Case Study 1: Interpreting numbers

Many people wonder what a Japanese interpreter’s work day is really like. An interpreter’s work can seem a little mysterious when you’ve never seen what happens behind the scenes! I thought it might be interesting to write up a few case studies about interesting aspects of my work as a Japanese interpreter, to give you a little taste of why this job is so fascinating.

Today, I thought I would talk about translating numbers between English and Japanese.
Numbers are of course very important in business conversation. But when translation is involved, they get tricky as well.
Why? Because of the different numbering structures between English and Japanese.

Up to 1,000, the structure in Japanese is equivalent to that in English, but after 10,000, they are different. Japanese gives a new unit for every four digits whereas English assigns it for every three digits.
Japanese has a unit called “Man” for 10,000, “Oku” for 100,000,000, “Cho” for one trillion. Yes, they are equivalent again at 1 trillion!

1 Man is 10 thousand,
10 Man is 100 thousand.
100 Man is 1 million.
1000 Man is 10 million.
1 Oku is 100 million.
10 Oku is 1 billion.
100 Oku is 10 billion.
1000 Oku is 100 billion.
1 Cho is 1 trillion.

So, whenever a number in English exceeds 10,000 (like “the population of this city is 132,655”), I have to pay particular attention not to get it wrong in Japanese.

I have an experience that I remember very vividly even after 10 years. I was interpreting for a conference call at a company where an HR staffer was talking to an employee about his salary, during this phone call. Just remembering that experience makes me break out in a cold sweat even today!

But how do we interpreters handle the complexity associated with numbers?
It’s practice, practice, practice. It’s not intuitive, so you have to do many practice drills where you convert numbers from one language to another.
Back when I attended interpreting school in Tokyo, we were regularly given a small drill just on numbers. At school, they would give us especially tricky numbers to translate, i.e. the ones with zero in the middle, such as 125,023. In this example, because we would expect there would be some number in the hundreds place, having a zero there made us lose our rhythm.
At home, I personally created a cheat sheet to practice those numbers I described above. Then, I practiced it over and over!

But how about on the job, when I’m in the interpreting booth or at a trade fair with a client?
If I am provided with a written document, I highlight the numbers beforehand so I know where to look at during the conversation.
If I am working with an interpreting partner, I may rely on his/her support to point out where in the material they are mentioning or to jot down the numbers being said.
If I am working alone, taking notes is critical in order to get the numbers right. But if I miss that, I kindly ask the speaker to repeat it.
Some speakers who are used to working with interpreters kindly repeat the numbers they say in a clear way, such as “fifty, five-zero” and “fifteen, one-five”.
That is very helpful and I’ve learned to use these types of expression in my output, too.

Translating numbers between English and Japanese is very complex, and I pay extra attention to interpret them correctly.
When you are speaking, some small help, such as reading out the numbers individually or slowing down your speech would be extremely helpful for me, the interpreter, and thus beneficial for you, the customer, to convey your message accurately.


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