Translation Guy Blog
Why is it that Europeans use Arabic numbers and Arabs use Indian numbers? Fibonacci is behind it. Not to be confused with Fibonacci numbers, which are 0 and 1, and each subsequent Fibonacci number is the sum of the previous two. But in a sense, all the numbers we use in the West are Fibonacci numbers. In 1202, the 32-year-old Italian published one of the most influential books of all time, Liber Abbaci (Book of Calculation), which introduced Arabic numerals, and with them, modern arithmetic to Western Europe.
Fibonacci, aka Leonardo of Pisa, learned his Arabic numbers when he was a kid in Algeria.
“When my father, who had been appointed by his country as public notary in the customs at Bugia acting for the Pisan merchants going there, was in charge, he summoned me to him while I was still a child, and having an eye to usefulness and future convenience, desired me to stay there and receive instruction in the school of accounting. There, when I had been introduced to the art of the Indians’ nine symbols through remarkable teaching, knowledge of the art very soon pleased me above all else and I came to understand it…”
Compared to the clunk of old Roman numerals (no zero, for crying out loud!), the newfangled Arabic numerals sounded like the clink of gold, so the old Latin system was dumped as fast as you can say “I, II, III.”
Same thing happened 400 years earlier to the Arabs. That sage of Bagdad, Al-Kindi (يعقوب بن اسحاق الكندي), picked up Indian numbers from the Persians. His opus, On the Use of the Indian Numerals, spread this powerful Indian information technology across the world of Islam.
So as translators of business cards, we stand in the shadow of these giants, which can create some problems, at least for me. I was shocked to discover the other day that we translate business cards. Why people do that is a mystery to me, but that will have to wait for another post.
This time the translation was going into Arabic, and apparently the client was asking us to use Indian numerals in the Arabic translation because in Arabic, Arabic numerals are called “Hindu numerals.” So the client wanted to make sure that we didn’t deliver them with the 1, 2, 3 we all know and love. They wanted us to go with ١ – ٢ – ٣, known to us in English as Eastern Arabic numerals, and in the Arab world as Hindu numerals, and not to be confused with the Eastern Arabic-Indic numerals used in Persian and Urdu.
Well, it gets confusing. In this case the client was confused, and was concerned when her in-country person had mentioned our use of Hindi numbers in the Arabic translation, which were only Hindi in Arabic and not in English, where they were Arabic numbers, or rather Eastern Arabic numerals, again not to be confused with Eastern Arabic-Indic numerals.
And why are we translating English into Arabic for business cards? Hell if I know. I don’t ask questions. That’s why they call it leadership.