Spanish and English Punctuation — the Little Differences

Proofread papers after correction of Spanish and English punctuation differences

Written by Marián Amigueti

Freelance English and German into Spanish translation specialist.

Much of my work time is dedicated to revising translations from English into Spanish. It’s an activity I normally love to do. Especially because of everything I learn through reading and correcting. I thought the Spanish-to-English translators who read this blog would find a post from the reverse perspective useful. I hope it’ll help you with your Spanish writing, too!

As I see it, there are two main reasons why translators make punctuation mistakes.

1. Tendency to imitate the source-text structure.

2. Tendency to use commas to reflect the pauses you make when speaking.

Imitating the source-text structure

As Gwenydd explains in her article about Favourite Mistakes by Translators on The Translator’s Studio Translation Courses, translators often get hypnotised by the source text. This is a problem because Spanish and English punctuation rules are sometimes different.

So, when you translate, it is easy to reproduce an identical structure to that of the original text. This also happens to me, I must confess.

Particularly when you work with CAT Tools, it’s so easy to simply copy source to target, keeping the same structure.

English hyphen vs Spanish colon or comma

I know it’s very tempting to translate, for instance, the English hyphen with a hyphen. Even though it would be equivalent to a colon, or just a comma, in Spanish.

For instance: Literature – An Introduction to Contemporary Poetry. Translated: «Literatura – Una introducción a la poesía contemporánea» [sic], instead of replacing the hyphen with a colon.

Another related error is to keep the English capitalization, by using the colon followed by the text on the same line. To use our example, «Literatura: Una Introducción a la poesía contemporánea» [sic], the correct translation would be: «Literatura: una introducción a la poesía contemporánea».

The correct option in Spanish for written publications is angular quotation marks.

Non-equivalence with comma use

Other times it happens that a fragment of a sentence when adapting it to Spanish should go between commas because it’s an explanatory adjunct. E.g. “occasionally pausing to look fabulous”. Translated as «y se detienen de vez en cuando para verse fabulosos» [sic]. This would be correctly rendered: «y se detienen, de vez en cuando, para verse fabuloso».

Comma in place of colon in email openings

This happens when you translate “Dear colleagues,” as «Estimados compañeros,» [sic]. In Spanish the right use is «Estimados compañeros:».

Comma omission and addition

Another common mistake is to omit the obligatory comma in Spanish in front of adverse subordinates such as pero and aunque. E.g. “I know you don’t want to come, but you should,” translated: «Sé que no quieres venir pero deberías» [sic]. The correct translation would be: «Sé que no quieres venir, pero deberías».

Here, I’d like to add an important note: there is no comma before a question clause with pero, as in “But what’s it about?”: «Pero, ¿de qué se trata? [sic]». The right use is: «Pero ¿de qué se trata?».

It’s also wrong to add a comma between the verb and its indispensable complements (unless they go before the verb). E.g. “I called you several times yesterday in the morning”. Translated as, «Te llamé varias veces, ayer por la mañana [sic]».

In Spanish, unlike English, it’s incorrect to add a comma before the conjunction and in a list of elements. E.g. in American English, “They bought us all the items we asked for: pens, pencils, erasers, and markers.” Translated: «Nos compraron todos los recados que pedimos: bolígrafos, lápices, gomas, y rotuladores.» [sic].

Commas and decimal points with numbers

Remember that the use of commas and decimal points with numbers is completely different in Spanish and English. E.g. 1.5 in English, would be 1,5 in Spanish. 2,827,259 in English, would be 2.827.259 in Spanish. You wouldn’t believe how many documents I’ve corrected from English where all the figures were wrongly punctuated in Spanish. This meant hours and hours of changes.

When you translate, it is easy to reproduce an identical structure to that of the original text.

Quotation marks

English uses straight double quotation marks: “text”. But the correct option in Spanish for written publications is angular quotation marks: «text».

Moreover, in full sentences that include a quote, English puts the full stop in side the quotation marks. But correct Spanish use places the full stop after the closing quotation mark. E.g. “I love your app, but I’d prefer it to have a free trial period.” Translated: «Me encanta vuestra aplicación, pero preferiría que tuviera un período de prueba gratuito.» [sic]. The correct use would be «Me encanta vuestra aplicación, pero preferiría que tuviera un período de prueba gratuito».

Using commas to reflect the pauses you make when speaking

This includes the error of putting a comma between subject and verb. It’s more typical of long sentences. But it also happens in short ones. E.g. “Your new profile, I love it”, translated: «Tu nuevo perfil, me encanta» [sic]. The correct translation is: «Tu nuevo perfil me encanta».

Alternatively, sometimes we add incorrect commas between words we repeat for emphasis. E.g. “This is the very, very good lawyer I told you about”, translated: «Este es el abogado tan, tan bueno del que te hablé» [sic]. The correction translation is: «Este es el abogado tan tan bueno del que te hablé».

In Spanish, you shouldn’t put a comma between the elements of a comparison. E.g. “Both the aperitif and dinner were luxurious.” Translated: “Tanto el aperitivo, como la cena fueron de lujo” [sic].

If you’d like to contact the author of this article, Marián Amigueti, visit her website. Get our take on the best Spanish-English dictionaries.

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