asking the client Apr 25, 2008

I agree that this is a case where you should definitely ask the publishing company. But in general, the task of a translator is to produce text that is understandable in, and therefore should follow the punctuation rules or conventionsof, the target language.

[Edited at 2008-04-25 20:12]

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Brian Young  Identity Verified
United States
Local time: 22:20
Danish to English
Did the author intentionally use non-standard grammar? Apr 26, 2008

I think it might be a mistake to assume that an author is actually "using" poetic license when non-standard, or even incorrect, punctuation is used. Many writers, even well known ones, "use" poor grammar, not, I believe, through choice, but because they either don't know better, or don't care. I often find, when reading novels by "famous" authors, that the flow is interrupted by stumbling over poor grammar. This will probably always be a judgment call on your part. It might be helpful to ask the original author, if that is even possible. But if that author is not familiar with the target language he might not be able to help. There are always exceptions. Joyce’s Ulysses contains a 45 page sentence. That was intentional, and he never would have allowed any kind of “corrections” to be made.
This question is probably one of the things that make translation so exciting and challenging. There are no objective answers that can be given out of context. I would try to assess the author’s style, and attempt to determine whether or not his use of grammar is intentional or just haphazard. But even that doesn’t answer the question about whether or not you should make changes. If incorrect grammar is a natural part of the writer’s language, for example prose written by poor or uneducated people, or writers under duress (prison letters), then it should not be changed.

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Punctuation in literary translation

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