Conversions and Culture Clashes

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:

45 thoughts on “Conversions and Culture Clashes

  1. i’ve considered making my own measurements , usually of time, but I’m not sure that helps with reader immersion. One story specifically, I’ve considered using the set of base 10 units that replaces metric… 😛

    1. If all you’re doing is changing the names . . . assuming you’ve got a reason to do so . . . throw in a lot of physical references to ground the reader He heaved up the gizmo, must weigh fifty bins. Or the door was narrow, half a vacc, forcing him to turn a bit to get his shoulders through.

      Of course if you’ve got aliens, all that understanding may need a sudden adjustment when they meet humans. But it will help the readers get a feel for it, and also share the shock of how large of small the humans they’ve been talking to remotely are.

    2. Why base 10? Twelve, or two have some advantages over 10. Or even eight. Perhaps a prime number if you want to mess with people…

      – TRX (did way too much octal and hexadecimal back in the ancient days of programming)

      1. If I could go back in time, I’d murder those horrid six-fingered Babylonian priests that stuck us with base 12 time, except when it’s base 60; 360 degree circles; and dozens, grosses, and myriads.

      2. Base ten because that’s one more thing you really don’t want to bump your readers out of the story over. Pity the historical types trying to write in the Ancient Aztec world.

  2. It probably says something about me they the conversion from stone was automatic, but the conversion from metric was “if it’s important, she’ll translate it into something useful”.

    Have I mentioned that I absolutely loathe metric?

    Ground Floor is regional within the US, as well. Some places or effectively means basement.

    1. Writing this way is starting to make metric feel natural. So I don’t *hate* it, but it’s really a pity they threw out everything and have no starting reference to an old measurement.

    2. As an old Canadian, I fricking hate metric. Hate everything about it. Inches, pounds, gallons. And I’m talking IMPERIAL gallons, not those wussy American ones.

      Buildings. I usually say street level, second floor, third floor. Did y’all know a “story” is about 10 feet? I had to look that up. Because 100ft x 300ft x 40ft tall, that’s roughly a four-story supermarket. Two fusion powered Walmarts stacked on top of each other.

      Picture it cruising down the frozen beach on the coast Hudson’s Bay at 70mph.

  3. I love experiencing new cultures through books. But occasionally it’s a bit jarring. There was one book I read a few years ago that I didn’t realize took place in the UK. So the first chapter was a little confusing until I realized that the setting was Greenwich, England instead of Greenwich, CT. Ford Sierra? No,no, no. The Sierra is a GMC pickup and the Ciera is an Oldsmobile sedan. What’s going on here?

    1. One kids mystery book I read way back was UK… and it had me wondering why these kids were going about with fiery-ended sticks instead of safer flashlights…. but it was a matter of (non) translation. “Torch”

      Much as “chandelier” now means, unless stated otherwise, an electric model. Once upon a time there was discussion if such should be called an ‘electrolier’ or something.

      1. I remember being quite confused about Edmund’s electric torch, in Narnia.

        And later, wondering why Lord Peter Wimsey had a catapult in his pocket. Seems quite unwieldy.

        1. I’ve seen some strong reactions from Americans on being told that, in Harry Potter, the original of “sweater” from the American versions is “jumper.”

          And I still remember Harry’s being offered a cookie from a tin of biscuits.

      1. You don’t need to move to different countries to experience that shock. Growing in Spain (a relative small country not much larger than one of your states, smaller than some of the larger), I move several times through different parts of the country, I had to learn different words for common things used, such as sweater or shoes. Not to mention accents…

  4. At one point when I was thinking of getting a certification for Spanish translation, I read something that mentioned that a translator should translate units of measure, where appropriate. So when translating a Spanish story into English, you should translate all the metric units into English units.

    Ever since then, I’ve thought it was a mistake for SF and Fantasy stories to use unique units. At most, there should be a footnote the first time it says “feet” or “meters” to tell you the native equivalent.

    That said, I don’t have a lot of trouble with high fantasy stories that use obscure units. “The box was three spans high.” I once read an Australian fantasy story that consistently used meters, and the metric units threw me out of the story every time.

    1. That would feel to me like when I read a novel set around the time of the Norman Conquest and it used meters and kilos. I didn’t make it past the first chapter. A farmer in Wessex having a team of heavy draft horses in 1060, and the writer described Belgians? Oh heck no!

    2. What bugs me is that sf has the aliens using earth-derived units, without some sort of footnote about the translation. Maybe it’s a Argolian (or whatever) year for their light-year, but ‘parsec’ is… heck, I’m not sure I see any sense of it being used by earth creatures, really.

      1. You made me curious, because the numbers for parsec always seemed odd to me, but this time I was actually curious enough to look it up. Interesting, very interesting.

          1. Aye, though digging into it, it does make sense in the “let’s make the computations as trivial as possible” sort of way. Still, it’d be different for every system unless life (of the allegedly intelligent variety) is restricted to sun-like stars and (more likely) liquid water habitation zones.

            (And now I think of a *old* New Yorker cartoon: scene of an alien, crawling through a desert, repeating, “Ammonia! Ammonia!”)

    3. I’ve read Zelazny’s Amber books many times; but only recently noticed that he used metric measurements in them.

    4. A high fantasy can get away with the FFF system. Firkins, furlongs and fortnights.

      Speed of light is 1.8026 megafurlongs per microfortnight. ~:D Because the speed of light is very important in high fantasy. You never know when you might need to zap a flying squid from orbit.

  5. One of my scales can be set to Stones, and you can still see the stones’ legacy in boxing weight classes.

    Average appearances change too – I still remember in a Raymond Chandler where a 5’4″ woman is described as tallish.

    1. I have a ‘Salter’ scale that will in lbs or kg or stone-lbs. And, if I recall, the thing is initially factory-set to stone-lb which was a bit jarring.

      And then there’s a Bonzo Dog Do-Da song that mentions wanting lots of lsd… but pre-decimalization lsd, not LSD.

  6. I get confused between kilometers and light time. “They didn’t have to wait long, the other ship was only a light minute away.” vs “We’ve detect a ship at two million kilometers”. Which is closer?

    It’s easy enough to figure out (3×10^8*60/1000=6*3×10^6=light minute is longer), but one has to stop and do that figuring. Unlike a certain author who shall not be named (not here, that I’m aware of), do NOT mix them together.

    1. Yeah. I know we’re not suppose to use the same word too many times, but I really hate it when I read a news article about a preference poll: 30% voted for this, half like that, and one in five prefer the other.

  7. I might have mentioned this before .. It took about five hundred years for Arabic numerals to fully replace Roman or whatever other local variants had been invented. From 1000 AD to 1500 AD roughly. So I’m really not sure how long it will take metric to fully take over … Though I guess I think it will.

      1. Well, a lot of the world uses weight, not volume, for cooking.
        I know Spanish cookbooks list ingredients by weight, in grams or kg. I’m pretty sure Chinese cookbooks do, too – I was just looking at a Taiwanese bread book,and even though I can’t read it, I recall weights being listed. (BTW, I’d love to have a translation of that cookbook, since it has a lot of fun recipes for things like hot dogs wrapped in a bun, torpedo buns, UFO cream buns, and a lot of other things I see at the local Chinese bakeries).

        1. Flour, sugar, those are in grams or kilos (made three large loaves of bread. Large, tasty loaves), some liquids in ml, but spices and flavorings in teaspoon/tablespoon, and some liquids in cups (less than a half liter). Temps were in C or gas level.

          I never figured out what the conventions were. I just convert as best I can and cook.

    1. Ammunition still uses grains. It will take a long time for them to shift to metric. Grams are too big. 15 some-odd grains to the gram.

    2. Based on what?
      The self-proclaimed smart set has been trying to foist off the dog’s breakfast on us for over two hundred years. Acceptance of the system hit the high water mark nearly forty years ago, and the tide has, on net, been visibly going out since. And without any number of governments mandating its use, they’d have lost far more ground.
      I’m certainly not seeing continued global centralization by technocrats and oligarchs being a growth industry in the foreseeable future.
      And left to their own devices, most people will choose to use measures that are useful to them over some abstract ideal.

      If you’re doing chemistry, especially diluting solutions, metric is great.
      Likewise with pure physics.
      But for anything human-scale, it sucks.

    3. It was weird when I first encounter amateur astronomy optics – objective sizes in inches and eyepiece focal lengths in mm. Focal lengths of eyepieces in mm make sense – nice, generally small (well under 100) integers. But even without the conversion, objective sizes in cm throws me. I know by feel what a six-inch reflector is. 15.25 cm? What’s that?

      Then camera types and telescope types both use F-ratio… but in sort of opposite ways. 6 in F/8 tells me 48 in focal length and a tube about four feet long. But in a camera? The ratio is used to tell the lens size (roughly – might be a Standard Size, but what is let through?). The ‘speed’ meaning, however, does translate.

  8. I don’t know if I could do much historical fiction: PRE-historical, or mytho-historical (Arthuriana, et c.), or perhaps an alternative history, but not too historical as such because my own internal purist would want every detail I included to be at least very nearly right. In the sense of “that word wasn’t coined until three years later!” and “their sanitation systems were better than that!” at every turn. Which would be more research than I want to do for one scene.

    Oh, BTW: Mr. Torgersen’s newest book, A Star-Wheeled Sky is excellent. Go get a copy.

    1. Was just reading a work and bugged by the way it referred to “employer.” The men whose employer was unknown were obviously hirelings, but it still bugged to use a term that reflects a different mindset. Even though the term more harmonious with the era would be “master” which throws other reads out, no doubt.

      (There was a nineteenth century newspaper article that quoted men talking about the “boss” and threw in a comment to explain this strange term to the readers.)

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