Monday, June 29, 2009

The importance of knowing measurement units

When I teach translation, I tell my students that they should learn well at least the most common measurement units.

Case in point from a translation I'm doing at the moment.

The source text already provides conversions, but at least in one instance they are wrong:

"...leaving about 1-2 inches (51-103 mm) of wire..."

If it is 1 to 2 inches, then the measurement in millimeters should be 25 to 51 mm: 51 to 103 mm is 2 to 4 inches.

I pointed out this conflict to my customer, who opted for "...2-4 inches (51-103 mm)..."

I believe all technical translators (especially those who edit other translators' work) should be able to spot such inconsistencies at a glance.

Pointing out such insidious errors is usually appreciated by customers, and tells them you are paying attention to what you are doing.


  1. It's more about using common sense than knowing measurements units exchange rates by heart.
    The question here to be asked is whether it is the translator's responsibility to find inaccuracies in the source text.

  2. In a case like this one, no, it's not the translator's responsibility to find inaccuracies, in the source text, but if they are spotted, they should be reported (and the customer will be grateful).

    In other instances it may be part of one's tasks (e.g., if a translator is editing a translation done by a colleague, and this translation involved converting measurement units).

    If you don't know measurement units by heart, how are you going to spot such errors at first glance? You can, of course, recalculate them all, but that takes longer.

  3. My personal rule is not to do conversions, on the grounds that a) it isn't my job, and b) I wouldn't know what sort of criteria to use. My admittedly half-baked scientific background tells me that conversions are always imprecise - ºC to ºF, for example, do you multiply by 9 over 5 and add 32 (the shortcut we are taught at school), do you refer to conversion tables, in which case, which ones, or do you rely on your (imprecise) calculator? In all those cases, the result is only an approximation. Even if you actually take the trouble to check on a thermometer with a double scale, you don't know that the accuracy of your thermometer is appropriate. So, personally, I wouldn't do more than point it out to the client and let him sort it out, if that.

  4. From my point of view, the conversion "about 2-4 inches" -> "about 51-103 mm" is neither a good one. Given that the sentence just indicates an approximative value, I would have converted: "about 50-100 mm" (probably even better: 5-10 cm).

  5. While working as an in house editor, we always double checked that for the client. We never relied on the translator and/or proofreader to catch such an error. It is nice to have any translators that would point out any glaring mistake. That's what, I believe, separates an Ok translator from a good one.

    Kim A.

  6. I thing and know that translating can be confusing and hard to understand, along with the missing a small part after the translation is done. This goes for speaking, writing and math. As for math, stay in the same format,i.e. if you are in meters and related measurements so inches are in inches to feet or yards, but not to meters, the math just do not add up, so you will lost or add a part that makes the rest of the math invalid.
    That is my view, as I had this solution in High school in the mid 1970's. so it works with the test of time
    Robert (RTM)


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