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I’ve come across a puzzling punctuation problem! I’m working on a document in US English. It includes a citation of a French text in the original French, and this citation includes a citation (all in French).

Guillemets are used in the original French text’s citation. These are French angle quotes, i.e. « or », which are usually used in French in places where double quotation marks (») would be used in US English. Just as double quotation marks (“ ”) are changed to single (‘ ’) when making a text into a citation in English, the guillemet («) is turned into a double quotation mark in French (). A bit confusing, but hey, they’re different languages!

I assume that I should change the guillemets (« ») interior to the citation into single quotation marks (‘ ’) as is typical in English.

But then should the order of punctuation also be anglicized? This makes it grammatically incorrect in French, but if you don’t do this, it looks really weird in an English document, and with English quotation marks.

Example

In French, the following is the original text to be cited:

il pourrait donc être dit, [. . .] que ce monde, en tant que monde, n’existe pas. [. . .] En ce sens, dire « l’Afrique existe », ce serait dire « le monde n’existe pas ».

Note that commas and periods follow the quotation marks, as is grammatically correct in French. As I mentioned, when made into a citation, in French, « and » become and , just like in English a double quote (“ ”) becomes a single quote (‘ ’).

For anyone interested, in a French document, the French citation would look as follows:

« il pourrait donc être dit, [. . .] que ce monde, en tant que monde, n’existe pas. [. . .] En ce sens, dire “l’Afrique existe”, ce serait dire “le monde n’existe pas”. »

Now when I cite it in an English document, should it be:

  1. Nothing changed inside the English quotation marks on either end of the citation:

il pourrait donc être dit, [. . .] que ce monde, en tant que monde, n’existe pas. [. . .] En ce sens, dire « l’Afrique existe », ce serait dire « le monde n’existe pas ».

  1. Anglicized French guillemets (« and » become and ):

il pourrait donc être dit, [. . .] que ce monde, en tant que monde, n’existe pas. [. . .] En ce sens, dire ‘l’Afrique existe’, ce serait dire ‘le monde n’existe pas’.

  1. Anglicized French guillemets (« and » become and ) and single quotation marks moved to be after periods and commas:

il pourrait donc être dit, [. . .] que ce monde, en tant que monde, n’existe pas. [. . .] En ce sens, dire ‘l’Afrique existe,’ ce serait dire ‘le monde n’existe pas.’

  • 1
    One must never change a literal quotation. – tchrist Mar 23 '15 at 16:31
  • 3
    Literally. If it's inside the quotation, it stays, every jot and tittle of it. If the guillemets are internal to the quotation, they stay. But if they only show up enclosing the entire quotation, you can swap English quote marks for them. – John Lawler Mar 23 '15 at 17:01
  • Just as double quotation marks (“ ”) are changed to single (‘ ’) when making a text into a citation in English Is a new rule to me. Whose is it? And does American English qualify as real English, or is it just English English? – Edwin Ashworth Mar 23 '15 at 17:30
  • @EdwinAshworth I don't think it's uncommon to see, especially in books, quotiations of the form [John said, "Mary said, 'Hello, John.' "] where the double and single quotation marks switch to indicate nesting. See, for instance, Recursively nested quotation marks. – Joshua Taylor Mar 23 '15 at 19:59
  • @Joshua Taylor Is that what OP means! But that then begs the question. John Lawler says 'every jot and tittle of it' stays. That would include, in purely English quotes, highly irregular quintuple inverted commas and triple interrobangs. – Edwin Ashworth Mar 23 '15 at 20:55
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If you are quoting a chunk of French then it is no longer an English document: it is a mixed English and French document. For the French parts you should follow French rules, and for the English parts, English rules.

You should no more change the French punctuation rules to correspond to English punctuation rules than you should change n’existe pas to ne pas exist to correspond to English word order.

  • 1
    While I agree with your conclusion, I disagree with your reasoning. There is no way to have an English word order for "n'existe pas" because there is no direct correspondence with "does not exist." Which French word corresponds to "does"? – phoog Jul 10 '15 at 3:03
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1.) If the French quote, itself, is going to be immediately translated: leave it as it was originally punctuated in French.

English language readers will know from the quote's English translation what the guillemets (angled quotation marks) are. It provides them an interesting example of the difference between English & French language punctuation.

2.) If the French quote, itself, is not going to be translated: do whatever you think helps English language readers best to understand it.

Most likely that would be to offer an English translation of the quote, anyway - even as a footnote placed somewhere else in the text. So, you would keep the original French punctuation in the French quote in this case, too.

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