In Clarence Brown's1 English translation of Yevgeny Zamyatin's (Russian: Евге́ний Замя́тин) dystopian novel We (1921) (Russian: Мы), there is a passage of text, referring to population, which confused me, in Record2 5 (Square, Rulers of the World, Pleasant and Useful Function).

The excerpt is as follows:

But in the year 35 before the founding of OneState our present petroleum food was invented. True, only 0.2 of the world's population survived. On the other hand, when it was cleansed of a thousand years of filth, how bright the face of the earth became! And what is more, the zero point two tenths who survived . . . tasted earthly bliss in the granaries of OneState.
We, Record 5 (bold formatting for emphasis done by yours truly)

Typically, in the decimal system, decimals are used to express portions with relation to 1 being the whole (like 100%), and 0 being the nothing (like 0%), such that 0.2 represents 20%, of 1/5, or a fifth, or 2/10, or two tenths.

In the sentence,

True, only 0.2 of the world's population survived.

I read this to mean "only 20% (or two tenths) of the world's population survived". However, this seems to clash with one of the following sentences which reads:

And what is more, the zero point two tenths who survived . . . tasted earthly bliss in the granaries of OneState.

"zero point two tenths" is two hundredths, or 2/100, or 0.02, or 2%, as a result of evaluating 0.2 of a tenth, or 0.1 * 0.2 = 0.02 – or at least that's my reading of it.

Why do these two references to the population mentioned in the same paragraph differ? Which one is correct? Is this a case of poor translation? Or, am I incorrect in my reading, and are they actually not different values – if so, what does each value mean?

1: Clarence Brown is the author of several works on the Russian poet Osip Mandelstam. He is editor of The Portable Twentieth-Century Russian Reader, which contains his translation of Zamyatin's short story "The Cave", and of Yury Olesha's novel Envy.

2: The novel uses "record" as a diegetic stand-in for the more typical "chapter".

  • 1
    Can't say what Zamyatin intended, but this looks like a translation problem. You can read "zero point two tenths" as the same figure as 0.2.
    – Zeiss Ikon
    Sep 20, 2017 at 13:56
  • Commenting because I'm not familiar with the work or it's translations. Reading "zero point two tenths who survived" is equivalent to "one fifth of one tenth survived", which is 2%. However, purely from scanning that paragraph I think the "zero point" of "zero point two tenths who survived" is extraneous and was added in error. My two cents. Sep 20, 2017 at 13:58
  • It seems you're reading too much into this. It was likely a typo. Sep 20, 2017 at 14:15
  • @BinaryWorrier: 0.5 = 50%. A decimal number can always be expressed as a percentage. "zero point two tenths" = 0.02 = 2%. Also note that "zero point two tenths percent" would be 0.02%, which is not the same as 0.02 (= 2%)
    – Flater
    Sep 20, 2017 at 15:13
  • @BinaryWorrier: I'm not sure who the Erik is you're responding to (deleted comment?) Without that context, I read from your comment that (you think) it could only be expressed as a percentage if it said "percent"; which is what I tried to refute. But apparently my interpretation of your comment was wrong :)
    – Flater
    Sep 20, 2017 at 15:17

1 Answer 1


The Gregory Zilboorg translation renders that line as "0.2" or "two tenths" of the population that did not die out, which suggests that the original text may have said as much.

(bolding mine)

.... In the thirty-fifth year before the foundation of the United State our contemporary petroleum food was invented. True, only about two tenths of the population of the globe did not die out.

Accordingly the 0.2 which survived have enjoyed the greatest happiness in the bosom of the United State....

The Mira Ginsberg translation also uses "two tenths" and "0.2" to indicate the fraction of the population that survived.

Lastly, this online copy in Russian that I found:

Но в 35-м году — до основания Единого Государства — была изобретена наша теперешняя, нефтяная пища. Правда, выжило только 0,2 населения земного шара. Но зато — очищенное от тысячелетней грязи — каким сияющим стало лицо земли. И зато эти ноль целых и две десятых — вкусили блаженство в чертогах Единого Государства.

Running it through Google translate, we again get the values of "0.2" and "two tenths".

But in the 35th year - until the foundation of the One State - our present, oil food was invented. True, only 0.2 of the world's population survived. But it is cleared of millennial mud - how radiant the face of the earth became. And yet these zero whole and two-tenths - they tasted bliss in the palaces of the One State.

The odd phrasing of "zero whole and two-tenths" is an artifact of how Russian decimal values are stated:

When speaking you are usually pronounce integer part, word 'whole' and then tenths or hundredths, etc. Like: сорок четыре целых пятьдесят шесть сотых.

So, it looks like Clarence Brown simply erred in his translation by translating too literally.

  • 4
    I appreciate the in-depth research, the acknowledgement that there is a dissonance in the two values of the translation I provided in the question, and now I can finish reading it in peace. Sep 20, 2017 at 15:42
  • To me, "zero whole and two-tenths" sounds like it could be a Google translation error for "0.2 tenths." GT's alternate translation is "the zero point two tenths," so I think it's a discrepancy in the original. Sep 20, 2017 at 15:46
  • 2
    @MissMonicaE: I've asked some of my Russian friends to weigh in, but it's looking like the line is more accurately "zero points and two tenths".
    – FuzzyBoots
    Sep 20, 2017 at 16:14
  • 3
    And my Russian friends have confirmed that yes, this is an artifact of how Russian does decimals.
    – FuzzyBoots
    Sep 20, 2017 at 17:52
  • 3
    ^ this. ноль целых и две десятых is literally "zero wholes and two tenths", nothing else, and the way how the decimal number 0.2 is spelled out in many slavic languages including Russian, when they don't use numbers. I guess the translator was not aware of the possible ambiguity this creates. I used to have the GPS in my car set to Ukrainian and at the beginning found it very confusing when it instructed me to drive "two whole, and four tenths kilometers".
    – dlatikay
    Sep 20, 2017 at 19:55

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