Recently, I attended the Editors Canada annual conference. One of the presentations especially caught my attention as it dealt with instances in which it is acceptable for editors to break the rules or bypass the style guide, a subject matter that seemed a little counterintuitive considering that this year’s conference was entitled Guardians of the Lexicon!

This was not a call for rebellion; indeed, presenter Jenny Lass’s idea was to “help editors (and writers) understand why breaking style rules can not only be acceptable, but also enhance their work and better serve their audience.”

Why would you ever break the very rules that you, as a language professional, are supposed to enforce to the letter? The simple answer would be to improve communication. We need to carefully determine whether a particular rule improves or hinders the conveyance of a message to a particular audience, in a particular situation.

We, as translators, have many opportunities to be bona fide delinquents and circumvent the language police. Here are a few:

  • Author style. The most obvious place to start for a translator is when the author has already decided that a rule should be broken. The translator, in instances like this, actually needs to follow suit in order to reflect the original style. One easy example is when a particular form of speech—it could be a local term or it could be slang—is to be reproduced. In this case, grammar is not the main concern and breaking the rules turns out to be the best way to ensure authenticity or maintain local flavor for a character or a text.


  • Clarity. Another instance could be to avoid misunderstandings. For example, sometimes it is better to repeat a word to make sure that the message is clear, even if every style guide and writing lesson you have ever taken suggests the opposite. This is probably more prevalent in texts in which accuracy is the main priority, such as a recipe or specific instructions.


  • New words. They crop up all the time, especially in the cyber world, and quickly become prevalent, yet the language authorities tend to be slow to accept or reject terms. In these cases, the rule of thumb would be to make sure that the new or foreign word is clearly understood in the same context in the target language. One such foreign appropriation that could lead to confusion if context is disregarded happens in Mexico, where people have adopted the word “mail” as the popular term equivalent to the English “e-mail.”


  • Lack of space. Certain languages are wordier than others. This represents a common problem for translators who have to fit longer sentences or a couple of words into the space provided for only one word. This may require a bit of grammar gymnastics to make sure both the message and the format are respected, with as little transgression of the rules as possible.


  • Technology issues. Most documents produced nowadays are available electronically, often on websites, and these can cause problems with the language police when translated. One simple example of this happened to me while translating a website that had a fillable form. All fields indicating required information were programmed to be capitalized. This was fine in English, but it became an issue in Spanish, where more than one word was needed for the same field and only the first was supposed to be capitalized. In the end, due to the complications involved in rewriting the code, it was decided to maintain the capitalization, even if it was not ideal.


  • Letters, characters or symbols. There are also complications brought about by characters that exist in one language but not in another. Sometimes it is not possible to produce these and you need to evaluate the consequences of substituting, for example & for and in English, or using the closest match, such as n instead of ñ in Spanish, or ss instead of ß in German.  Something like this could be irrelevant, or it could be very serious depending on the language, the context and the target audience.

So, every case requires careful consideration, but if you really think you need to break the rules, do so completely aware of why you are doing it, and have an answer ready if the language police come knocking at your door.

When have you deliberately chosen to break a particular rule? Let us know the results of your felony!

Pilar Bolanos is a certified translator, former journalist and communications professional. Whether working in international news, international relations, as a translator and editor, the axis of her entire career has always been words. As Account Manager with Intralingo, she helps English-language authors find their voice in her native Spanish.