How Do You Translate Punctuation!!?

When I first started working as a journalist, one of my co-workers was enchanted by the exclamation point. Perhaps he liked other punctuation, too, but he particularly loved to add one or two or three of these (!) to a smacking good, or smacking corny, headline.

This rankled our editor, who one day gathered us up and insisted that one might use a single exclamation point to denote extreme excitement. One might use three to indicate an unprecedented event. Two was out of the question.

So, as I understood it: I could use one exclamation point if our sports team won the World Championship of X! I could use three if aliens landed!!! But under pain of pink slip was I to end a sentence like this!!

But punctuation, of course, is neither constant nor universal. My editor was speaking back in the pioneer days of the Internet*, when emails and texts had not yet caused a shift in English-language usage. And on universality: Some languages use quotation marks as a standard method of distinguishing dialogue from narration—others tend to use a dash. Different languages have different uses for the comma, the dash, the hyphen, and the period.

And, yes, in different places, the banger has different meanings.

When Diane at Muslimah Media Watch** reviewed Ghada Abdel Aal’s عايزة أتجوز (I Want to Get Married!), one of her complaints focused on the use of !! and !!? While these punctuational forms may not be rife in Taha Hussein or in Naguib Mahfouz (as Bibi notes below, I am incorrect about the latter), they are part of a new Arabic. For instance, one of my favorite citizen-journalist bloggers, Zeinobia, loves the !!? and !! and !?!

Moreover, the other day, I saw that IPAF-shortlisted and Naguib Mahfouz medal-winning author Miral al-Tahawy had violated my editor’s supreme directive and had ended a sentence with the double exclamation.

Yes, it’s true, a quick trip around English-language writers on Facebook and WordPress reveals a lot more “Happy Holidays!!!!!!!!” than I was expecting. It’s also true, as Slate author Jacob Rubin noted way back in 2007, that the new English-language style almost requires an exclamation point in every text and email. Otherwise, one is liable to doubt the emailer’s enthusiasm and sincerity.

But while a glance at the Youm7 front page turned up this four-alarm headline هناء المداح تكتب: السكوت علامة الرضا!!!! I was hard-pressed to find its equivalent in English-language papers.

Do exclamation points need translation? Should translator Nora Eltahawy have toned down a few of Ghada Abdel Aal’s !?!s for the English-language reader?

Hmm!! Maybe!?!

*1996, I believe.

**Unfortunately, Muslimah Media Watch still seems to be having trouble from their hacking a few days back. Speedy recovery, MMW.

mlynxqualey

3 thoughts on “How Do You Translate Punctuation!!?

  1. dear m.!*
    a spot-check of the trilogy reveals that mahfouz was rather partial to the !?
    i would use the punctuation of the target language, always. unless there’s a reason not to — i.e., the punctuation differs from the standard usage in the source language. after all, we translate everything else, why not punctuation?
    b.
    * please note the old slavic-style exclamation mark in place of the bland anglo-saxon comma (now slowly permeating correspondence in all languages, blech!)

    1. Really? Well, I’ll be blowed. I suppose I should’ve spot-checked the Trilogy myself!?!

      Now, must go look at some Taha Hussein, to see how he felt about the !?!

  2. indeed. randomly opening my very battered copy of palace walk on pp. 330&331 shows three ?! and more than 5 simple !s. it is a very animated discussion about the english, though 😉
    i remember getting totally confused by the ..
    ah, how young i was .. once!!!

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