Translating Numbers – Everything You Need to Know About Numerical Translation

by OFER TIROSH 28/01/2022

Every type of translation requires its own particular knowledge and skillset, from translating numbers to working on medical documents. Today, I want to take a look at numerical translation. I’ll run through what number translation is and some of the challenges it involves, then consider a few pointers for translators undertaking this kind of work. Shall we dive straight in?

What Is Numerical Translation?

Numerical translation is the translation of number-heavy content. That encompasses anything from a set of company accounts to engineering blueprints, and anything and everything in between. The numbers can relate to currencies, weight, height, temperature, pressure or the measurement of pretty much anything. If it’s presented in numeric format and it needs translation, it counts as numerical translation. 

Who Can Undertake Number Translation? 

Translating numbers requires exceptional attention to detail, due to the work involved and the potential impact that any mistakes could have. As such, numerical translators need to be methodical and analytical, with a superb grasp of financial terms and concepts in both the languages with which they work. 

Why Is Translating Numbers a Challenge? 

There are multiple reasons why translating numbers is challenging. For example… 

Millions and Billions 

How much is a billion? Seemingly a simple question but the answer actually changes depending on where in the world you ask it. In most English-speaking and Arabic-speaking countries, one billion is one thousand million. However, in most Spanish-speaking, French-speaking and Portuguese-speaking countries (along with many others), one billion is one million million (referred to as one trillion in English).  

As if that wasn’t complicated enough, some countries use both meanings. In South African English, one billion is one thousand million; in Afrikaans, it’s one million million. Clearly, this is something with the potential to trip up unwary number translation noobs. 

Symbols, Words and Abbreviations 

There are plenty of complications around the symbols, words and abbreviations used in number translation. Does the target language leave a space between the number and the symbol or abbreviation, for example 5.30 pm or 5.30pm? 

And what do you do when a symbol of measurement is in Greek in the source language, such as β being used to represent the second angle in a triangle or δ representing a percentage error? 

Imperial Versus Metric

If you’re translating a document that has detailed weight measurements in pounds and ounces from English into Portuguese, will you stick with the imperial definitions or do you need to convert everything to metric measurements? The need to translate versus localize quickly becomes a challenge here. 

The Problem with Decimal Points

Decimal points and commas present another issue. Take 3,507, for example. That’s three thousand, five hundred and seven, right? Well, yes, in English. However, in Russian it would mean three point five zero seven. One hundred thousand in India is 1,00,000; in the UK, it’s 100,000. A million in the US is 1,000,000; in Russia it is 1 000 000. 

There are plenty more examples I could give. Suffice it to same that those translating numbers need in-depth knowledge of the number formats in both languages. A mis-used comma or mis-placed decimal point or even space can make a world of difference to the meaning of a translation. 

Mathematical Symbols

Mathematical symbols present another problem in number translation. 20:5 in Latin America means twenty divided by five; in the UK it’s a ratio of twenty to five. 20 ÷ 5 in Russia refers to a range of values, from twenty to five inclusive; in the UK, it means twenty divided by five. 

This is very much the tip of the iceberg. Again, incredibly detailed knowledge of the two languages’ numerical contexts is needed in order to translate effectively. 

Date Format  

Date format can be another challenge. If an event is taking place on 07/06/22, should you turn up on the 7th of June or the 6th of July? And that’s just the confusion between two English dialects. Enough said. 

Inconsistency in the Source Text 

The final challenge I want to flag up is that of inconsistencies in the source text. Does the document switch between 5km and 5 km? Between €3 and 3€? Documents that have been contributed to by more than one author have plenty of scope for such inconsistences to creep in. Should you mirror them in the target language or take it upon yourself to correct them for the sake of consistency? 

How Should Translators Approach Number Translation? 

With any kind of number translation, it’s essential to be clear with the client on precisely what is required from the outset. Any of the issues above that are relevant to the document in question should be discussed prior to the numerical translation beginning. 

By seeking clarity on these points, you will have a framework for the translation that irons out any potential for mishaps. It will also help you to translate more efficiently, as you won’t keep having to pause to query things with the client along the way, resulting in a smoother translation process for all concerned. 

As ever, understanding whether localization is part of the brief is also key, as this can have a significant bearing on how numeric data is translated. 

More generally, you should ensure you’re using the best tools when it comes to undertaking translation work, whether numerical or any other form of translation. Number language translation can be taxing; using outdated tools certainly won’t help. 

In the same vein, you need the right kit to work with, from the laptop you’re using to your office chair. You can find a detailed run-down of professional translation equipment by clicking the link below. 

Read more: Professional Translation and Interpretation Equipment for Translators

The Importance of Translating Numbers Accurately

Businesses of all shapes and sizes need number translation, for a vast range of documents and a whole bunch of different reasons. If you’ve been tasked with translating numbers, a lot could depend on it. From corporate mergers to international sales campaigns to applications for patents, there are countless reasons why the number translation that you’re undertaking is essential to the future success of your client. 

This is why accuracy is so important. The numerical translation you’re working on could have major, long-term financial implications. Even something as small as a stray comma can have consequences, so only undertake number translation when you are confident that you can complete the work to the best possible standard. There’s no room for second best when it comes to numerical translation. 

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