Translations made to measure

by Rachel Hideg, into English proofreader at Albion Languages

In September 1999, NASA lost its Mars Climate Orbiter, worth USD 125 million, because the on-board software on the spacecraft was using the metric unit of Newton-seconds to measure impulse, while the ground computers were running software using the imperial unit of pound-seconds for the same measurement.

This meant that every impulse measurement was underestimated by a factor of 4.45, and that, at the point when it was supposed to go into orbit around Mars to lose speed, the spacecraft was 170 kilometres closer to the planet’s surface than it should have been and so did not survive the encounter.

If even rocket scientists can slip up, it’s worth thinking about how numbers and units of measurement can present difficulties in translations and localisations on any topic, from manufacturing and medical-related documents to birth certificates and cake recipes.

The UK and the US are two of the few places in the world that use a full stop to indicate a decimal place: the majority of other countries use a comma. The UK and the US also use a comma to separate groups of thousands, while many countries use a full stop, and some countries use a space. This creates the potential for all sorts of confusion: what in UK English is 4,295.00 (with two decimal places only) would be 4.295,000 in Italian and 4 295,000 in French. Due to the potential for confusion in international documents, the International Organization for Standardization (in ISO 31-0), as well as the International Bureau of Weights and Measures, advocate the use of a space (or, where available, a “thin space”) as a thousand delimiter. According to ISO 31-0, groups of thousands should never be separated by a comma or point, which are reserved for the decimal sign.

Dates are another minefield for translators and localisers: while 07/08/2018 would be 7 August in the UK, it would be July 8 in the US. In some European countries, it is typical to put the year first, thus 7 August 2018 would be 2018/08/07 in Hungary, for example. Many official forms and product labels include a hint to assist interpretation or clarify expectations (e.g. dd/mm/yyyy), but without this, misunderstandings are inevitable and the consequences potentially serious when it comes to medical reports or important deadlines. An international standard for date format (ISO 8601) was published in 1988 to provide an unambiguous method of date presentation (YYYY-MM-DD), but is clearly still a long way from being applied universally.

In terms of measurement units, there is potential confusion surrounding tons (and tonnes), for example. In the US, a ton (or a “short ton”) is equal to 2,000 US pounds. Other countries use the metric ton, which is equal to 1,000 kg, making a metric ton slightly larger than the US ton, at 2,204.6 pounds. A tonne is an alternative spelling for a metric ton, but is almost never used in American English. To make things even more confusing, a long ton, or British ton, now out of use, was equal to 2,240 pounds.

Not only do conventions differ between countries, but number-naming systems have also changed historically, although recently enough to cause confusion to those of us who have grown up in one system, only to find it no longer means what they were taught at school. I’m referring here to a billion, which has two distinct definitions: one thousand million according to the “short scale” (based on powers of one thousand); or one million million in British English, as defined by the “long scale” (based on powers of one million). American English has always used the short scale, but the UK only started to use it officially in 1974. Somewhat unhelpfully, the Wikipedia article on “Billion” states that “Other countries use the word billion to denote either the long scale or the short scale billion.” Finding out which ones might be important, depending on where your source text originates. In the meantime, many Continental European countries use milliard for one thousand million, and billion for the long scale billion, which means that in these countries, a billion is a thousand times bigger than the modern English billion. In Russia, however, a milliard is a short scale billion, while a trillion is a long scale billion.

While some of the British names for large numbers, such as zillion, gazillion, squillion etc. are informal, indefinite, and fictitious, taking the pressure off when it comes to translation, the names of many large numbers follow a logical pattern and are “real words”, based on the stem “-illion” with a prefix derived from Latin. However, they can mean different things in different places. A quadrillion, for example, is 10 to the power of 15 on the short scale (US, Eastern Europe, English Canadian, Australian, and modern British English) and 10 to the power of 24 on the long scale (Western and Central Europe, older British English, and French Canadian). Other such “real” numbers are nonillion, tredecillion and octodecillion, the highest one being a centillion (10 to the power of 303, or 10 to the power of 600, depending on where you come from and whether you’re using the long or short scale). Although most of these numbers are beyond comprehension, some of them have been used in reality: the highest numerical value banknote ever printed was worth 1 sextillion pengő, and was produced in Hungary in 1946. 

On a more everyday level, even shopping and cooking present specific challenges in a different language. Hungarians, for example, commonly use decagrams, although English people don’t buy their cheese in decagrams, and no English recipe would ever include such a measurement. A recipe calling for “20 dkg” would therefore correctly be translated as 200 g. A tablespoon in an English recipe might also be better translated using the millilitre equivalent, since this size of spoon goes by a different name (or doesn’t exist) in other countries. A google search also unearthed this list of “unusual weights and measures”, which would certainly take some inventive translation:

1 bit = 2 pinches

1 smidgen = 4 bits

1 dollop = 2 smidgens

1 gaggle = 3 dollops

1 gaggle = 2 glugs

1 blanket = 2 glugs

1 smothering = 3 blankets

While the above examples offer just a glimpse of the kinds of difficulties faced by those translating and localising numbers and measurements into another language and culture, it is clear that there is very significant room for error and misinterpretation. Accuracy depends on an awareness of the context and an understanding of the systems that are used in both the source and target cultures.

A mischievous interpretation of the ways in which numbers can get “lost in translation”, and a light-hearted warning about the translator’s responsibility to ensure that the target text adds up to the original source, can be found in the short story “The Kleptomaniac Translator”, by the Hungarian author Dezső Kosztolányi. The translator in the story “steals” from his source text vast quantities of money, jewellery and property by systematically using smaller quantities for various items, including sums of money in bank accounts and wallets. Unable to mend his ways, he is judged a hopeless case by his friends and his reputation as a translator is shattered.

While the kleptomaniac translator was merely the figment of an author’s playful imagination, real-life translators do indeed have the potential to “lose” (or add) vast amounts by unwittingly misinterpreting the numerical conventions of their sources. It may seem little more than a matter of commas and full stops, but it could make a world of difference (and significantly affect customer satisfaction!) if 4,000 tonnes of goods are delivered on 4/9/2018, rather than 4.00 tons on 9/4/2018…

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