I think that it fits better in certain books to use the local measurement system, but is there a rule about this?

Are some books more tolerant to change than others, like fantasy novels? Or does it depend more on the target audience?

For example, if a I write that a character drank a gallon of milk, most people in my country would think that he drank a full 20 liter barrel of milk.

If I said that someone walked one mile, would it be translated as 1km, 1.6 km or just kept in miles? Does it depend of the accuracy that you need?

Edit: Reading the answers a lot of people are taking that question in a pure writing aproach, so I suppose that a translation differs little to the actually writing process, you shold be able to decide whenever to change or not to keep the original idea.

  • Welcome to Writing.SE Clayton! If you have a moment please visit the help center and tour. Have fun! Apr 3 '18 at 14:47
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    The answers to this question should answer your question as well. I therefore vote to close this question as duplicate.
    – user29032
    Apr 3 '18 at 15:31
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    @Cloudchaser -imho that question is related, but not a duplicate. That question focuses on modern setting with omniscient narration, meaning all options are on the table. This question is more broad. In some cases, there wouldn't be a realistic way to translate. For example, a fantasy elf character just can not use the metric system.
    – Alexander
    Apr 3 '18 at 17:55
  • @Alexander I did not say that that question was a duplicate. I said the answers to that question answer this question as well. I read this question, considered an answer, and thought: I have just written the same answer a few hours ago. You may disagree with my assessment, but please try and read what is written and don't fantasize something I haven't said.
    – user29032
    Apr 3 '18 at 17:58
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If it is a translation for a specific audience, (as the OP says) then I would translate to approximate equivalents, not exact equivalents. unless the tone was calling for exactness. So a gallon is not quite 4 liters, but I'd say 4 liters. A mile is 1.6km, but I'd say "one and a half kilometers", because a hundred meters isn't going to make that much difference to the story.

That's the key, whether the exact measurement makes a significant difference to the story. It almost never does, even if a character says "exactly one ounce" [28.35 grams], it probably wouldn't hurt the story to say "Exactly thirty grams". It's a novel, not a recipe book.

My personal approach in writing (not translation) is to use the metric system in the future, the English system in the past, and always hours, minutes and seconds, and days and weeks. I don't use months, I sometimes use seasons.

At at all times I try to use effort instead of measures: I put distance in terms of effort. A young adult medieval person can walk at 3 mph, a 300 mile walk is one hundred hours; about nine days walking every daylight hour.

  • That's another thing i'm curious about, looks like tha in some countrys the season is more relevant when talking about date of the year, like: "By spring i was ready to do that " or " she will come around winter". why is that ? Apr 5 '18 at 0:37
  • Seasonal weather. In many parts of the world, Winter is so frikkin' cold nobody likes to do anything outside, including travel. In other parts, Summer is so hot nobody likes to be outside or working outside (like in the yard or building or working on their car or anything else). Still other parts, rain is nearly constant for some season, monsoons or storms, there is a distinct hurricane season in South around the Gulf of Mexico, dangerous for boaters and fishermen alike, dangerous for the residents of cities. Most places on Earth have at least one bad season, so it depends on the setting.
    – Amadeus
    Apr 5 '18 at 0:58
  • Yes, nice answer, here we only have two actualy seasons hot/wet and hoter/wetter, so that explain why we do not use season as much to describe date. Thanks. Apr 5 '18 at 1:32

It depends on whether you are using the local unit of measure for information or for atmosphere. If you use modern units in an historical setting (kilometers and grams in ancient Egypt, for instance, readers will know how large a quantity you are talking about, but it will sound completely out of place since those units were not used at that time and most readers, even those who are largely historically illiterate, will probably realize that. It is a bit like talking about Cleopatra's cell phone or panty hose.

If you want an air of authenticity about your narrative, therefore, you should use cubits, or spans, or furlongs, or rods, or whatever unit of measure at least sounds like it comes from the period or society in question. But the consequence of this is that your readers will not know exactly how large the quantities are.

This may not matter very much. You are writing a novel, not an instruction manual. A vague general sense of proportion is probable all you need to give for most measures. This can often be created by providing another clue.

They walked 12 furlongs to the bridge, arriving around noon.

In most cases the feeling of authenticity is more important the the precision of the measures, so go for authenticity and, where measures matter at all, support a general sense of proportion with other textual clues.

  • 1
    Your example reminded me of my age-old question about Multiple stone throws over on English Language & Usage.
    – user
    Apr 3 '18 at 15:12
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    @MichaelKjörling Also related is the coastline paradox (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Coastline_paradox). Precision in measurement is often very difficult and subject to all kinds of problems of definition and precision. This is why informal units of measure sufficient for present purposes are an important part of our language. We need a way to indicate the imprecision of our measures. Far from misleading, folk-units give the reader a more accurate picture of the degree of precision being offered.
    – user16226
    Apr 3 '18 at 15:48
  • I recently read one of the Patrick O'brian books, Both original and translated versions of it. And it wold be strange indeed to have modern terms insted of those used back then, but i think that is more related to the particular nature of the book rather then the overall sense of translation. Apr 5 '18 at 0:30

IMHO ...

You're writing your story in modern English. Readers routinely accept that you "translate" dialog to modern English, even if the characters would really be speaking in ancient Sumerian or elvish or whatever. So for "casual" measurements, I think it's easier all around to use modern units. If I was reading a story set in ancient Sumeria and a character said, "It's 20 miles to Babylon, it will take us 4 hours to get there on my fastest camel", I doubt I would think twice about the modern units. If I even noticed, I would quickly tell myself, "Yes, yes, the writer has translated from whatever unit of distance ancient Sumerians used to modern units for the convenience of the reader, just like he has translated their language to English."

When you just want to give the reader an idea of how big or heavy or whatever something is, using local units would just be a distraction. If you say the hero had to travel 30 fwacbars to reach his destination ... is that a long distance or a short distance? Unless the reader is familiar with the local units, you have to explain them or he has to look them up.

And how do you explain them except in reference to modern units? If it is anachronistic to have a character say "I traveled 30 kilometers" instead of "I traveled 90 fwacbars", it is absurdly anachronistic to have a character say "A fwacbar is about a third of a kilometer". You'd have to interrupt the story at some point to have a narrator give conversion values.

Sometimes you could work "scale" numbers into the dialog. Like have someone exclaim, "But that's 30 fwacbars away! It would take us 2 days to walk that far!" That's not an implausible thing for a person to say, and it gives the reader an idea how far a fwacbar is.

I WOULD balk if the number is significant. Like if a character said, "It is 365 kilometers from Babylon to Ur, the same as the number of days in the year", I think I would say, Hey, wait, they didn't use "kilometers" in ancient Sumeria, so whatever unit they did use would not come out to the same as the number of days in the year, and this sentence makes no sense. Oh, but what sort of calendar did they use? How many days did they count in a year? Etc. (BTW it is not actually 365 km from Babylon to Ur, more like 340, but I didn't want to search too hard for an example.)

I think for most stories, measurements are brief asides that come up rarely, and it's easier for author and reader to just translate them. If measurements are an important part of the story, like if the story is all about building a bridge and the length of the bridge and how much weight it can carry and how far it is to the next bridge etc. are all vital parts of the story, then it might be a good idea to use local units for the sake of flavor. That is, I'd hate to interrupt a story for a discussion of units that only come up once, but if they come up a hundred times, there's more bang for the buck.

Side note: If you convert actual measurements, remember significant figures. Don't make the converted numbers more precise than the original. Like if you have some source that says that the dragon is 20 cubits long, that's 10 meters, not 9.144 meters.

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    What gives you the idea that the asker is writing a novel in English?!? He clearly writes that in his country milk is not measured in gallons, so apparently he translates English to some other language. Also, he doesn't write a novel, but translate a novel.
    – user29032
    Apr 3 '18 at 16:32
  • I assumed he was writing in English because he asked the question in English. Regardless, if he is writing in some other language, just substitute that language where I said "English" and my answer is no more or less relevant. The point is not English vs Sumerian, but some language A versus some other language B.
    – Jay
    Apr 3 '18 at 16:35
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    He asked the question in English because it is offical StackExchange policy that questions must be asked in English.
    – user29032
    Apr 3 '18 at 16:40
  • @Cloudchaser Ok. So as I said, if OP is writing in Ruritanian, then everyplace I said "English" cross it out and write in "Ruritanian". Nothing in my answer would change.
    – Jay
    Apr 3 '18 at 20:09
  • Not exactly writing, it's already writen, the problem is how much of "writing" freedom i have in a translation, if the same rules for writing hold for translating Apr 5 '18 at 1:02

Like others have said, it depends on the character and the setting. A character from the United States would likely use Imperial units unless they are in a few career tracks.

Scientists will always use metric units as they are better for more precision (the difference between 32 and 212 is rather arbitrary... 0 to 100 is an easier concept to grasp). Also, science is more international and thus, Imperial units are in a minority of actual scientists.

People in the U.S. Military will typically give distances in Kilometers (called Klicks) and meters when over the radio. This is because since WWI, the U.S. has always fought with foriegn allies on their side. Additionally, it's the unit most likely to be given by a questioned POW which may prove crucial for immediate intelligence. Knots will only be used for speed over water (and in Aviation).

One easy work around is to never give distance in kilometers or feet, but rather in length of time it will take to get there. This is called "Plot Speed" as your position from your destination is in relative to your plot. A three day trip is going to be three days to everyone, no matter which distance measurement you use. If it is from a real world place to a real world place, (New York to L.A.) you can use google maps to find the length of time it will take to traverse the distance in the mode of transit you prefer. Keep in mind that this assumes no down time (resting your feet, getting gas, delays along the route). From NYC to LA, it's 5 hours, 50 minutes by Plane, 2 days and 13-18 hours by public ground transit, and 41 hours by car, and 921 hours (better part of 38 days) by foot.

If you need to give a height, it's better to translate for your audience, though a meter is about a yard in US measurements (A yard is 3 feet and a Meter is 3 feet 3 inches and some change... it's a good guesstimate, but keep in mind the difference between one yard and one meter is better than 2 yards vs. 2 meters (6'0" vs. 6'7" (rounded to nearest inch).

The U.S. does have some familiarity with Liters as both Pepsi and Coca-Cola use 2 liter bottles for their large bottle products. It's not uncommon to see a liter bottle for sale, though typically Americans will buy small soda in 12 oz cans (354 ml), 20 oz bottles (591 ml). All other beverages such as milk and juices are sold in gallon jugs, with quarts, the next step down, being slightly smaller than a liter (1 quart = 0.94 l). Liquid in the U.S. is probably the easiest to dirty convert as 1 quart ~= 1 liter and 4 quarts = 1 gallon, so you just need to take your number, divide it by 4 and you got your gallon value that is close enough. This isn't as easy in the UK as the British Gallon is 1.20 to the U.S. Gallon, but with an amount that big no one really cares. The Pint is usually used in the U.S. to sell small single serving milk cartons, and is 4 pints to a Quart. Again, don't worry too much about this as the Liter is used by Americans and they will get the general concept.

Weight is in Pounds and Ounces, though Ounces are rarely used unless it's just that light. They don't line up with Kilograms or Grams well, and really, they are not the same measurements. For example, you would weigh less in Pounds on the moon than on Earth, but you would have the same weight in Kilograms on either body. The closest Imperial unit for the Kilogram is a Slug, but don't expect anyone who uses Imperial Weights to use it. A Pound is Mass X Gravity. This makes the conversion between the two units difficult to grasp and it's further complicated that the British do also use the Stone, which Americans have no concept of.

In dialog, the American will almost always rely on Imperial measurements unless noted otherwise in the above. Canadians, to my knowledge, are largely the same way. The English are able to convert better, owing to being one English Channel away from Metric users. Aussies will use both, but they lack any concept of an insane travel distance (600 miles to an event is not viewed as a long distance as it would be in Europe or even the U.S. This has more to do with Australia having a lack of major population centers that is not seen in Europe or the U.S.). Kiwis are comfortable with both.

  • hum..i learned a new thing today. I was aware of the problem with kilo mass != wheight, but i didn't know that pounds included the gravity as variable. Thank god NASA uses metric. Apr 5 '18 at 0:54
  • @ClaytondeFreitasLima: Accept when they hire contractors who spend millions of dollars on a martian probe that uses Imperial measurements... that was quite the oopsy back in the day.
    – hszmv
    Apr 5 '18 at 14:41
  • An American "would likely use" American customary units. Some of them are quite different from identically named Imperial units.
    – Jasper
    Apr 6 '18 at 4:12
  • Scientists often use American customary units, or specialty-specific units.
    – Jasper
    Apr 6 '18 at 4:13
  • In the U.S., the pound is legally defined as a unit of mass. It is a particular multiple of a kilogram. The pound-force is one pound times one standard gravity.
    – Jasper
    Apr 6 '18 at 4:21

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