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?

Monday, 25 March 2019

More German construction terminology

Here are some more German terms used in the building trade.
Qualifizierung/qualifizieren – Leistungsphase
Gebäudetechnik / Haustechnik

The standard dictionary translation here is qualification or qualifications, and qualify when the word is used as a verb. In many cases that is a perfectly good translation, but the German terms sometimes have broader implications, so different translations may be needed. One such use is indicated by the dictionary alternative “classification/classify” (Langenscheidt). But sometimes it is a good idea to rearrange the sentence to use other equivalents such as “be interpreted as”, “constitute”, “amount to” or similar.

But there are other uses too. For example, company brochures sometimes claim that they pay great attention to “Mitarbeiterqualifizierung”. This usually involves offering training courses of various types. Such courses may end with some form of examination which gives the employees new qualifications, but often the term can best be translated as a staff training programme or similar.

There is another special case in the technical testing and acceptance of machines and buildings. German has a number of compound nouns for this process which include the term “Qualifizierung”: Installationsqualifizierung, Anlagenqualifizierung and similar terms. In essence this is a form of certification or validation, but the English technical term usually involves the concepts of “design qualification” or “performance qualification”. As always, the translator will need to consider what is actually being tested, verified or validated, how the term is actually being used in the specific test and how it can best be transposed into the flow of a clearly worded English sentence.

This term is used in a legal ordinance issued by the German government, the “Honorarordnung für Architekten und Ingenieure“ (Schedule of Services and Fees for Architects and Engineers, HOAI). This document defines 9 steps in the design and construction process, the “Leistungsphasen” which are often abbreviated as LP1, LP2 or LPH1, LPH2 etc.

A similar list of steps in the design and construction process is also used in the UK, the “RIBA Plan of Work” issued by the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA). The current version of the Plan of Work (2013) defines 8 steps in the process, which it calls the “project stages”. The previous edition (2007) proposed 11 steps which it called “work stages”. So the German word “Leistungsphase” now normally indicates a “project stage” in British English.

There are of course differences. The German project stages only apply to the work of the architects and engineers and are allocated a proportion of the total project fee for such services. The costs of the land and the construction work are calculated separately.

The project stages in the RIBA Plan of Work are numbered from 0 to 7 as follows: 0 = Strategic Definition; 1 = Preparation and Brief; 2 = Concept Design; 3 = Developed Design; 4 = Technical Design; 5 = Construction; 6 = Handover and Close Out; 7 = In Use.

The project stages in the German HOAI regulations for buildings, with suggested translations, are LP1 Grundlagenermittlung (Appraisal/preparation); LP2 Vorplanung mit Kostenschätzung (Preliminary planning & estimate); LP3 Entwurfsplanung und Kostenberechnung (Design planning & cost calculation); LP4 Genehmigungsplanung (Planning for the planning approval process); LP5 Ausführungsplanung (Execution planning); LP6 Vorbereitung der Vergabe (Preparation for award of contracts); LP7 Mitwirkung bei der Vergabe (Cooperation in award of contracts); LP8 Objektüberwachung (Project supervision); LP9 Objektbetreuung (Project management).

Gebäudetechnik / Haustechnik
These terms refer to the infrastructure systems which provide services within buildings. “Gebäudetechnik” is normally more comprehensive, including heating, ventilation, air conditioning, room cooling, sanitary facilities/plumbing, electrical fittings and building automation. The term “Haustechnik” is often more restricted and usually refers only to areas such as heating systems, sanitary facilities/plumbing and air conditioning.

The general English equivalent is “building services”. This term is comprehensive in scope and can include heating, electricity, sanitary facilities/plumbing, ventilation, air conditioning, cooling, building automation and more. You may also come across other terms such as “installations”, “facilities”, “technical building services”, “building systems” etc. I have also seen the translation “building technology”, although I suspect that this is often a mistranslation.

Technical construction documents often use abbreviations for such systems. Sometimes these are internal abbreviations used only within the company or in a project. Here are some of the general abbreviations in both languages:

German: TGA = Technische Gebäudeausrüstung (technical building services in general); ELT = Elektrotechnik (electrical systems); HLK = Heizung, Lüftung, Klima (heating, ventilation and air conditioning); RLT = Raumlufttechnische Anlagen (air circulation systems)

English: HVAC = heating, ventilation and air conditioning; HVAC&R = heating, ventilation, air conditioning and refrigeration, MEP = mechanical, electrical, plumbing (mainly in USA); A/C = air conditioning.

Thursday, 14 March 2019

What MPs really want to vote on

The first draft of a new Brexit bill:
"This House declares that pigs shall fly and that unelected feathered creatures shall not have a monopoly on movement through the air."

Amendment 1:
The bill is prejudicial to cows, therefore it should read “This House declares that pigs and cows shall fly ...”
Objection 1:
Pigs should be deleted because some regard them as dirty and unhygienic, and others regard them as ceremonially unclean
Objection 2:
Cows should be deleted because the word is sometimes used as a sexist insult.

Amendment 2:
"This house declares that unicorns shall fly ..."

Amendment 2 was passed by a substantial majority.
But nobody thought to ask the unicorns what they wanted.

Wednesday, 9 January 2019

Terminology in the construction industry (German/English)

Terminology is more than just words. Dictionaries and glossaries are helpful, but often they do not tell us the whole story. Meaning always involves the context - not only the way the word is used within the sentence, but often also the social context in which the word is used in the country where the text originates. This is illustrated by a few terms that I have seen in the course of my translation work:
Baumeister - Entscheidungsvorlage - Decke 
Baurecht - Bestand - Erschließung
This is usually translated as “master builder”.
In Germany it is used mainly as a historic term for the architects and builders who created projects such as cathedrals, palaces or major public buildings. In many cases, the same person was responsible for the design, the planning and the construction work on the building site. In Germany the term was still used as an official qualification and job title until the 1980s. Now, it only survives in job titles in some regions, such as the “Regierungsbaumeister” as a grade in the civil service system or the “Dombaumeister”,  the person responsible for conservation and repairs in a large cathedral.
However, the term “Baumeister” still represents an official job title and professional qualification in Austria and Switzerland. It is an all-round qualification which includes building skills, engineering, architecture and design, detailed planning, legal knowledge, building and project management.
What about the English term “master builder”? It is also used historically for the all-round experts who worked as architects and builders in former centuries. Nowadays, the term is mainly used for high quality building contractor firms who join together to promote their services, e.g. through the Federation of Master Builders in the UK, the Registered Master Builder scheme in New Zealand and similar organisations in other English-speaking countries. However, there is a relatively new trend in English which is similar to the historical master builder model: the concept of “design build”. In projects based on the design/build concept, there is a single contractor which is responsible for both the design and the construction of the project. The modern “design build” idea originated in the 1960s, but it is very similar to the historical model. However, the focus is on the project itself and the team of specialists, not on the qualification of any individual person.
So where does this leave us as translators? As so often, it depends on the context and the purpose of the translation. To translate the German “Baumeister” we have two key terms - the traditional “master builder” and the modern “design build” concept. In each case, we must decide how these terms can be combined to give the best rendering in the specific context.

In construction projects this term refers to information or a report which is presented to the client or developer. It usually outlines the advantages, disadvantages and costs involved in various options for details in the building plans, so that the client can make an informed decision. Possible translations are “decision memo”, “decision paper” or “proposal”. One of my translation clients is designing a major building and uses the term “decision memo” to describe such reports. In this context, I find this a good solution.
In other contexts, however, it may be completely wrong. In governments, for example, the preparatory work by civil servants to help ministers draw up new legislation may be described as an “Entscheidungsvorlage”. In English this would probably be a “draft”, or perhaps a “draft bill”. In other contexts, “Entscheidungsvorlage” could be used for a “change request” in factory or office management processes, a “credit report” in banking, and so on.

The basic meaning of the word “Decke” in buildings is the “ceiling” in rooms. But in multi-storey buildings, the ceiling of one level is also the structural floor of the next level. In building descriptions, the term “Decke” is often used to refer to the concrete floor/ceiling slab in such buildings. In road construction the word “Decke” is also used for the top road surface. Therefore it is important to find out what the word actually refers to in context.

In general and legal texts this term may refer to building law as a branch of law. But in texts about specific building projects it usually means “planning permission” or a “building permit”. So the phrase “Baurecht beschaffen” means “obtaining a building permit”.

This can refer to the pre-existing state of a building, an urban district, a facade, a wall, a floor or some other detail of the built environment. When used in texts about monument conservation or restoration it may mean the historical original condition - and sometimes the goal of the project is to restore a building so that it is as close as possible to the original. In other texts about functional refurbishment or construction it usually refers to the existing building, the existing urban context or similar.

Another deceptively simple term. A dictionary suggests development, access or opening up, but the actual use in construction-related texts is rather more complex.
When used in connection with a whole building or a building development area, the word may refer to the road traffic system leading to the property, the public transport system or the supply of infrastructure services such as electricity, water, sewers, gas or other facilities.
In a single building the word may refer to the points at which the building can be entered, i.e. the main entrance doors and any entry ramps or other entry points for vehicles, or to the pathways or entrance roads leading to these access points.
Within a building, especially in large commercial buildings, the term is also used for the features designed to enable movement within the building, such as lifts and stairs (for vertical access), corridors, and in some cases moving walkways.
Often, these different meanings can only be deduced from the context. The translation will usually include words such as access, development or entrance, but the translator must add other elements to explain what type of access, development or entrance is meant.

Wednesday, 12 October 2016

“We ran out of legs”

This sentence appeared this week in an Internet newspaper report. How would you translate it into other languages? Surely it can't be that difficult! Every word is short, and I'm sure you had no difficulty understanding any of the words. So what is the speaker trying to tell us?

I looked at various on-line machine translation engines to see how they would translate it into my second language, German.

I entered the English sentence “We ran out of legs." and found four different suggestions:
Wir liefen aus Beinen (Google Translate)
Wir rannten aus Beinen (Microsoft Translation)
Wir sind an Beinen knapp geworden (Promt online translator)
Wir hatten keine Beine mehr (Systranet)

So Google and Microsoft seem to think that Beinen (legs) is a place and that we left this place by running. Promt thinks that there is a shortage in the supply of legs, and Systranet says “We had no legs left”. I looked at a few other on-line translation websites, but I found that they had simply copied from one or more of the above sites.

Time for some context?
I found the above sentence in a BBC report on Tuesday's football match between Germany and Northern Ireland. The sentence was a quote from the Northern Ireland Manager Michael O'Neill: “In the last 20 minutes of the first half we had opportunities on the counter-attack and we could possibly have done a little bit better with those. We ran out of legs a little bit to threaten them.” So in context he is saying: our legs were tired, we weren't fit enough, we couldn't run fast enough. And it turns out that one of the on-line translations would actually work in a translation of the report (the one by Systranet), although in this case I suspect that this was more by accident than by design.

Easy if you know how?
Would you have understood the sentence from the outset if I had given you the context? I'm sure most of my readers would have had no problem, although some familiarity with football jargon (in this case the frequent metaphorical use of “legs”) would be helpful. But how would you fare if a report on a football match told you that one team had “parked the bus”? Or if the German report on the same game spoke of “Beton anmischen” (mixing concrete)? Would you instantly recognise that these images denote a densely packed defensive approach to the game? And how well would you understand the use of the word “leg” in another sporting context, such as cricket (leg before, leg sweep, leg spin, leg slip, leg side, short fine leg, leg boundary)?

The lesson for today
This very simple example sentence tells us a few things about translation.

1. Context is everything. Even a very simple sentence consisting of well-known words can be a complete mystery if you don't know the situation that it refers to.

2. Dictionaries will never catch up with usage. The way words are used is constantly changing, indeed they are often used in new and unique ways at the whim of the individual writer. Writing a dictionary is like trying to pin down a moving target.

3. Computers can only go so far. Humans are creative in the way they speak and write. If you use language creatively, I can normally understand you – as long as you do it in a language that I know well. But the computer hasn't a clue what we are talking about. The computer can recognise and manipulate patterns in the data, and some computer programs can do this very very well. But if our use of language goes off into uncharted territory, the computer is often up the creek without a paddle.

4. Subject knowledge is crucial. I can understand reports on football and cricket matches because I know the games and played them myself once upon a time. But show me a report about motorcycle speedway, deep sea diving or Mah Jong, and your guess is probably much much better than mine.
Applying this to my regular translation work: I have developed expertise in translating materials such as contracts, legal reports, court papers, architectural descriptions, building specifications and similar areas. I can understand what the writers are talking about in German, and this enables me to translate their texts into English. But I would be hopeless in subject areas such as cookery and textile design, and I am uncomfortable with medical texts.

5. There's more to it than meets the eye. Translation is a highly specialised skill, and most people don't understand what it involves. And to my translator friends and colleagues: I would suggest that you specialise, learn to understand your subject areas extremely well in all of your languages, and never forget that you are offering a specialised expert service.

Monday, 23 November 2015

Modern mass migration and “Christian values”

Many people in Europe and North America are worried about the current influx of migrants and refugees. One argument used by some of these people is the fear that the arrival of thousands of migrants from the Middle East will somehow erode “Christian values”. I wonder what Christian values they are talking about. Christmas will soon be upon us, and I stumbled on a couple of interesting incidents in the Bible narrative surrounding Christmas. So bear with me as I outline some of the “Christian values” which I see in the Christmas story.
“We three kings of Orient are ...”
In chapter 2 of Matthew’s gospel we read of “wise men” who arrived in Bethlehem from a country in the east, bringing gifts for the newly born Jesus, whom they described as the “new-born king of the Jews”. We are not told how many wise men there were, we merely read that they brought three extremely expensive gifts. The traditional interpretation in most churches is that there were three (and only three) of them, and that they were kings. This version is re-enacted in children’s plays in churches and schools throughout the western world. But the real surprise in the story lies elsewhere.
Cultural and religious misfits
Jesus was born as a Jew. The narrative of his birth, life, death and resurrection in the Bible is full of references to prophecies in the Jewish Scriptures, which churches refer to as the “Old Testament”. But the wise men from the East who came to pay their respects to the little baby were not familiar with the Jewish Scriptures. They got their information from watching the stars. They were not Jews, nor were they Christians. They were astrologists. Their cultural and religious background was completely different from the normal environment which is presented in the Bible. But in the biblical narrative, these differences are not emphasised at all. The central point of the Christmas story is the baby Jesus. People came from different social, cultural and religious backgrounds to honour him. The narrative in the Bible does not build walls between different world views. It simply points us to Jesus as a person.
Political crisis
However, the visit of the wise men did lead to immense political problems. This was because politicians heard about the “new-born king of the Jews” and felt threatened. The king of Judea at the time, Herod, wanted to solve the problem by killing the new baby. He tried to enlist the wise men as spies to help him. And when this intrigue failed, he massacred dozens of babies and toddlers. But he failed to kill Jesus. The narrative in Matthew’s gospel tells us that his father, Joseph, was forewarned in a dream, and that the family therefore fled to Egypt.
A refugee child in Egypt
So in his formative years Jesus lived for a while as a refugee in Egypt. The Bible does not tell us how long this lasted – perhaps a few months, perhaps two or three years. In our modern world, there are thousands upon thousands of refugee children, many of them from the Middle East. I wonder how it affects our “Christian values” if we remember that Jesus was in exactly the same situation. Today there are many refugees who have fled from Egypt looking for a safe place to live in another country. Some of them are now friends of mine in Germany. But in the days of Jesus, Egypt was apparently a safe country which was able to harbour those who were politically persecuted in other countries.
My personal “Christian values”
As a practising Christian, I consider it important to be friendly and tolerant to everybody, as far as this is possible. I am pleased to live in a country (Germany) in which many people say “Welcome” to refugees. I am pleased to be a member of a church which has open arms for people from other cultures. I am always happy to hear other languages around me, even when I can’t understand what people are saying.
What about the problems?
Of course there are problems. Managing the massive influx of hundreds of thousands of refugees, even in an affluent country like Germany, is an enormous task. I do not envy the politicians who have to find practical solutions on a day to day basis. And there will always be friction between people with different political and social opinions.
The important question for me is not whether we all agree in the issues of the day. My central concern is our underlying attitude. Are we willing to be open for everyone? Do we want to build walls between people, or do we want to build bridges? We need to know what we want before we can start arguing about how to achieve it.