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Translating Finances: Is Math the Same Everywhere?

Sean Hopwood
Sean Hopwood

Translating financial data is not just about the numbers.

Translating financial information is not as easy as some may think it is. While others may have the perception that it should be straightforward – after all, numbers and mathematical concepts are universal – the fact is that terms and expressions vary. That's why they need to be translated by someone who is competent.

Is math the same across the world?

It's a common belief that math is the only true universal language, mainly because numbers and mathematical principles hold true everywhere. There may be differences in the words and units used, but the underlying principles and concepts are the same.

What's universally accepted is that the math everyone knows at present is an amalgamation of sciences learned and taught in different parts of the world. Mathematics is not an invention of one person, civilization or culture. Several people and civilizations have contributed to the math everyone studies and uses contemporarily. As such, this science grew collaboratively, so different countries didn't find it difficult to embrace it with all its theorems, postulates and terms named after mathematicians.

Financial translation is more than just the numbers and math

Math is universal and is prominently used in financial records. Translation is supposed to be easy when you are only dealing with numbers. However, translating financial content is not just about the numbers. At least five important factors make financial translation challenging.

1. Variety of materials

Businesses deal with numerous types of documents. Price sheets, invoices, M&A documents, balance sheets, income statements, cash flow statements, ledgers, bank reconciliations, feasibility studies and business plans are just a few of them. To properly translate these documents, a translator needs to have a good grasp of how they work. It's important they are aware of the format (and relevance) of the document's layout. Putting numbers in the wrong columns or failing to use parentheses for numbers (when they should have them) can affect the accuracy and comprehensibility of the documents.

One cannot claim to be an experienced and proficient financial translator after completing a few financial statement translations. It's important to be well versed in translating nearly every type of financial document that businesses use.

2. Differences in terms, units and calibration

Business documents contain a multitude of jargon or technical terms. To correctly translate these, a translator needs to know what they are. Basic fluency in a language will not suffice. It's not necessary for translators to memorize everything, but they need glossaries or references to provide the right equivalent terms in another language. Additionally, it's important to be consistent in translating jargon. Equivalent terms for the words used in financial documents cannot vary, even though the words used essentially mean the same thing. Precision is a must.

On the other hand, it may be necessary to convert figures into the equivalent values used by the intended audience. While some clients are satisfied with translations that no longer convert monetary amounts and measurements (the exchange rates or conversion values are only added as annotations or footnotes), others prefer to have financial data and measurements stated in the values or units they typically use. Financial data stated in Indian rupees, for example, may have to be converted to their corresponding amounts in U.S. dollars. Things get more complicated when Indian financial documents use the term "lakh," which means 100,000. With this particular term, a translator must not only multiply the numbers by the applicable exchange rate but also multiply the amounts in lakh by 100,000.

For example, if a document references a sales amount of "150 lakh," converting it to U.S. dollar value does not mean multiplying it directly by the prevailing rupee-to-dollar exchange rate. The 150 lakh will have to be multiplied by 100,000 and multiplied again by the exchange rate.

The same goes for amounts stated in imperial and metric units. However, translators must be mindful of the units and calibration. For example, when converting the height 191 cm into feet, the resulting value is 6.2664 feet, which does not equal 6 feet 2 inches. The 0.2336 after 6 means 0.2664 x 12 inches (or 26.64 percent of 12), so the resulting feet-and-inch conversion is around 6 feet 3 inches. Many translators mistakenly incorporate the decimal system when working with imperial values. Of note, there are 12 inches in a foot, so a decimal value after a whole number needs to be multiplied by 12 first to get the corresponding value in inches.

3. The potential for severe errors in working with numbers

Financial translators are burdened by the severity of the mistakes they might commit while translating a financial document. An omitted zero or decimal point can create massive distortions in translated documents. If they don't cause serious overstatements or understatements, they can create confusion, which defeats the purpose of having a financial document translated.

4. Time constraints and voluminous documents

Financial statements and other business documents need to be presented in a timely manner. Translating financial content can involve sifting through thick volumes or lengthy soft copies of materials. Translators need to be fast, efficient and accurate, something that is never easy to do.

5. Confidentiality

Besides familiarizing oneself with business jargon and ensuring speed and accuracy of with the item being translated, security is an added responsibility for financial translators. Providers of business document translation services must adhere strictly to service-level agreements (SLAs) and non-disclosure agreements (NDAs) to assure clients that their data are safe.

Image Credit: Casper1774 Studio/Shutterstock
Sean Hopwood
Sean Hopwood Member
I am a polyglot, the President of Day Translations, Inc. and its sister companies, World Interpreting, Inc. and Your Spanish Translation. As a child I was already fascinated with languages and different cultures, which later developed into a much stronger passion, something I nurtured and worked hard for. Eventually, I found success when I established Day Translations, Inc.