“Library of Congress” is the “Tokyo Dome” of English journalism

Culturally bound size references are a bane of translators. For example, Japanese authors used to be very fond of giving land area references in terms of "Tokyo Domes." As in, "An area of forest equivalent to 112 Tokyo Domes is lost every year."

The English-speaking reader is liable to look at such a translation and think, What is a "Tokyo Dome?" How big is it, and why should I care?

I suppose that homely comparisons help our us wrap our poor monkey brains around really big numbers, but when you get down to it, even "Tokyo Dome" is meaningless as a measurement. If we can't grasp the actual size being talked about, then "112 Tokyo Domes" isn't much more use than saying, "It's, like, really, really big, OK?"

And while these kinds of comparisons might make for more interesting writing, they play havoc with translations. If you're writing to be translated, I advise looking out for and avoiding these kinds of references, or at least replacing them with something more neutral, like "soccer fields."

A similar phenomenon is happening in the world of English-language journalism, when talking about computer storage sizes. They used to talk about how many "songs" or "movies" a given storage medium would hold, but as sizes have gotten larger, journalists are talking about how many "Libraries of Congress" the medium will hold.

Like Tokyo Domes, who knows how big the Library of Congress is? All that a figure like "seven Libraries of Congress" tells you is that it's a whole lot of storage space. I think that giving a real number, like "100 terabytes," will at least help us compare to other figures; like, "That's 100 times the size of my hard drive." And it will make translation a lot easier.

1 comment to “Library of Congress” is the “Tokyo Dome” of English journalism

  • Michael Turner

    I think the parallel to a Tokyo Dome-area unit in English (or in America, anyway) is “football fields.” It works reasonably well even in countries where “football” is “soccer”, because the difference in size isn’t very great. It’s an area that people have a handle on, because they’ve usually seen it, at least on TV, and it’s of comprehensible size.

    With Library of Congress comparisons, the idea is somewhat different. LoC is considered to hold all human knowledge worth knowing, encoded (mainly) as characters. Unlike a football field, that’s an unthinkable amount. However the (decidedly ironic) use of LoC as if it were a “unit” of knowledge is more about expressing how much the storage capacity exceeds some accepted minimum for preserving all significant human knowledge. Any amount in excess of an LoC suggests frivolous uses — that we’re swimming in far more capacity than any purely knowlege-for-its-own-sake argument would suggest.

    There are, of course, scientific experiments that produce massive amounts of data. But even in those cases, the point is to eventually reduce the raw data to meaningful knowledge — maps, equations, relations — that would required only a tiny fraction of that bulk for digital storage.

    If you don’t know how many terabytes the LoC holds, well, how much does it matter if you’re off by a factor of 5 or 10? LoC is getting bigger all the time as the collection grows. So whatever you supply in the translation is eventually going to be wrong anyway.

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