The Power of Punctuation (II)

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The outcome of this study showed that the students have not been cautioned that punctuation marks may convey meaning and be crucial in forming a mutual relationship between the writer and reader. In addition, this lack of understanding or knowledge in punctuation systems impedes Iranian translators from producing accurate pieces of work.  The reason for these findings can be briefly summarized in three points. First, the punctuation system in Persian does not provide enough data in explaining and establishing the functions of punctuation marks. Second, there is a lack of contrastive study done on English and Persian in differentiating the functions of similar punctuation marks in these languages. Third, there is a lack of applying a linguistic point of view in translation studies when it comes to understanding the affect that punctuation marks have on discourse (organizing one’s text and forming a relationship between the writer and the reader).

Even when the punctuation systems of both the source language and target language are well established, translators may still experience some difficulty. For instance, even fluent Greek-English bilinguals do not breeze through translating English documents to Greek and vice versa. This is again, due to the fact that punctuation marks play different roles across languages. For example, in Greek, at the end of an interrogative sentence, people use a semicolon instead of a question mark. There may be guidebooks on explaining the functions of punctuation marks in foreign language but people often dismiss or overlook the important feature of punctuation marks. This is not advisable at all. In conclusion, “translating” punctuation marks requires having a strong foundation in not just one punctuation system, but in at least two, in order for quality translation to occur.

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The Power of Punctuation (I)



In 1905, when the striking Bolshevik printers of St. Petersburg vehemently requested to be paid the same rate for punctuation marks as for letters, this triggered the first wave of the Russian Revolution. This factoid from a librarian’s speech spurred Lynne Truss on to dedicate her non-fiction book, Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation to the printers. In this book, Truss laments the current situation of punctuation in United Kingdom and United States, with many taking a more nonchalant stance and adopting more liberal rules towards it. Her intention is to highlight the importance of punctuation to her readers by combining admonition with wit.

For instance, this excerpt from Truss’ book pokes fun at misapplying the punctuation mark:

A panda walks into a café. He orders a sandwich, eats it, then draws a gun and proceeds to fire it at the other patrons.

“Why?” asks the confused, surviving waiter amidst the carnage, as the panda makes towards the exit. The panda produces a badly punctuated wildlife manual and tosses it over his shoulder.

“Well, I’m a panda,” he says. “Look it up.”

The waiter turns to the relevant entry in the manual and, sure enough, finds an explanation. “Panda. Large black-and-white bear-like mammal, native to China. Eats, shoots and leaves.

When we think of translation, what often come to our mind are larger units, such as words, instead of tinier units, such as punctuation marks. In fact, punctuation marks are empowering. They form powerful connections by creating a relationship between the writer and reader. Failure or confusion in understanding punctuation marks in a source language results in problems when meaning is transferred onto the target language. Because punctuation marks help the writer in organizing his text, when translators overlook or misunderstand them, the reader may be left feeling bewildered and frustrated.

Punctuation marks play different roles across languages. In a study that focused on translating a few sentences from English into Persian, only a minority of the 22 graduates who majored in translation managed to succeed. The reason was attributed to the absence of contrastive study on the punctuation systems of English and Persian as well as the failure to apply and use punctuation marks appropriately.  Three punctuation marks were chosen in this study. They are the colon, the semicolon and the comma. It was discovered that majority of the students who did not succeed in translating the sample sentences either could not translate or mistranslated the punctuation marks. In view of the comma, only 9% of the students could translate successfully. Taking the various functions of the semicolon into account, 18%, 18% and 4% of the respective usages were properly translated. Lastly, the correct translation of the colon was a mere 4%. (to be continued)

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