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Billions and Billions: Translating "billion"

Vrylena Olney

Anders Liljeholm, a program developer at OMSI, wrote to me about a challenge in translating our materials into other languages.

Did you know that in different countries the word "billion" can mean different amounts? In English, one billion is one thousand million, but in most countries in Europe "billion" means one million million, what we Americans would call one trillion. In these languages, one billion is 1,000,000,000,000–10 to the 12th power, while in English it’s 1,000,000,000–10 to the 9th power. (In the UK, they use billion the same way we do in America, but they’ve only done that since 1974.)

When translating nanoscience materials into languages like French or Spanish or Luxembourgish, this is a very important detail. At OMSI, we were late to find this out–we had posted our Intro to Nano video on YouTube and started burning DVDs of it when we learned we’d used "billon" in the Spanish dub where we should have used "mil millones". (We made this error despite four different native Spanish speakers reviewing the video for accuracy. It was only noticed by a museum educator from Papalote in Mexico City!)

Scientific notations like "10 to the -9th " or "nanometer" are universal in their meaning and much more precise, but as educators we often have to use multiple forms of expression to best communicate our ideas. Just remember that when you’re translating into another language, "billion" may not mean what you think it means. (And have pity on our Canadian and Puerto Rican friends who have to understand both systems!)

Amparo Leyman Pino, the museum educator from Papalote who noticed the error, suggested the Dictionario de la Lengua Española, de la Real Academia Española as a resource for Spanish language translations. Her caveat was that some current nano terminology is not yet included.