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How much is a billion?

In American a “billion” is one thousand million (ten to the power nine). In most of Europe it’s one million million (a trillion in America). In England a billion used to mean a million million, like the rest of Europe, but these days it is almost always one thousand million, like in America.

So beware of translating “billion” as “billion”! I have read in Spanish that the age of the universe is some “13 billones de años”. That is one thousand times older than it really is!

billion

Many European languages (Fr: milliard, DE: Milliarde, IT: miliardo) have a “milliard”, which is 1,000 million, like the English billion. Others use “thousand million” (ES: mil millones, PT: mil milhões).

The Chinese traditionally count in four powers of ten, rather than three. Their word “wàn” means ten thousand, so a million is 100 wàn. And yí = wàn times wàn, so a billion is shí yì, or 10 times 10,000 times 10,000 = 10 to the power 9.

With a bit of care, it’s not too difficult to translate numbers, remembering also to swap commas and points for European languages, and to put the currency sign in the right place.

$1.2 million -> 1,2 million de $ (French)
$1.2 billion -> 1,2 Milliarden $ (German)
1,2 mil millones de $ (Spanish) -> $1.2 billion (English)
One trillion (English) – un bilione (Italian)

I came upon a curious case recently. The English number was “3,582 billion” (3582 x 10 to the power 9). The Spanish translation looked the same: “3,582 billones”. For once this was correct, for the Spanish means 3.582 x 10 to the power 12).

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