Tuesday 14 March 2023

Translating numbers 2: thousands and decimals

Translating numerals is more complicated than it seems. The number 20.525, for example, would be just over 20 in English, but more than twenty thousand in German. But that is just the beginning. There is a chaotic variety of conventions for writing numerals in different languages. Let us start exploring.


Historically, there was a fairly simple rule for translating numerals between English and German. English has a comma as the thousands separator and a dot (full stop) as the decimal point. German uses a dot (point/full stop) to separate the digits in thousands, and a comma to signify decimals. Therefore:

English 100,000,000 becomes German 100.000.000
English 23.52 becomes German 23,52.

Swiss German is a special case. Thousands are often written with an asterisk to separate groups of three digits, i.e. as 100’000’000. And there are special rules for decimals in Swiss German. General numbers with decimals are usually written with a decimal comma (23,52), but currencies are written with a decimal point (23.52).


This is where things get complicated. As early as 1948, the international standardisation body “General Conference on Weights and Measures” defined how numerals should be written. It stated that “the decimal marker shall be either the point on the line or the comma on the line”. In other words, the institute was unable to decide between the different national traditions and left both of them in place. But it was far stricter with numbers above a thousand. It stated that the groups of three digits should only be divided by spaces (e.g. 100 000 000), and that “neither dots nor commas are ever inserted in the spaces between groups“.

Never dots or commas? Seventy-five years later this utopia has still not been achieved. In the German source texts which I translate, I now see three different conventions for numbers over a thousand (100.000.000, 100’000’000 and 100 000 000). In English I see two conventions in Internet texts and printed books (100,000,000 and 100 000 000).

This is partly due to the eternal tension between natural language development and centralised language control. Many people have never heard of the standardised regulations, or they do not accept that a centrally imposed convention should take precedence over their traditional patterns. But even the official statements made by standardisation authorities, publishers and other major institutions show a surprising variety.

Different standards and style guides

The German DIN standards DIN 1333, DIN 5008 and ISO 80000 state that the thin space is the correct form in German, but the use of a dot to separate thousands is permitted for amounts of money.

The EU interinstitutional style guide requires that a space must be used to group the digits in thousands in English, and it prohibits the use of a comma.

The house style of the British Office for National Statistics states: “Use commas to separate thousands ... and never spaces”.

The style manual of the Australian government also stipulates commas to separate thousands, and forbids the use of a non-breaking space.

The Chicago Manual of Style  also stipulates commas as the thousand separator.

Oxford University Press issues a mini style checklist for its academic journals. For “HUMSOC” (humanities and social sciences) it prescribes commas as the thousand separator, but for “SCIMED” (science and medicine) it prescribes thin spaces.

Wikipedia: the English style manual stipulates that digit groups should be separated either by commas or by “narrow gaps” (i.e. as 100,000,000 or 100 000 000). The use of narrow gaps is particularly recommended for articles on science, technology, engineering and mathematics. The German style manual only suggests the use of dots (100.000.000) and states that the use of non-breaking spaces is controversial within the German Wikipedia organisation.

The Microsoft globalization documentation states that the thousands separator is a comma in the USA, a dot in Germany and a space in Sweden.

What sort of “spaces between groups”?

Care is needed if we use spaces as the separators. A normal space is not a good solution, because the number could easily be split in a normal paragraph, e.g. 100 000 (line break) 000. Therefore, the space must at least be a non-breaking space (CTRL-Shift-Space). But most regulations state that it should be a “thin space”, otherwise known as a “narrow no-break space” (German: schmales geschütztes Leerzeichen). Typographers can create this space character as “U+202F”, on my computer I can create it with “Alt-8239”.

What should translators do?

The decimal marker (point or comma) is fairly clear: follow the traditional convention of the target language. The thousand separator is more complicated. Translating into English, I would use the traditional format (with commas for thousands) unless I have specific information that the other convention (with thin spaces) should be used. For translations into German, the simple answer is “it depends”. In texts for casual readers and in financial texts I would tend to use the traditional form (with dots) unless there is a specific reason to use a different version. In academic and formal texts, the standardised “thin space” is probably best. For Swiss German, of course, specific knowledge of the Swiss conventions for the text type and audience is needed.

This article is not exhaustive. I have not covered the formatting of dates or the grouping of digits in phone numbers, bank account numbers or other contexts. And there are many countries and languages which have completely different ways of writing numbers. Wikipedia is a useful starting point for research into the many different numeral systems in the world.

Tuesday 10 January 2023

Translating numbers: 1. How much is a billion?

This question is not as easy as it looks. Historically, there are two naming systems for very large numbers, known as the “short scale” and the “long scale”. In the short scale, a billion is defined as a thousand million (i.e. 1,000,000,000 or 109), but in the long scale, a billion is defined as a million million (i.e. 1,000,000,000,000 or 1012). These two systems first arose in the 17th century in Europe. The long scale is the standard system in Germany and most other countries in continental Europe. So German uses the word “Billion” for a million million (i.e. 1,000,000,000,000 or 1012), and a thousand million (i.e. 1,000,000,000 or 109) is called “Milliarde”.

Until the 20th century, Britain and most other English-speaking countries also used the long scale, so the terms were usually similar to the German words. However, the early settlers in North America used the “short scale”, and this became the standard system in the USA. Due to the influence of American usage, especially in the development of computers, short scale numbers were often used even in British English, so the situation was extremely confusing. In 1974, the British government decided to adopt the system which was used in the USA, i.e. the ”short scale” system.

Problem solved? Yes and no. The official use is now the same in British and American English, and most other English-speaking countries now use the same system. But there are still people who prefer the traditional “long scale” system. This means that the short scale numbers should now be used when we translate into English. But when we translate from English, especially older texts, confusion may arise and it may be wise to find out which system is being used.

This history of the number systems has also created “false friends” for translators. A German “Billion” is not the same as an English “billion”. The words “Trillion” and “Quadrillion” are also misleading. And a German “Milliarde” is not a “milliard”.

Here is a short list of the German terms and their modern English equivalents (with the old British terms in red and italics):

103    Tausend        thousand

106    Million           million

109    Milliarde        billion  

                             thousand million / milliard

          (Milliardär = billionaire)

1012   Billion           trillion         

1015   Billiarde        quadrillion  
       thousand billion / billiard

1018   Trillion          quintillion   

1021   Trilliarde       sextillion    
       thousand trillion / trilliard

1024   Quadrillion    septillion    

Another way of saying it

There is another way of naming big numbers which is not ambiguous, although it is not used in general counting and in texts about finance and investments. This system uses prefixes which are mainly derived from Greek, and it gives us a few familiar words such as kilometre, kilogram, megabyte and gigabyte. Each prefix has a rigidly defined value and does not change between German and English (except for minor spelling adjustments and the initial capital in most German contexts). The values are:

10      Deka-/deca- (zehn / ten)

102    Hekto-/hecto- (hundert / hundred)

103    kilo- (Tausend / thousand)

106    mega (Million / million)

109    giga- (Milliarde / billion)

1012   tera- (Billion / trillion)

1015   peta- (Billiarde / quadrillion)

1018   exa- (Trillion / quintillion)

1021   Zeta-/zetta- (Trilliarde / sextillion)

1024   yotta (Quadrillion / septillion)

There are also prefixes for numbers smaller than 1, for example Dezi-/deci-, Zenti-/centi-, milli-, Mikro-/micro-, nano-, Piko-/pico- etc. Familiar words including these prefixes include centimetre, milligram, millimetre and others.

There is more to be said about numbers in translation, for example the punctuation in numbers, the use of abbreviations in financial texts, the dimensions used in the building trade or industry and much more. But these are topics for another day. Watch this space.

Thursday 22 April 2021

Translation - fast and slow

We live in an age of instant information. Has a major event happened somewhere in the world? In the twinkling of an eye it is streamed, tweeted and live-tickered to every corner of the globe. Has a war broken out? A volcano erupted? A plane crashed? A ship stranded in the Suez Canal? We know it within minutes. We call this “real time”.

This strange realm of “real time” is also the land of instant coffee, fast food, real-time stock prices, express deliveries and just-in-time logistics. Its followers sometimes claim that “time is money”. This is the fertile ground in which the dream of instant automatic translation takes root and grows. Services such as Google Translate, DeepL and others are immensely popular, and it is claimed that the vast majority of language translation which is done in the world today is carried out by “machine translation”.

Is there an alternative to this expectation of an instant culture? I am reminded of a character in the epic novel and film trilogy “Lord of the Rings”. Treebeard looks like a tree but can move about, he is a “tree-herder” or “Ent”. In the book and film he explains his idea of communication to the hobbits:
You must understand that it takes a long time to say anything in Old Entish. And we never say anything unless it is worth taking a long time to say.
That contrasts sharply with our impatient and short-lived culture. It is worth remembering some pioneer translators who took a long time to complete major translation projects.

Saint Jerome (Hieronymus)

Jerome lived and died over 1600 years ago. He was a priest in the Catholic church, but today he is better known for his translation of the Hebrew Old Testament into Latin. This project, the Vulgate, took 17 years from 382 to 405, and during this period he lived in Bethlehem - in the country where the language of the original texts was spoken. He is commemorated in a wood carving in the crypt of the Church of the Nativity and a statue outside the Church of St. Catherine, which I photographed in Bethlehem in 2017.

Jerome died on 30th September 420 in Bethlehem. This day is now celebrated each year as International Translation Day. Many modern translators can relate to Jerome’s international biography. He was born in an area north of the Adriatic Sea (now in Croatia or Slovenia) and later spent time in Rome, Antioch (Syria), Jerusalem and Alexandria (Egypt). He moved to Bethlehem when he started his monumental translation. This helped him to learn the language of the original manuscript better, because he had to use it regularly in everyday life. Many modern translators also live in the country of their acquired language. I am one of them: I come from England but have been settled in Germany for very many years. And Jerome’s perseverance, working on a single translation project for many years, is also something that many translators can sympathise with.

Martin Luther

Martin Luther lived in Germany from 1483 to 1546. He is perhaps best known for his role in the Reformation and for the founding of the Protestant church in Germany. But he is also remembered as a translator. His German translation of the Bible was widely published, and it is still used in a revised form today. Luther’s translation even influenced the development of the modern German language. He did much of the translation work while he was in hiding at Wartburg Castle near Eisenach.

Luther was determined to translate the Bible into the language of the common people. This drew criticism from some conservative scholars of the time, and in 1530 he wrote the “Sendbrief vom Dolmetschen”, a letter in which he justified his work and explained his methods. For example:

“In my translation I have taken great care to write pure and clear German. We often had to spend a fortnight or three to four weeks searching for a single word, and even then we sometimes didn’t find it. We should not use Latin ideas when we speak German, we should ask mothers at home, children on the street, the common man on the market. We need to listen to them and learn how they speak. Then we should translate so that they will understand it.”

As translators today, we have on-line and off-line resources which Jerome and Luther could not imagine even in their wildest dreams. Sometimes our tools can help us to translate texts far more quickly. But sometimes we, too, need to take our time, explore the subject matter of our texts and search for creative ways to convey the content of the original. As Treebeard said in the Lord of the Rings:
We never say anything unless it is worth taking a long time to say.

Dear translation colleagues, is the content of our translation projects really worth taking a long time to say?