Conversions and Culture Clashes
“Ah! A balmy twenty degrees out!” He eyed the kids, grabbing for their parkas . . . “Umm, that’s almost seventy degrees for you Fahrenheit troglodytes. Beautiful day out there.”
So my main audience is American, but I have readers in Europe, Japan, Australia, Canada . . . and even the younger Americans are comfortable with most metric terms. They have an instinctive grasp of how large four meters is, they don’t have to think about “why is he getting a ladder?”
For the older readers, some of them, using metric is going to break them out of the story to figure out just how tall, far, or wide we’re talking about here.
Breaking readers out of the story to do calculations is not a good idea.
So how, in these s l o w l y transitioning-to-metric days, does one keep the readers in the story?
Well, as I did above, you have characters with both systems firmly in their minds, and do a rough conversion in dialect.
Or you eschew numbers altogether.
She poured the elixir into the beaker, measuring carefully.
He jumped, his reaching fingers slapped the wall well short of the top. “See if you can find a ladder . . . or, how sturdy are those boxes over there? If we stack them . . .”
Of course, if you’ve got an alien race with no contact with Earth and it’s measurements . . . well, my Martians talk about distances in k-strides and time is in tenths of years and splits of days so it’s hopefully sort-of intuitively obvious how far they have to walk to get to the space base and how long it’s going to take. Mind you I also stuck an addendum in the back of the book.
And then there are cultural things. I just used a “ . . . on the first floor up” sort of thing for a European location. So the Americans, who automatically think the ground floor is the first floor, won’t be surprised when the characters head for the staircase, while everyone else thinks “a bit redundant.”
And speaking of culture clashes . . . She dressed modestly and business-like for the meeting . . . only to see man after man turn and stare. Oops. No one had mentioned at the new clients were Middle Eastern. Above the knee was not even close to modest under the circumstances . . .
And then there’s historical dress styles, measurements . . . I don’t grasp history, really. And rather than research, I simply don’t write stories placed in the past. Mostly. I have a really silly WWI story that’s sitting on my hard drive because every time I think I ought to check something . . . I was not just wrong, but mind bogglingly wrong. And there are so many necessary details that I can’t easily find the answers to . . .
I’ve realized that there are probably twice as many things that I’ve got wrong, and am oblivious to.
If you like research, by all mean write Historicals, Historical Fiction, Alt History . . . but do try to keep modern sensibilities (and measurements) in mind and try to slip in some conversions. Let the reader understand, while showing them what a different world the past was.
The woman was short and thin, she wouldn’t have weighed above eight stone. Her killer could have carried her here without too much effort.
And then there’s languages.
Well . . . even a line or two, you’d better check with a native speaker and ask if this actually says what you mean. And then just flat say they chatted comfortably in Hindi for the rest of the trip or something like that.
Really. Unless you’re writing for a small niche market where everyone is bilingual in those languages, it’s best to stick to one.
She stepped out of the car and eyed him in the dim light. Not as old as I thought. Injured, not crippled. Feels like a low Halfer, not much glow. “Do you need a ride? Umm, savaaree? Jarurat savaaree?”
“I speak English. Yes . . . I walk to find doctor. Hospital.”
A couple of lines later, he says thank you in Hindi. That’s it. Just a little flavor to back up the situation where she thinks he’s a local, and he thinks he can fool this silly redhead to taking him to the hospital without realizing he’s an enemy soldier.
It doesn’t take much to ground your reader, and it beats having him put the book aside and forgetting to come back and read the rest of it.
Anyone else have things needing conversions and ideas about how to do it?
Oh, and let’s not forget the self-promotion, which has many culture clashes, but few numbers: