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Translating phone numbers July 22, 2010

Posted by Jill (@bonnjill) in Translation.

Whenever you encounter a phone number in a translation, ask yourself if the reader can actually call the numbers as they are written. The client who provided the source text, in most cases, doesn’t have any idea how international calling works.

First of all, the international access code, such as 011 for the U.S., is different for each country. You need to know the target audience of the text. If the text is intended for the U.S. you can localize the number for the U.S. However, it is pointless to indicate how to dial long distance from the U.S. to a reader living in Germany or Japan. According to the standards of the Telecommunication Standardization Sector (ITU-T), you should begin with a “+” (plus sign).

The country code for the country you are calling comes after the plus sign. You can find all the numbers you need on the Web. Canada and the United States are the exceptions. They are both “1.”

The area code is usually enclosed in parentheses, which indicates that it is optional. The European equivalent of the area code is the city code, which is preceded by a “0.”  The zero is analogous to U.S. or Canadian callers dialing a “1” before the area code. The zero in European city codes is sometimes enclosed in parentheses, which means that it is optional when dialing within the country. You should remove the “0” (and, if necessary, the parentheses) when translating the number.

The use of hyphens, slashes and periods is frowned upon by ITU-T. A number in Bonn might be 0228 345678 or 0228/345678 but would read +49 228 34 56 78 for international dialing. Finally, a U.S. number such as (216) 234-5678 would be translated as +1 216 234 5678 for foreign readers.

Toll-free 800 numbers are of no use in Europe or Asia (as are the German 0180 numbers in the United States). Encourage your clients to omit 800 numbers if the documents are to be published outside the country.

Who knows how long this will all be relevant now that Skype and VOiP calling is gaining ground.



1. Kimmo Linkama - July 22, 2010

Spot on, Jill. Exactly this kind of detail is something “the general public”—sometimes even clients—doesn’t understand about translation.

One thing I’ve come across, in addition to the points you mention, is the grouping of the phone number digits.

In some countries, it is customary to group the number in twos (based on the local custom of saying them aloud: eleven, twenty-two, thirty-three for 112233). In others, it may be that the area code is separated from the rest, which is then grouped in threes or fours. In yet others, it may be that the whole number, including area codes, is chopped up into pieces of n digits. And so on.

So something seemingly as simple as a telephone number can in fact be a surprisingly important point if you want to appear familiar to the customer.

2. Fabio - July 22, 2010

Thanks, Jill, great topic. You said it all. I’ve also seen many people here in Germany, especially public offices, enclosing not only the 0 of the city code in parentheses, but also the main part of the code itself – e.g. for Bonn: +49 (0) (228) 34 56 78. This apparently indicates to international dialers that the 0 should not be dialed and to dialers from Bonn that the 228 doesn’t have to be dialed. Exaggerated as this may be, it seems logical enough and I like it. 🙂

3. Kevin Lossner - July 23, 2010

Nice summary. I don’t have to tell you about the mixed and mixed-up practices here in Germany. I’ve noticed that many authors are incapable of applying one telephone number convention consistently throughout a single document!

4. Rhonda - July 23, 2010

Phone numbers are just the tip of the iceberg. And that whole 1800 number thing is really difficult when you have various countries that use the same prefix. For example, some FreeCall numbers in Australia also start with 1800, though Australia seems to be trending to 1300 in the past few years — perhaps to avoid clashes with the US/Canadian 1800 prefix. I think New Zealand uses 800, which is almost the same too.

The other big one is address fields — Luke Wroblewski wrote a great article on international address fields here: http://www.uxmatters.com/mt/archives/2008/06/international-address-fields-in-web-forms.php. The comments on the post are worth reading too, as they offer slightly different perspectives from readers around the world.

5. Kevin Lossner - July 23, 2010

Thank you, Rhonda. That’s a great link discussing address issues in web forms. That little detail has driven me nuts with a number of applications for international CRM.

6. Wilfried Preinfalk - July 23, 2010

From a European viewpoint, I would consider it bad practice to drape phone numbers with all sorts of parentheses, slashes, dashes, or even zeros. One of the reasons is very pragmatic: we routinely get to see the standardized international version on our cell phones, and this is also how we would normally enter them ourselves, so we can use these entries from anywhere in Europe.

Another simple consideration eliminates the need for zeros before area codes in all our correspondence: (1) they are confusing in our international correspondence while (2) being useless in our correspondence with fellow countrymen (few of whom will be stupid enough to ignore that national area codes will only work with a zero in front). Thirdly, to add to the confusion, the “zero omission rule” does not apply to all European countries; for calls to Italy, for example, you need to keep the zero before area codes (not true of mobile networks, though).

I’m not sure if any other European countries use this pattern, but generally we would be better off if everybody (except for these outliers) just dialed their zeros without ever mentioning them.

Of course, these considerations are over and above the fact that standards exist on how to write phone numbers properly. But a convincing case is still needed, as awareness of these standards leaves something to be desired (i.e. people couldn’t care less).

7. Licia - July 23, 2010

Phone number formatting is also affected by the type of dialling plans used in each market. The US has an open dialling plan but most European countries have closed ones, which make local call, city code and area code obsolete concepts in quite a few languages.
As already pointed out by Wilfried, Italian numbers are particularly tricky because the initial 0 is part of the number and not a prefix. I actually noticed a recurring internationalization issue in TIME Magazine –  they follows US patterns also when referring to Italian landline phone numbers, e.g. they might write (39-55) 555 5555, where the 0 is dropped and it is assumed two-digit area codes are used, allowing local calls. I am afraid such “Italian” numbers would never work! The majority of international readers would be more familiar with the format used with mobile phones, like +39 055 555 5555.

8. Kev D - October 19, 2010

* International Format

Never include a zero in parentheses in the international format, such as +49 (0) 228 34 56 78.

The (0) is NOT dialled from abroad and including it in the international format merely confuses the reader. Include only the digits that MUST be dialled from abroad.

ITU standard E.123 http://www.itu.int/rec/T-REC-E.123-200102-I/en expressly specifies to not include the zero in this way.

As mentioned above, the correct format is:
+1 216 234 5678 for the US;
+49 228 34 56 78 for Germany;
+39 055 555 5555 for Italy;

There’s also useful articles at http://revk.www.me.uk/2009/09/it-is-not-44-0207-123-4567.html and at http://desktoppub.about.com/b/2010/07/01/phone-numbers-dots-or-dashes.htm

* National Format

The area code can be enclosed in parentheses only in national format. The parentheses indicate that the area code is optional to dial for a caller located within the same area code.

When calling long-distance (between different area codes) within a country, a specific digit must usually be dialled before the area code to indicate a “toll” or “trunk” call. In the US and Canada, that digit is a “1”. In most of the rest of the world it is a “0”.

Some examples of national format numbers:
(216) 234 5678 or 1-(216) 234 5678 in the US;
(0228) 34 56 78 in Germany;
(055) 555 5555 in Italy;
(020) 7222 1234 in the UK.

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