How to Translate Abbreviations

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Photo by Michael Coghlan, http://www.flickr.com/photos/mikecogh/7379671102/Have you ever spent countless minutes coming up with a translation for an abbreviation, only to find out later that no translation was required to begin with?

This article offers straightforward advice about how to approach abbreviations, so that you never feel that frustration again. Unless a client gives specific instructions about abbreviations, it makes sense to follow these rules:

The Rule of Thumb

If you aren’t sure, just leave an abbreviation untranslated. Yes, some end users of the translation might be unhappy about it, but this is nothing compared to the potential damage from an incorrect translation. Even if you spend an hour researching an abbreviation, that doesn’t guarantee that your assumptions are correct. Translation in general doesn’t lend itself to guessing, and even more so with abbreviations.

Widely Used Abbreviations: Translate

  1. You should definitely translate an abbreviation which has a widely used equivalent in the target language. For example, if you are an English to Russian translator, you will translate these abbreviations:

ABS (anti-lock braking system) — АБС

PVC (polyvinyl chloride) — ПВХ

WHO (World Health Organization) — ВОЗ

  1. If an abbreviated term is widely used in the target language, but has no established abbreviation, I prefer to spell it out:

Head of HR — директор по управлению персоналом

  1. Some terms may be widely used in the target language, but their abbreviations are left untranslated nonetheless. Examples include:

DNS (Domain Name System)

IP (Internet Protocol)

  1. When an abbreviation occurs in a text for the first time, it’s a good idea to spell it out in parentheses:

Автомобиль оснащен АБС (антиблокировочной системой).

Client-Specific Abbreviations: Leave Untranslated

  1. If an abbreviation doesn’t have a widely used equivalent in the target language, you normally don’t want to translate it. This kind of abbreviation is usually used by a client internally in their company. The first reason to leave such abbreviations untranslated is that a translation won’t make much sense to anyone, including employees of the company itself, because its staff is used to the original abbreviation. The second reason is the high probability that in other publications, these abbreviations will be left untranslated. Examples of such publications include catalogs, images, and labels. If you translate them in your text, your translations will likely become inconsistent with other publications down the road.
  1. In theory, you may ask your client to confirm whether they want the abbreviations translated, and if yes, explain those abbreviations. In practice, however, clients usually reply that abbreviations should not be translated, so this question is often superfluous.
  2. When this type of abbreviation occurs in the text for the first time, it’s a good idea to spell it out in parentheses, together with a translation. Again, you must be sure about the meaning of the abbreviation:

English: This component is part of the SS.

Russian: Этот компонент входит в состав SS (Segmental System — сегментарная система).

Do you have your own best practices about translating abbreviations to share?

If you liked this article, you might also be interested in the article about best practices for localizing user interface items.

15 comments

  • Мария says:

    А где сама статья?

  • Английскую статью можно посмотреть, нажав ссылку English в правом верхнем углу страницы.

    С уважением,
    Роман

  • John Kinory says:

    Hello Roman,

    АБС is not a translation but a transliteration.

    One can’t just leave an abbreviation in place to protect your back: it may be meaningless in the target language. Our job involves finding out what it means, and then either writing it out in full in the TL, or replacing it with the TL abbreviation, or sometimes a mixture of both.

    Regards,

    John

    • Hello John,
      Does not “АБС” stand for “АнтиБлокировочная Система?”
      I agree that leaving an abbreviation untranslated without giving it much thought is unprofessional.
      Thank you for your comment,
      Roman

  • Hi Roman

    If an abbreviation is not clear, the best thing is to ask the client.

    Making up your own abbreviation is a poor idea, because the client may (unbeknown to you) already have used your abbreviation to mean something different, and the resulting confusion could cause real problems.

  • This form of translation could be regarded as reformulation of abbreviations of one language to another. One useful tool for the translator is to have at his disposal a glossary of abbreviations of the subject field he is working on.

  • Pembe says:

    I agree with Oliver but sometime it will be difficult to ask client. It is better leave untranslated. The case of abbreviation is like that of cultural aspects. You should remember that each language has its own way of abbreviating word except those universal word.

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