Translation of Page Layouts: Don’t fix it if it ain’t broke

OK, you have your translated text. Because you used a professional translation agency, proper steps were followed for translation, editing, proofreading and quality-control. Now it’s time to place all this foreign-language content into a print layout. This can be a very error-prone phase of the process—all your final layouts should be reviewed by professional linguists!
This article highlights a few of the most common mistakes we see at ASIST Translations, when page-layout experts are unfamiliar with handling translated text.
Title Case
Title case (initial capitals on individual words) is customary in English for section headings, titles of articles, programs, etc. However, this doesn’t necessarily apply to other languages—Spanish, Portuguese and Italian, for example,  where sentence case is the norm. Even if the English original is in title case, don’t “fix” individual word caps in the translated version without consulting a professional linguist.
English conventions for punctuation don’t apply to other languages. Here are some common misunderstandings.

  • Bullet lists. Punctuation in bullet lists can be fairly fluid in English. However, in many languages the conventions are different and a more structured approach is obligatory. For example, in Romance languages, one bullet list may have semi-colons after each item and a period on the last item—because each of these is treated as an alternate ending to a partial sentence that precedes the bullet list. Conversely, a different bullet list in the same document may have no final punctuation each list item, because they are fragments that aren’t grammatically linked to the surrounding text. In either case, they may differ from the format of the original English bullet list. Use the text provided by the translators, and if in doubt about differences from the English original, consult a professional linguist!
  • Spacing. In French, colons (and usually semi-colons) are separated from the preceding words by a space (ideally, a non-breaking space, in word processing or layout programs). We frequently see French text get “fixed” during layout because this extra space looks like an error to English speakers.
  • Numbers. The English use of commas and points to separate thousands and decimals in numbers is exactly the opposite of many languages. Most (but not all) European languages other than English use a point to separate thousands, millions, etc., and a comma as the decimal separator. (Note that Spanish text for Mexico, the USA, Puerto Rico and Panama is an exception to this rule.) That being said, the International System of Units (SI) standard also encourages using spaces (technically, thin spaces, 1/5 of an em wide) as the thousands separator, in order to avoid confusion.
  • Quotation Marks. Style guides for the American English recommend placing quotation marks outside commas and periods. But that often doesn’t apply to other languages—don’t try to “fix” anything before consulting a linguist! Of course, languages like German or French also use completely different symbols for quotation marks—the well-known “chevron” style guillemet symbols in French, for example. (By the way, it is also best if the spaces inside French guillemets are non-breaking spaces.) Even so, for contemporary text in many of these languages it is also common to use the more international quotation marks, although dialog in works of fiction is a frequent exception.

Some common typographical symbols in English are not acceptable in many other languages. When these form part of an artwork file, some redesign may be required. For example, the number sign (#) is not often used in other languages, and frequently gets substituted by an abbreviation for the word “number.” The ampersand is very uncommon in other languages, and gets replaced with their word for “and.” The “at sign” (@) does not automatically suggest an abbreviation for the word “at” in most languages, and its use is mostly limited to e-mail addresses.
Hyphenation and Line Breaks
If the page-layout program doesn’t have a hyphenation table for your target language, the post-layout proofreading process will be more cumbersome. If this feature is available, always make sure that the program you’re using properly indicates the language being formatted. As a general rule, it’s useful to know that Romance languages favor hyphenating prior to the initial consonant of the next syllable, for example. However, in languages like Chinese, where the words themselves are not separated by spaces, only a Chinese linguist can ensure that the line breaks in your final layout don’t create anything “funny” sounding.
One last note of caution: never retype translated text, no matter how brief! Cut and paste directly from the source translation document; you will avoid a lot of problems.
Another article in this blog provides more general tips for foreign-language layouts. Planning ahead for translated content always makes the process smoother.
ASIST Translation Services, Inc. is a full-service interpreting and translation agency located in Columbus, Ohio. We provide technical translation, interpreting, proofreading, studio voice recording and media production, localization of interactive and Web content, and specialized language services to clients around the world.

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