How to, and should you, translate date formats?
How we write dates varies between countries, and most countries simply follow a cultural norm. This can give rise to all sorts of confusion as to which date is intended. It was bad enough in the late 20th century, when it was easy to confuse months and days but at least the years were easy, since they were higher then 31 (the highest possible number of days in a month). But the arrival of the 21st century made it worse. Up until 2013 it was still possible to confuse days, months and years! Strictly speaking, therefore, you need to know where the copy originated, in order to be sure which date is referred to. Obviously, for multinational companies this is problematic. So how do we translate date formats?
Most countries abbreviate dates, creating all-numeric equivalents to day–month formats, for example the date “27th of April 2023” could be:
This can result in dates which are ambiguous without context and/or origin. For instance, depending on the order style, the abbreviated date “01/11/06” can be interpreted three ways, as:
1 November, 2006
January 11, 2006
2001, November 6
The ISO 8601 format YYYY-MM-DD (2023-04-27) is intended to harmonise these formats and ensure accuracy in all situations. Many countries have adopted it as their sole official date format, although even in these areas writers often adopt abbreviated formats that are in common use, but no longer officially recommended.
USA: MM/DD/YY | Europe: DD/MM/YY | East Asia: YY/MM/DD
Date format(s) by country
Globally the DMY format is by far the most common, however US-English has become highly influential in corporate circles. If you are translating a European document into US-English, you can use the American format, of course, but the trouble is that savvy readers who understand the difference and know the document origin, may assume you have left it in the European format! So you have gained nothing. We have heard of people arriving for meetings on March 4th instead of the 3rd April!
Of course you have similar problems translating from US-English into European languages. The infamous 9-11 date (11 September 2001) often produces puzzlement on European faces, for whom it ought to be 11-9.
One option to get around the problem is to write out the month in letters, or complete the year, such as: 27/Apr/23 or 27 April 2023, or April 27 2023.
But if you need to abbreviate it to numbers only, the only really clear way is to use the approved ISO format, which is YYYY-MM-DD, e.g. 2023-04-27.
The ISO format
The ISO format has several advantages:
- It goes from large (years) to small (days) and so it is correctly sorted by computers, just like ordinary texts
- It’s language independent
- The separator, a dash (-), can be used in computer filenames; whereas the slash (/) is not allowed.
- It’s consistent with the 24-hour time system, hh:mm:ss.
It’s also the traditional way in Chinese, Japanese and Korean, all of whom write 2023年4月27日, where the first character is the year, the second is the moon and the third is the sun.