Tag Archives: meaning

Just asking #4: Translating metric units

Some countries mainly have dubbing or voice-over for movies and TV shows (Germany and France to name a few obvious examples), in others subtitles are being used. The latter is true for the Dutch speaking part of Belgium – where I often spend some time watching subtitled video content. [For those who have ever wondered why more or less everyone in the Dutch speaking area is quite fluent in English: exposure to video content in English with subtitles in Dutch is definitely a key element.] And what has always puzzled me is the way some English or American metric units of distance are being translated into Dutch subtitles.

You have to realize that 2 ‘levels’ of translation are happening when creating that particular bit of subtitles: at the first level, the words are translated, but for the metric unit there is an additional layer of translation as the anglo-saxon metric unit needs to be converted into the international one. I completely agree that in an sentence such as “The top speed of this car is 154 mph”, the translation of the speed should be “248 km/h”. But what about “The next town is 20 miles down the road”. Should the 20 become “32,2 km” (as I’ve already seen in actual subtitles)? Or should it be “32 km”? Or simply “30 km”? To me the last option definitely seems to be the most natural one – and certainly the one that best captures the underlying meaning of the original phrase, as that was most probably not meant to mean “exactly 20 miles, not 19,9 or 21,1”, but rather “something roughly in the neighbourhood of 20 miles”. So is 20 miles 32,2 km or 30 km? Just asking…