On Translating Punctuation, or the Difference a ?! and a ….. Make

Two weeks ago, poet Mona Kareem asked, on Twitter, whether literary translators “translated” punctuation, particularly foregrounding the question of poetry:

Indeed, it’s an unavoidable question in poetry or prose, as punctuation functions differently in Arabic and English.


Translator Elisabeth Jaquette (Basma Abdel Aziz’s The Queue, others) while noting she doesn’t translate much poetry, answered that she definitely translates punctation. In Arabic, Jaquette writes, “the rules are less rigid. Which for me, makes it harder to understand what’s experimental[.]”

Jaquette continued: “Often, connectors in Arabic become punctuation marks in English – both function to break up a sentence into understandable sections (hat tip to Kareem James Abu-Zeid for describing it this way)[.]”

Kareem added that certainly the functions were different. In Arabic, she wrote, the full stop marks a “full idea, not just a full sentence” as in English. Then she asked a question that has bedeviled many who translate poetry from Arabic: “what do we do w the ‘…….’ that modern poets use to give a horizon to an image, or for example the chaotic hyphens,” which are less common in English.

Translator Robin Moger was called on, and he suggested that instead of looking at conventions, imagining them as “tools or devices.” Then asking what the Arabic poem is doing with its devices. After all, everything, as he wrote, from words to punctuation to breaks, is part of the poem and its meaning “or resistance to meaning.”

He continued:

Daisy Rockwell, who translates from Hindi and Urdu, added that she routinely translates punctuation and line breaks. “A prime example is the exclamation point. In Hindi this is used to emphasize an important point. In English it is over the top and often looks silly.”

And Sawad Hussein brought up the !?, beloved in Arabic — found, for instance, in the generally staid Naguib Mafhouz — which is far less common and hyperbolic sounding in English.

Indeed, as Rockwell noted, this is not only an Arabic-English issue. French-English translator Jacob Siefring wrote that, “While working through successive drafts of my first book-length translation, I went back and forth at times about how to treat punctuation.” He writes:

It may be slightly more common in French than in English to string together independent clauses using a comma. That said, many native writers of English favor the comma over the semicolon, never or hardly ever using the latter, and also have no qualms about so-called run-on sentences. And conversely, many native writers of French make ample use of the semicolon.

Christopher Taylor tried to note down some differences in the use of punctuation in texts moving between Italian and English;if such a survey of the relationship between Arabic and English punctuation exists, I don’t know of it.

As Robert Wechsler wrote in his 1998 Performing Without a Stage, “The biggest problems with translating punctuation into English are that we use it differently than other languages, and that it is very easy to simply replicate the original’s punctuation, even when it doesn’t lead the reader to the same effect or meaning, or when it simply isn’t appropriate in English.”