Translating acronyms poses great challenges for translators, who are often faced with the daunting task of putting both known and unknown abbreviations together in a way that readers understand.
While some acronyms are internationally recognizable, those not so well known need some extra explanation from the translator.
The lack of general rules for translating acronyms adds to the confusion, but three simple tips can make your life easier if you're wondering how to translate acronyms.
One of the most frequently asked questions by translators when it comes to translating acronyms is whether they should be left (to be faithful to the original language) or whether they should be adjusted to the target language.
In those cases, it is best to look at how that acronym is usually translated in the target language – for example, by looking at how it has been translated in the media, newspapers or other public sources.
FIFA, for example, is an acronym from French, but has spread throughout the world. They stand for Fédératoin Internationale de Football Association, which translated means “International Federation of Associated Football”. The acronym became so well known globally that it has been maintained even in languages where the acronym would appear differently if translated, such as English (where IFAF would be written.
Some acronyms are much less common, making it virtually impossible to follow a fixed rule. In those cases, the translator must decide whether to adjust to the original or to change the position of the letters to adjust to the target language.
To make this decision, the translator's understanding is essential. Another very important factor is the context in which the acronym will appear: Is it an article aimed at the general public? Is it a legal document that will be read by experts in a specific field of study? If the article is intended for experts, chances are they are already familiar with some acronyms.
For example, the acronym "GPS", whose letters mean " global positioning system " (in Spanish, global positioning system). In a French translation aimed at a general audience, it can be translated as “ SPM ” (système de positionnement mondial). However, in a specific translation aimed at engineers, it could be left as GPS, since it refers to a specific application of the technology that grew out of English, and changing the acronym could lead to confusion.
Whatever the translator's method, clarity and consistency are essential to ensure the reader's understanding. After entering an acronym, it is advisable to write the full name in the source language. Also, if necessary, also at the destination. In translations of lesser-known acronyms, this allows the reader to easily decipher the acronym. After the first reference, the chosen translation for the acronym can be used without problems.
Also, the moment an acronym is created, it is very important not to change it; it has to stay the same throughout the translation. Some translators, especially those who work in specialized fields, have their own acronym reference guides. They add entries as they translate and consult their lists of acronyms as if they were their own dictionary.
Sometimes, a translator's greatest resource is the person or company to whom the translation is directed. If a client has a preference for a particular acronym, they should communicate this to the service provider at the beginning of the project. In this way, the translator will have the solution from the beginning, which saves them time and gives them consistency.