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Units of measure, decimals, times and dates

At Alamma, we pride ourselves ensuring that our client’s texts work well in the local market for which they are intended. This is called localisation. A successfully localised service or product appears to have been organically developed within the local culture, rather than simply addressing the target user in their own language. Therefore, localisation is more than translating the words. It includes factors such as text length, local idioms, and cultural references. Date formats, page sizes and even units of measurement are different in different cultures. For medical and pharmaceutical translations, it is especially important to get those numbers right.

Imperial or metric measurements
Certain markets use imperial units, others exclusively use metric. It is important to know which units to use to avoid confusing or alienating the target user.

For example:

    • The USA market uses imperial units exclusively, but the EU uses metric units exclusively.
    • So if you are localising a US document for the European market, it is highly advisable to convert the imperial units to metric.
    • The UK has adopted the metric system, but also uses the imperial one in some cases, i.e., when specifying journey distances, vehicle speeds, weight of precious metals, and the volume of milk, beer and cider containers.1

Decimal numbers and thousands
Two main types of decimal separators are used: decimal commas and decimal points (dots).

    • English uses decimal points
    • Other European languages use decimal commas

To confuse the matter a bit, both commas and points are also used to separate thousands

    • English uses commas
    • Other European languages use points

To sum up:

Number (spelled out)EnglishOther European languages
two thousand three hundred and nineteen and three-quarters2,319.752.319,75

Expressing time and date
When expressing time, the first and main difference is in the use of 12- and 24-hour format.

    • The US mainly use the 12-hour format, followed by a.m. or p.m.2 to denote times before or after noon, e.g. “4.30 p.m”. The exception is the military, where the 24-hour format is preferred for accuracy, i.e., “23:00” or “08:00” (pronounced as “twenty-three hundred hours” and “oh eight hundred hours”, respectively).
    • The UK uses both 12- and 24-hour formats, depending on each individual’s preferences. Acceptable variants: 16:30 (with a colon), 16.30 (with a point) and 4.30 p.m.
    • Other European languages overwhelmingly prefer the 24-hour format. The hours and minutes are most commonly separated by a colon.

NB: French has its own rules for writing time. The correct spelling of the hours requires the use of non-breaking spaces3 around the “h” in French. For example: it is “10 h 30” and not “10h30”. Be careful with the “12:30 a.m”. or half past midnight, which becomes “0 h 30” in French, and not “12 h 30”. Also, there is a tendency in French to omit the 0, so write “13 h” rather than “13 h 00”, and “7 h” rather than “07 h”.

For Slovenian, be aware of the following options to express time: the usual format is “14.00” (spelled with a point, not a colon). You could also say you are meeting someone “ob 14. uri” or “ob 14h” (in the latter case, the “h” can also be superscripted: “ob 14h”). Mixing various options (i.e., “ob 14h uri”) is not considered grammatical.

Dates can also be highly confusing and controversial: does 4/5/15 mean April 5 (as in the US) or May 4 (as in Europe)? These differences can be crucial. Generally, the following conclusions can be made:

    • The US uses “month/day/year” as a standard, i.e., “12/04/21” or “December 4, 2021”.
    • The UK uses both spelled our variants and “day/month/year” as a standard, though “year month day” is gaining in popularity with the rise of the ISO 8601 standard, i.e., “04/12/21”, “4 December 2021” or “2021-12-04”.
    • Other EU languages mainly use the “” format, i.e. “04.12.2021”. Though this is the format used in Slovenian as well, (non-breaking) spaces follow the points, i.e., “4. 12. 2021”.

Paper format
A document can be designed as either A4 format (210 x 297 mm) as the European standard or letter format (8.5 x 11 inches) as the American standard. These slight differences in size may impact formatting, page breaks and ultimately the look of the printed document.

The examples above show how localising numbers enhances translation by integrating the standards used in the target audience’s business and cultural environment. Through collaboration between yourself, the client, and us, the agency, we can successfully communicate your message to your target audience.
If you’re new to localisation, or if you have any questions about how we process your translation and localisation requests, please do not hesitate to contact us.

How about you, what other points would you suggest we consider when localising a text?

1 Even some of the imperial units may not be the same in the UK and the US: one imperial gallon (UK gallon) is 4.546 litres, while one US gallon is 3.785 litres.
2 Though UK English mainly uses only lowercase variants, whether the points are used varies. So am/pm or a.m./p.m, AM/PM, or even A.M./P.M are all possible. It should just be done the same way in one text.
3 A non-breaking space is a space that will not break into a new line, so two entities (words, numerals, symbols) separated by a non-breaking space will stick together (not break into a new line). This is handy when breaking the words might be disruptive. (source