Spanish and English Punctuation: the Little Differences
- 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 “9 Favourite Mistakes by Translators on My Spanish-English Translation Course”, 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:».
Do you know what punctuation you should use to start an email in Spanish? Find out here. Click To Tweet
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 traditionally 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.
For ease of reading, numbers of more than four digits may now be written with spaces separating groups of three digits starting from the right according to the new RAE rules, e.g. 2 827 259 and commas and points are restricted to separating decimals. My recommendation is to double check with the client’s preference because 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’s easy to reproduce an identical structure to that of the original text.”
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].
What other punctuation difficulties have you encountered in your translations? I would love to hear from you in the comments.
Marián is a freelance English and German into Spanish translation specialist, with a Bachelor and Master’s degree in translation and more than 15 years of experience, both freelance and in-house. Marián specialises in technical, marketing and life-science translations and revisions. She is a member of the Spanish Association of Translators and Interpreters (Asetrad) and Unión de Correctores (UniCo). You can visit her co-website at hellotranslator.com and her LinkedIn profile at linkedin.com/in/amiguetitranslations/. Twitter: @marianamigueti.