You have probably heard or read before that English uses the 26 letters of the alphabet, and that’s it – no funny accents, weird letters, or odd diacritics. But is that really true? What about the café where you met your fiancée and had an à la carte lunch?
All borrowed words, I hear you say. English has indeed appropriated many words from other languages, and those tend to slowly but surely lose their accents as they become completely anglicised. For instance, the occurrence of resume without the accent is gradually overtaking that of résumé. Some words have lost their diacritics completely: the Swiss Müesli became muesli, and the Spanish cañón became canyon. Sometimes the accent has been kept to avoid any confusion, such as rosé and rose, pate and pâté.
This flexibility around the use of diacritics in English may be the cause of major headaches for translators, as there isn’t one single policy that applies to all cases. Below are some points that may help you:
- If a place name has an anglicised written form that is commonly used in English, then dropping the diacritics is acceptable. For example, should one write Vietnam, Viet Nam or Viêt Nam, or even Việt Nam? The spelling will vary according to the target audience: in the general media, Vietnam is the most commonly used spelling, while Viet Nam is the one used by UN agencies and the New Zealand Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade.
- The same rule applies to personal names: the current French president’s name is spelled François Hollande in the British media, and Francois Hollande in the American media. Although this hurts my French sensitivity, either option is fine.
- What if the person is not famous, or the place does not have an anglicised name? Common use should guide you. While English is fairly open to the use of the circumflex accent (^), the grave accent (`), the acute accent (´), the tilde (~), and to a lesser extent, of the umlaut (¨) and the cedilla (¸), it is worth noting that those are used in languages spoken in areas close to the British isles, which may indicate a certain familiarity with them. The same cannot be said of other diacritical marks used in Slavic, Scandinavian or Vietnamese languages. It is up to you to decide what is most appropriate, bearing in mind that names should be written in the form preferred by their owners.
As always, let us know if you have any questions, and we’ll try our best to help you.