The Apostrophe Saga or how a Single Comma Can Ruin a Translation
Updated: Jul 6
Thank Goodness Russian doesn’t have apostrophes. There is such misuse of them in English, some examples are so appalling, they look funny. The sad thing is they appear or, for that matter, are missing from prominent public signs. An odd typo in a letter can be forgiven, but if something like a shop sign goes through many hands until it’s finally placed where it should, it’s surprising no one should spot the error before it becomes part of us.
Apostrophes are, in fact, so easy to use. They denote a possession and are used before an “-s” in a noun in the singular and following an “-s” in a noun in the plural. If a noun forms the plural as an exception, i.e. without an “-s”, then the first rule applies (e.g. children’s toys). The pronouns which stand out here are its and theirs. They denote a possession but have no apostrophe. Where you see “it’s”, the apostrophe is used to show a grammatical contracted form of “it has” or “it is”.
You don’t need to fight with apostrophes in Russian – they don’t exist. However, that doesn’t make Russian punctuation any easier. In fact, Russian punctuation has very strict rules. So strict that a student who misses out a comma in his essay will struggle to get an A mark for his work. That’s why we, Russian translators, need to be so careful when we type up a translation. If we happened to miss out a comma or a semicolon, the Russians reading their client’s translation would strike it off as careless or poor. Certainly not something we are trying to achieve.
And certain different punctuation rules should be noted in Russian, too. Where there are no quotation marks in book titles or company names in English (e.g. Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte, BBC), rather than italicising them, Russians use quotation marks (e.g. «Джейн Эйр» Шарлотты Бронте, «Би-Би-Си»). We have to remember this rule when we translate documents from Russian into English and remove the quotation marks (e.g. War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy, Russian Railways) so they don’t stand out as odd.
I guess rules are made to be broken but why bother when someone made an effort to create them? Rules are there for a reason. They are designed to lessen the confusion and there is already plenty of it about!
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