If you were to do a bit of research on habits and methods of communication in 2019 as opposed to 1999, or even 2009, it’s safe to bet you would learn that people today are communicating with each other in writing more than at any point in history. This is true across the global language spectrum, and technology is a significant reason why. Within the space of five minutes, and on a device like the one everyone reading this has in their purse or in a pocket (or, very possibly, in their hands right now, reading this on it), any person can write a text message, make a tweet, post to social media, craft an email, take notes, dictate to Siri or Cortana, create a task list… and maybe make a phone call, if they’re the type of person who still uses a phone for its original purpose.

That’s a huge amount of written text being generated. Anyone today whose job involves a computer likely spends more time reading, typing, corresponding, and reviewing documents than the generation before them did. And that’s just the communication required to keep the average business moving.

At TrueLanguage, communication is our business. So, you can imagine the sheer volume of words that crosses our eyeballs every day.

All this is to say: we’re always thinking about language, how to help our clients use language to their advantage, what might be useful for them to know as they craft communications for us to take to the global stage. We often have big ideas for topics. Language is a massive subject, after all.

And sometimes we’ll turn up something pretty small that turns out to merit further discussion. Let’s address one of those.

Which of these movie titles looks wrong?

  1. The Godfather
  2. The Birds
  3. The silence of the lambs
  4. The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring

Now, which of these lines from those movies looks wrong?

  1. “I’m gonna make him an offer he can’t refuse.”
  2. “There’s Nothing Wrong With Those Chickens, Mitch.”
  3. “I ate his liver with some fava beans and a nice Chianti.”
  4. “One does not simply walk into Mordor.”

If you didn’t already know, this illustrates the difference between title case and sentence case.

The reason silence of the lambs looks weird is because title case is what we expect to see in, among other places, movie titles. Likewise, movie line number 2 doesn’t look like spoken dialogue due to all those capital letters – it ought to be in sentence case. Capital letters make all the difference here.

In the English language, a phrase in sentence case will capitalize only:

  • the first letter of the phrase
  • the first letter of any proper name (person, place, product, etc.)

Meanwhile, in title case, all words begin with a capital letter except for conjunctions, the most basic prepositions like “to” and “in,” and short indefinite articles. So, North by Northwest is correct, but An Affair To Remember is not.

What else is it that makes a sentence written in title case look wrong? Capital letters are more tiring to read, more stressful. No one’s likely to break a sweat reading an email, but an excess of capital letters breaks concentration and makes it difficult to maintain the flow of reading. Capital letters in English suggest that something is special, or worthy of urgent attention, and you can’t pay urgent attention to every word without getting fed up after a couple of lines. Conversely, the capitalization of title case gives a movie title/book title/job title or position the gravitas it needs. As seen above, title case makes the difference between a) a bunch of baby sheep being quiet and b) the time Agent Starling met Hannibal Lecter.

Now, why does this even matter for translation? Because languages other than English have their own rules for capitalization, and the distinction between sentence case and title case may be different, or even non-existent (it seems nobody loves title case as much as Americans do). To English-only eyes, German seems filled with extra capital letters, and it’s for good reason – since German word order is more complicated than that of other Western European languages, every single noun (proper or not) gets a capital letter, which makes it much easier to navigate a sentence. The French language doesn’t like capital letters nearly as much as English; French titles are written in what looks like sentence case to English readers. And those are two languages that are otherwise pretty closely related to English. The further one gets into various global regions, languages, and writing systems, the greater the differences will be.

And that’s why it’s so important for your localization projects to be handled by native-language resources at the stages of translation, proofreading, and (especially) in-country review. It’s possible for an American to gain native-level fluency in a foreign language through study, yet this doesn’t allow for the kind of cultural knowledge that comes from extended and complete cultural immersion.

If you’ve written a short letter to introduce yourself to new stakeholders in Paris, for instance, you might think a little thing like capitalization pales in importance next to the content of your message in translation. And you’ve got a friend who did a French minor for her bachelor’s degree, so she’s fine to translate it, right? Does it even matter if she capitalizes something she shouldn’t, or uses the wrong quotation marks?

Consider it this way – your foreign audience only knows you through your communications. Until you’ve built up and deepened the relationship, what and how you write to them is your sole connection, and will be fundamental to how they perceive you. As a guest in their culture, respect for that culture includes respect for their language… and respect given leads to respect earned.

So, mind your capitals, check your spelling, strike the right tone – and don’t worry, TrueLanguage can help.