Translation tips: Dashes and hyphens

Jul 9, 2015

As translation professionals, we take many things for granted when we write and translate. While many of our clients have developed different writing rules for different languages in so called style guides*, which we respect and actively use, some things are pretty obvious to anyone though. Even children learning how to write learn from the start that sentences begin with a capital letter and end with a full stop. Bigger children learn later on that where there must be a pause in a speech, a dash should be used. And here not even adults are always sure, or even aware of the problem: what kind of dash to use?

Do you know your dash?

In fact, there are three types of dashes:

1) The em dash—used for parenthetical thought—is as wide as a capital M and is used mostly in US English. If you are really picky, the em dash should be surrounded by half or quarter spaces, but many ignore this.

2) The en dash – which is as wide as an N – is often used to pause in a sentence and create emphasis. It is also used in ranges, e.g. “pages 8–10” or “ages 2–5”. Some people also use them to indicate negative numbers, like –15°C.

3) Lastly we have hyphens, which are used to hyphenate long words at the end of a line. They can also be used to connect words, in English to make them easier to read as in “state-of-the-art”, and in e.g. Germanic languages to connect them with loan words or proper nouns (Ford-Partner in German, for example).

Other cool stuff that people in typography are familiar with are soft hyphens. These can be used to “softly” hyphenate words at the end of a line. Try typing a really long word that will not fit at the end of a line, then place a soft hyphen in the middle and see what happens – you can create one by pressing "Ctrl" and "-" at the same time.

Nice, huh? Relying on details like this may seem too extreme, but in terms of localization, this is what (among others) makes a difference in quality and know-how in translation.

...and do you know your quotes?

Not only dashes/hyphens, or styles of writing numbers – also quotes and their usage differ among languages. English uses sixers and niners, like “abc”, in France they use « abc », Germans and Czech write „abc“, while Danes write »abc« and Swedes like niners and niners, like ”abc”. There are numerous other types, and as a translator, it is important to know which one is correct.

For example, in Japan, the written language and customs are drastically different. Apart from being able to write from up to down with “line columns running right to left”, thousand separators do not exist. Instead people separate digit groups in units of ten thousand. They also do not have dots as full stops, but instead use small circles, and quotes become「abc」.

If there are client preferences, then these become exceptions and the translator must be alerted (which our translation platform iQube can do automatically).

Your Solution? Style guides

Writing rules for different languages are explained in great detail in style manuals, such as the Chicago Manual of Style. Such manuals are actually interesting reading with a surprising wealth of information. However, in the end, it is hard for an experienced translator to remember and keep with all the different rules that apply, and to this end we rely on condensed forms of the manuals, commonly referred to as Style Guides. They contain the basic rules on text presentation and are either prepared by individual clients, or, if they are lacking, we are happy to help create them based on general rules and local preferences. For more information, visit!

*These style guides can be loaded on our iQube translation platform. Each time a text segment is opened and an issue covered by the style is detected, this is pointed out to the translator and subsequently the reviewer.