Monday, March 21, 2016

Translating Numbers and Money Around the World

Last Wednesday, we looked at the differences between different time and date formats around the world and how, as a translator, it's important to get them right depending on the language you're using. Today I thought we could continue with numbers, since it's not just words that are affected by translation.


When it comes to numbers, it's important to understand the "scale" commonly used in that particular language or region.

For example, in English, a "billion" can be two different numbers, depending on whether you are using the long scale or the short scale. As it's more common in the English-speaking world, I'll talk about the short scale first.

The Short Scale

In the short scale, you have thousand, million, billion, and trillion, and each of these is 1,000 times bigger than the last.

Using the short scale, a billion (1,000,000,000) is a thousand million. A trillion (1,000,000,000,000) is a thousand billion. Put simply, each new term has three more 0s after it.

The Long Scale

In the long scale, each term is a million times bigger than the last. Hence a million remains 1,000,000, but a billion is now 1,000,000,000,000.

The long scale is fairly common throughout Europe (with the exception of the UK). You can spot the long scale by its use of words similar to "milliard" (1,000,000,000) and "billiard" (known as a quadrillion in the short scale).

The long scale was previously commonplace in British English, whereas the short scale was used in American English. However, both varieties now generally use the short scale.

Writing or Representing Numbers

Of course, there's also the little matter of typing out those numbers. In my examples, I used the practice common in British English, separating each set of three digits with a comma, starting from the end of the number.

Then there's the matter of decimal places. In English, it's usual to separate decimals with a full stop (or period in American English). This means one half is written 0.5 when using decimals.

However, if you speak another language, you might be familiar with a system that works the other way round. So a million can be written either 1,000,000 or 1.000.000, depending on where you're from and the language you speak. This also means that one half can be written 0.5 or 0,5 depending on the system you're using. Make sure you take care!


Money talks, and if you make a mistake with it in your translation, there'll only be bad things to say about you. This is when knowing the practices related to writing numbers becomes very important. Aside from making sure you are using the right scale and the correct separators, there's also the issue of currency names, and how they should be written.

For example, here in the UK we have the pound sterling, also known as pounds or GBP. One pound can be divided into one hundred pence. One pound and fifty pence is therefore written as £1.50, placing the symbol at the front and separating the subunits of the currency with a point.

However, if you're using Euros, you tend to see the symbol written as the separator. Therefore if we had one euro and fifty cents, it could be written 1€50.

Make sure you're aware of best practices when it comes to numbers and money, because they make the world go round!