False Friends: When is a billón not a billion?

Oh, no! False Friends
When learning legal terminology in a bilingual context one of the first pitfalls encountered are so-called “false friends,” words or expressions that appear to be cognates, but are actually unrelated in meaning. Many years ago I set about identifying the “Top 40 False Friends in Spanish-English Legal Translation.” As the list grew I had to change the title to “101 False Friends.” In my collection I now have well over that number and will be sharing some of them in this blog. To be fair, many are only partial false friends that may actually be cognates when used in one branch of law, while perhaps qualifying as false friends in another legal practice area. And in some instances the cognate may simply not be the most appropriate rendering in legal contexts.

billón ; billion

Although these are not strictly legal terms, confusing billón and “billion” may give rise to mistakes in legal translation. As defined in the DLE, in Spain billón is a million millions (i.e., un millón de millones que se expresa por la unidad seguido de 12 ceros). In the US, however, a “billion” is a thousand millions (un millar de millones, o la unidad seguido por 9 ceros). In the UK, prior to 1974, a billion was traditionally defined as a million millions, in line with Spanish usage, and the US billion (a thousand millions) was called a “milliard.” In 1974 Prime Minister Harold Wilson announced that, in conformity with international custom, UK government statistics would adopt the “billion = thousand millions” definition, which is now prevalent in official documents and in the British press. Nevertheless, to avoid confusion translators should be aware that some older UK or other English-language sources may use the term “billion” with the meaning of “a million millions.” Moreover, it is worth noting that the EU’s Interinstitucional Style Guide for publications in English indicates that “‘billion’ is used to designate a thousand million (and not a million million) and ‘trillion’ a million million.” (http://publications.europa.eu/code/en/en-4100500en.htm)

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