• Sijin Xian

On the Placement of Superscripts in Chinese Texts

As an English-Chinese translator serving mostly nonprofit and research institutions, I've had the distinct honor of working on a wide range of publications, including research papers, policy recommendations, and international organization submissions. Naturally, I deal with a lot of footnotes (or endnotes) and, consequently, the superscripts that hold their places in the texts. While the placement of superscripts in English texts follows a conventional and consistent practice, things tend to be more lax and vague when it comes to Chinese.

Below are a few screenshots I made of Chinese translations of English-language reports by international organizations. Notice where the superscripts are placed in relation to the neighboring punctuation.

1. From the Chinese translation of the United Nations Development Program's 2014 Human Development Report:

Here, the superscripts (in lines 6 and 10) are placed behind the period, as is the practice in English. However, it's not as visually pleasing as it is in the English original:

How does this happen? Take another look at the first sentence of the Chinese translation, and you will see that the Chinese period -- a circle instead of a dot -- occupies two character spaces. So the "space" you see before "科技" is not really a space that you insert (as we do in English), but something inherent to the circle itself. This is why the superscripts appear "stuck" to each following sentence in the Chinese translation.

(Sidebar: "Human Development Reports" is italicized in the English original because it's the title of a report, which we have a special punctuation for in Chinese. It's therefore incorrect for the Chinese translation to be italicized and it should be "《人类发展报告》" instead.)

2. To remedy the "sticky" issue (pun totally intended), some translators choose to add a space between the superscript and the following Chinese character, as seen in this Chinese translation of the International Organization for Migration's 2015 World Migration Report. The superscript is in line 4:

But which way is the right way? As far as I know, there is not yet an authoritative guideline on this. The latest edition of China's national handbook for punctuation usage, General Rules for Punctuation (2011), does not discuss superscripts. To give you an example of just how malleable this can be and how necessary it is to have a set-in-stone convention, let me tell you a story from my own experience. In a recent project I did, the translator whose work I edited used the first format. While I personally am not a fan of the resulting look, I left it intact because it was not technically incorrect. Then, the final reviewer suggested that we use the second format and I had to change the placement of every single superscript accordingly.

I opt for the practice where superscripts precede the punctuation. This is how I was taught to write Chinese-language reports in school and the style adopted by Chinese academic journals. (I had a hard time adapting to the superscript placement rule in English when I attended graduate school in the US). Below is an example. While I would probably also lean toward the second one out of the two options, neither are the superscript placement I personally espouse for Chinese texts.

3. From an article by Lina Sheng et al. in the Chinese journal Science and Technology Management Research:

Doesn't this look so much better? And we don't have to tiptoe around the white space after the Chinese period anymore!

While I'm not in a position to categorically refute the first two practices of superscript placement, I will venture to say they might have occurred in the first place because some translators were blindly following the formatting in the English original (the first practice) and then tried to make it look better (the second practice), all the while ignoring the prevailing, albeit not officially prescribed practice in Chinese (the third practice). But since translation is all about adapting to the native, customary usage in the target language, I would like to invite my fellow Chinese translators to ponder on this issue and take a thoughtful approach in their professional work. And I also pledge to be a more vocal champion for the conscious decision I've come to. Hence this blog post.



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