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I'm writing a book (travelogue) about Japan in English, detailing my walk across the country a few years ago. My target audience is English speaking countries, and I'm trying to write in American English.

In this book I'm often using units of time, distance, weight, temperature and so on. Since these measures vary from country to country and since they had a big impact on my daily life (how hot it was, how long a distance I had covered etc.) I'm considering using the Japanese system, because it was largely in this way I was thinking. Road signs were in kilometers and the Japanese units appear frequently in dialogs throughout the book.

The Japanese use both 12- and 24-hour clocks and the Celsius scale, along with SI-units like kilograms and kilometers. During my travels it was in this way road signs told distance, and it was in this way I conversed with people about distances, temperatures and weights.

For time, I think most people are familiar with a 12-hour clock, and I feel it lends itself well to writing. For example:

  • "I left the park at around 10 AM and walked until [...]" [Sounds fine]
  • "I left the park at around 10 and walked until [...]" [Sounds like something is missing, even though I'm using the 24-hour clock on a daily basis myself]
  • "I left the park at around 10:00 and walked until [...]" [Here it's ok, but I'm specifying the minutes when I'm talking about an estimated time, which feels a little odd]

I'm unsure, however, if it would bother readers using other systems, such as Americans. I'm considering writing the alternative units in parenthesis, but at the same time I'm afraid it would make the text feel a bit more clunky or rigid.

Temperatures are not posing much of a problem, since they can be represented in a compact way:

  • X°C [Feels nice]
  • X°C (Y°F) [Feels slightly clunky but works]

Other units make it a little trickier:

  • X kilometers [Feels nice]
  • X kilometers (Y miles) [Long/clunky in text]
  • X km (Y mi.) [Short but, to me, feels a bit rough/informal]

What do you guys think?

EDIT/Clarfication: Removed the part about Sweden, it's not very relevant to the question and is not part of the main objective of the book.

EDIT/Clarfication #2: This is not intended as a travel guide, I'm rather trying to convey what I felt and what I experienced.

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3 Answers 3

up vote 4 down vote accepted

I've never written a travelogue, but of the few I've read, it depends on your intention. As one of your American readers trying to retrace your steps or find specific landmarks you mention, I would prefer US units -- unless I'm traveling by car with instruments in local units. If you are more interested in capturing the experience and sense of place, I would prefer local units. I would recommend against compromising with qualifiers, parentheticals, etc. Choose one and stick with it. If you have just a ton of usages, maybe include an appendix with a conversion chart.

Ultimately, though, this is the sort of decision your publisher or editor gets final say on. So whatever you decide, if this is an unsolicited manuscript, it might not matter since your editor/publisher might ask you to change all the units anyway.

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You state that you are trying to write in American English, so the units of measurements and conventions that you use should be those familiar to speakers of American English.

A rather more important question is Why are you trying to write in American English? If you believe that there is a market in the USA for a travelogue comparing life in Japan with that in Sweden then press on. On the other hand, the accessibility of your descriptions of quantities might be the least of your worries.

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The main focus is on retelling the journey itself, and a lot happened during the 2000 miles I covered by foot. Occasionally, I compare Japan to the west, mainly Sweden since that's where I'm from. Will it sell? I have no idea. This is the first writing project I have ever undertaken. I'm doing it to process the memories I have of the journey and to improve my writing skills, not to make money. I enjoyed literature on Japan whether the author was from the USA or any other country. This kind of literature is in itself somewhat of a niche, and I think the Swedish market would be too small. –  Josef Jul 12 '13 at 2:01
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The simple solution is to use in writing whatever units are most appropriate at that specific spot in the text (probably with a heavy overweight toward the units the reader will be accustomed to, so imperial units if you are targetting a US audience), but to include a conversion table right at the beginning or end of the book. (Literally; it being on the first or last page makes it easy to flip to it, check something, and flip back to wherever you were reading.)

Such a conversion table could give a formula for doing exact conversions (for example, °C = (°F - 32) ÷ 1.8 ≅ (°F - 30) ÷ 2, km = mi × 1.602 ≅ mi × 1.5 which gives both the exact conversion as well as an approximation), as well as include enough readily converted numbers that the reader can get close enough just looking briefly at a table (100 km ≅ 62.5 mi, 20 °C = 68 °F, ...).

Don't go overboard with this, but by including enough details to give the reader a headstart in doing a mental conversion, it becomes a lot less critical which units you use in the prose. If you say that some place is 250 km from another, and there is a table that says that 100 km is approximately 62.5 miles, it doesn't take that much mental arithmetic to determine that the distance is approximately 2 × 62.5 + 62.5 ÷ 2 ≅ 125 + 31 or 155 miles. By making a table for, say, 10, 25, 50, 75, 100, 250 and 1000 km and miles respectively, going back and forth for most distances up to about 2000 km or miles becomes quite easy. For example, if you have values for 250 and 1000 km in miles and want to know the number of miles for 700 km, you get quite close by taking 625 miles (1000 km) minus 155 miles (250 km), for 450 miles (while 700 km is actually 437 miles, an error of 3%).

If you include temperature (°F to °C and back), distance (mi to km and back), fuel consumption (mpg to L/100 km and back), speed (mph to km/h and back) and time (12-hour to 24-hour and back), each at reasonable granularity, you should have most bases covered.

For travel guides, you rarely need more accurate figures that what are easily doable with a small helper table and some quick mental arithmetic.

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