Last fall, I got on an elevator in Texas with my sister to go up to a clinic for her appointment. The elevator buttons offered a choice of “B 1 2 ” so I asked, “Which one?”
She laughed at me, and after a moment I understood why. I was in Texas, but I live in Spain. In the United States (and most of Canada), “B 1 2” means “Basement, 1st Floor (Ground Floor), 2nd Floor.” In Spain (and most of Europe) “B 1 2” means “Bajo (Lower or Ground or 0 Floor), 1st Floor, 2nd Floor.”
In other words, what is called the 2nd Floor in the United States is the 1st Floor in Spain. I had only one choice going up, and that was 2, because we were already at 1, the ground floor.
This is a detail to bear in mind when traveling or translating. For example, in February, a huge storm hit Spain’s north Atlantic coast, delivering 7-storey-high waves – or at least that’s how they were described in Spain. But if I were going to tell someone in the United States about it, I would have to say they were 8 storeys high, especially in Texas, where everything is bigger.
There are other details of language and culture to bear in mind, for example:
- “Billion” means 1,000,000,000 or a thousand million in the United States (and some other countries) and 1,000,000,000,000 or a million million in Spain (and some other countries). This often causes problems.
- Some countries, including Spain, use a comma to indicate decimals, so 1,234 might equal 1.234: about one and one-quarter. Reciprocally, 1.234 in Spain (and some other countries) might equal 1,234: one thousand two hundred thirty-four. There’s a big difference, and there’s inconsistencies, so be careful.
- In Spain, “morning” is the time period that lasts from getting up until the main meal is eaten at about 2 p.m., so it is still “morning” after noon. In the English-speaking world, morning ends exactly at noon.
- Television “prime time” (horario central) in Spain starts at 10 p.m. In the United States, it starts at 8 p.m. on the East and West coasts, and at 7 p.m. in Central and Mountain time zones. In the rest of the world, prime time varies considerably.
- The expression “fifteen days” in Spanish means two weeks, or “fortnight” if you’re British.
- Payment for work, such as minimum wage, is expressed by a monthly rate in Spain (and some other countries), and at an hourly rate in the United States and some other countries.
So, if you ever compare a translation to the original and numbers look different, they may still be the same. The translator may have had to do a little math. It’s part of the job.