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1 Jun 2012

Punctuation in Translation: Question Marks

Molly O C Rowan

Question marks are, of course, used with interrogative sentences. Even though they may take slightly different forms, question marks are very consistent in translation. Question marks most often appear in other languages the way they do in English: directly following the last letter of the last word of an interrogative sentence, but some languages have other conventions.

Spanish traditionally uses an inverted opening question mark at the beginning of the interrogative sentence or clause paired with the closing question mark (¿…?). Pablo Neruda famously refused using the inverted question mark, and its usage is declining, especially on the Internet.

I’ve always loved the inverted question mark of Spanish. Isolating the interrogative clause enables the writer to use an interrogative clause as a subordinate, even without a subordinating word: No podemos dejar al perro en casa, ¿lo llevamos con nosotros? (“We can’t leave the dog at home, we’ll bring him with us?”, or “Since we can’t leave the dog at home, will we bring him with us?”) I think that this orthographical convention captures spoken language more accurately, as we so often leave out subordinating words in speech and instead rely on context for pragmatic connections.

Canadian-French uses the question mark as English does, but European-French uses a non-breaking space between the end of the sentence and the question mark: Dansez-vous ? (Do you dance?)

Chinese and Japanese use a full-width form of the question mark (?). Arabic and some other right-to-left languages use a mirrored form of the question mark (؟).

Not every language uses the same symbol to indicate an interrogative sentence. Greek uses what looks a lot like an English semicolon (;), Armenian uses an open circle that’s placed over the last vowel of the question word (՞), and Ethiopian languages use three dots aligned vertically.

See also: irony punctuation, and my favorite terminal punctuation, the interrobang (‽).

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