The devil is in the details. Part I: lists

How do you translate a list of country names like the one below into French?

Belgium, Germany, Netherlands, Spain

Seems simple enough, right? You just translate each word and boom, you’re done. 

Well, yes and no. If you did just that, you would then get the following list:

Belgique, Allemagne, Pays-Bas, Espagne

This list is perfectly fine but notice how the original one was ordered alphabetically. That order has changed now because the countries’ names’ start with different letters when translated: “Spain” becomes “Espagne” and “Germany” becomes “Allemagne”. The countries move in the alphabetical order.

That’s precisely the kind of little details that I love sneaking into my translations. Whenever possible (i.e. when technically feasible), when I encounter these types of lists, I’ll always rebuild the original alphabetical order. So my list would be as follows. 

Allemagne, Belgique, Espagne, Pays-Bas

Not a substantial change but the thing is much more readable to a French speaker. Now, imagine if the list is some kind of an index: people would have an easier time finding what they are searching for. That’s a detail, but a powerful one.

What Steve Jobs and I have in common

Steve and I we go a long way back… No, not really. We don’t share all that much actually except for one particular obsession. Steve Jobs is well known for many things but one aspect of his excruciating attention to detail that gets sometimes lost is that he would often push Steve Wozniak, the engineer behind Apple’s early successes, to design the computers’ circuit boards (the innards) so as to be as beautiful and aesthetically pleasing as possible.


A fully assembled Apple I computer with a homemade wooden computer case, 1976.
All pictures from Wikipedia


Jobs insisted that the innards of the computer should look as good as the exterior, which was kind of unprecedented.


The circuit board of a fully assembled Apple I computer


So, like Steve Jobs, I too am obsessed with the hidden details.The translations I deliver to my clients are always done to the highest standard of quality but I also personally make sure that all the hidden stuff is beautiful as well. That means taking care of the typography, i.e. making sure that all the appropriate types of spaces, hyphens, quotes and specials characters are used for all contexts and languages.

That means using the correct punctuation in Spanish (¡Hola!), using the correct diacritics in English (façade, déjà vu) or the correct typography rules in French. For instance, by making sure that the space between the currency and its symbol is a non-breaking space* (100 €), as per the accepted rules of French typography.

A non-breaking space is special character that prevents an automatic line break at its position. This is an important detail given that French, contrarily to English, doesn’t glue the currency symbol to the given amount. So, in English: 100€ or €100 becomes 100 € in French.

In French, the same is true for colons, semi-colons, exclamation or interrogation points, and many other symbols as they are separated from the word that comes before them (e.g.: Bonjour !, Comment allez-vous ?).