The translation of acronyms presents unique challenges to translators, who are often charged with the tricky task of piecing together both well-known and unfamiliar abbreviations in a way that readers will understand.
While some acronyms are universally recognizable, lesser-known acronyms require some extra explanation on the translator’s part.
The lack of global guidelines for acronym translation adds to the confusion, but three quick tips can make the translator’s job easier.
1) Look to Standards of Former Use
One of the biggest questions faced by translators dealing with acronyms is whether the original acronym should be left as written (so that it remains true to the original language) or whether the acronym should be adjusted to the target language. In such cases, it’s best to look at the standard usage of the acronym in the target language — for example, by seeing how it is used in major media outlets, journals or other public sources.
FIFA, for example, is an acronym that originated in French, but appears around the world — it stands for Fédération Internationale de Football Association, the governing body for the sport of football (or, if you prefer, “soccer”).
If it were to be translated literally into English, it would appear as the International Federation of Association Football: IFAF. But the acronym FIFA was maintained, even in translation, and now the acronym is so globally known that it has stayed that way.
2) Consider the Acronym Translation’s Context
Some acronyms are much less common, making it nearly impossible to find a consistent rule to follow. In such cases, the translator must decide whether to stick to the original or rearrange the letters to fit the new language in which it appears. When making this decision, the reader’s comprehension is essential. Accordingly, the context in which the acronym will appear is a factor.
Is it a general article that will be read by the general public? Is it a government document that will be read by experts in a specific field of study? If industry experts are the audience, then they may already be familiar with certain acronyms.
Take, for example, the acronym “GPS,” which commonly stands for “global positioning system.” In a French translation for a general audience, you might see “SPM” (for “système de positionnement mondial”). In a technical translation aimed at engineers, however, it may remain GPS, since it refers to a specific application of technology that originated in English, and changing the acronym is likely to cause confusion.
3) Make Reader Comprehension the Priority
Whichever route translators choose, clarity and consistency are paramount to ensuring reader comprehension. Upon first introduction of an acronym, it’s wise to note the phrase’s full name in the source language and, if necessary, target language. For less well-known acronym translations, this allows readers to decipher the acronym without difficulty. After the first reference, the chosen acronym can simply be used.
Similarly, once an acronym has been established, it’s imperative to stick with the same acronym throughout a document. Some translators, especially those who work in specialty fields, make their own reference guides of acronyms, adding new entries as they go and consulting their list of personal acronym translations like their very own translation dictionary.
Sometimes, a translator’s greatest resource is the person or company requesting the translation in the first place. If a client has a preferred acronym that should appear in a translation, he or she should communicate this to the language services provider at the start of the project. This way, translators have the answers they need from the outset, which saves time and promotes consistency.
Taking steps like these can help maintain accuracy in acronym translation, making the job easier for translators and helping improve reader comprehension.