Quick tip for translating contracts (6): don’t use word–numeral doublets

Just about any contract drafting or legal style guide you pick up will tell you to avoid using word–numeral doublets:

E.g., instead of:

He left € 800,056 (eight hundred thousand and fifty-six euros) to his cat.

Use just:

He left € 800,056 to his cat.

Although the first version may feel safer and more legal, it leaves room for someone to inadvertently add in ambiguity in the form of a discrepancy between the two forms of the number. If not at the initial drafting stage, somewhere down the track when changes are made. It also adds redundancy — another pet hate of drafting style guides.

According to Garner (in this book), the doublet was originally used as a safeguard against fraud. As the numerals by themselves could more easily be changed, you wrote the figure out as well. It was also useful when carbon copies were used a lot, with the written-out numbers being easier to read on the copies.

Nowadays, unless you’re writing out a cheque or making carbon copies, there is little reason for using word–number doublets any more.

Obviously for translations, the risk of inconsistencies is even greater because there is at least one more person in the process, the translator, who also may introduce a discrepancy between numeral and word.

When translating, I think it’s a good idea to just use the numerals in the translation, even when the source text also writes the number out. At the very least, you’re using recommended modern English style.

Of course, by the time you get the document, a mistake may have already worked its way into the document, in which case, if the mistake is not obvious, you’ll just have to reflect it in the translation or sort it out with the client.

Written by Rob

Rob Lunn is a freelance legal translator based in Spain. He translates from Spanish and Catalan into English.

2 comments to “Quick tip for translating contracts (6): don’t use word–numeral doublets”
  1. Hello Rob, looking forward to your presentation in Coimbra next month :).

    Just a thought…

    I agree that the doublet increases the risk of inconsistencies, e.g. when someone edits the number but not the words.

    Sometimes, though, a data item may incorporate an ostensibly redundant element as a correctness check, as with NHS numbers, for example. They contain a check digit so that if one of the initial digits in the number is corrupted or mis-typed, then the check digit (worked out using a simple algorithm based on the other digit) will almost certainly be wrong, thus flagging up that the number is invalid.

    Could a similar principle not apply with the use of doublets in contracts? I.e. if someone inadvertently types or copies a figure in a contract incorrectly, then this error will not be immediately apparent. But if the number is also written out in words, then it is unlikely that the same random error will be made in the verbal form as well; thus, the error is revealed.

    • Hi Oliver!

      You’d think that reasoning would hold. It certainly feels safer having some kind of check digit/word. And if the check digit (or word) were only generated when the document were complete, as I imagine happens with the NHS documents, then it would be a pretty good system. The trouble is in practice it’s often difficult to say when a document is actually finished, which is I think why — apart from just not liking redundancy as a rule — the style guides advise against it. In the heat of endless rounds of changes, copying and pasting, and reusing of documents, people often just don’t see the words or do but don’t get around to changing them.

      Apart from that, the counter to the redundancy-for-checking idea is usually to say there should be a good proofreading system in place to avoid errors being made for one draft to another.

      I suppose, though, it will depend on the process in each case. Then of course you have the situation of the translator, which is probably a little different to what the drafting guides refer to.

      Also looking very much to meeting you in Portugal! See you then!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.