Sunday, September 26, 2021

Short but not simple – translating abbreviations


[Mining a peanut*]

Seemingly obvious, deciding how to translate abbreviations tests the mettle of technical translators. It is not an accident that agency translation tests often include at least one abbreviation to see how the candidate deals with it. The reason is that a few consecutive capital letters require the translator to apply editorial discretion, technical knowledge and linguistic skill to properly translate the term.

The first issue is whether to translate the term at all, a decision often based on the target audience and language. When the known target audience is both familiar with and uses the source-language abbreviation, generally English, it is possible to legitimately retain the original term. For example, a group of doctors or radiologists are expected to know what a PET scan is while IT experts should know what BIOS stands for. However, the existence of a known, acceptable alternative provides a basis for translating terms especially when the target audience would also be familiar with that. The English VAT (value added tax) would be understandable in France but is referred to TVA in that country. Likewise, the VFT, also known at a bullet train, is a TGV (train grande vitessse) in French.  The name of organizations in English, as compared to the language of the country, is not always obvioius as certain countries are infamous for the tendency of their national institutions not to choose an official name in English, leaving the translator with the choice of unofficial translation. Thus, the first decision of a translator facing an abbreviation is consider whether it requires translation at all.

If the answer is positive, it is vital to understand the meaning in the context to avoid creating a major translation error in breaking down the term. In many cases, a given abbreviation may have multiple possibilities, even in the same general field. For example, the term PCR has become quite famous this recent year and could stand for polymerase chain reaction but also can mean plasma clearance test in other contexts. Likewise, BPM can mean, among others, beats per minute or breaths per minute. An ounce of caution, i.e., research, prevents a pound of upset customers, or worse. The rule is to thoroughly check if you are not 100% sure since translators are not paid to assume. As in most language matters, context is the key and must be considered.**

After the translator identifies the right term, grammar and syntax enter the equation. First, avoid redundancies created from the existence of the term in the abbreviation. For example, it would be improper to place the word system after ABS as the “S” stands for system. Likewise, if a translator chose to use the American ATM, it would be redundant to refer to it as an ATM machine in the non-English target language for a similar reason. Another issue is gender as most languages, but not English, reflects gender in nouns, adjectives and sometimes even verbs. For example, in Hebrew, machine, medicine and test are all feminine, affecting the grammar of the entire sentence. By contrast, English has only natural grammar, meaning only biological males and females will be referred to as he and she with everything else an it. In short, the translation also has to sound correct.

It is quite surprising how long it can take to properly translate a term of three or four letters. The decision to translate, the identification of the term and its correct form can require more than a few minutes for each term. However, this attention to detail is what defines professional translators. Every letter counts.

* Use picture captions to help the blind access the Internet

** Examples provided by Tzviya Levin Rifkind in her medical translation course.

Picture credit: Image by <a href=";utm_medium=referral&amp;utm_campaign=image&amp;utm_content=1745718">S. Hermann &amp; F. Richter</a> from <a href=";utm_medium=referral&amp;utm_campaign=image&amp;utm_content=1745718">Pixabay</a>


  1. Sometimes it helps to use electronic "cheat sheets" to identify abbreviations in a particular language or field. An example of one such for Hebrew is here:

    That example doesn't give guidance on *how* to translate an abbreviation but might be useful to identify what a particular example stands for.

    For cases involving fixed translations or QA of abbreviations which might be typed in variable ways, here's another idea:

    1. Clearly understanding the term is vital, whether from knowledge or reference material. Thank you for the references.

  2. I posted a link to this blog post on a group for Romanian translators on Facebook. I hope this is OK with you. If not, please tell me, and I will remove the link. I liked the content very much and I thought it would be useful for other translators as well.

    1. That is fine. I would like to thank you. I strongly believe in sharing knowledge as nobody is an expert in everything.