Translating abbreviations: how it works and when it's needed

Translating abbreviations: how it works and when it's needed


With abbreviations, you only need a few characters to refer to a name, word or term. But they only work if the writer and the reader know the intended meaning of that abbreviation: otherwise, it's a kind of secret language that makes the text unclear. So the general advice is not to use too many abbreviations. But of course this does not apply to every abbreviation and not to every type of text. Maybe abbreviations are the most normal thing in your company. So what about when you have a text with abbreviations translated? Can you translate just any abbreviation and will readers in other languages understand it?

Carefree translation of your abbreviations without giving your readers FOMO? You can!

Many companies have entire style guides full of their own, internal abbreviations that are often quite specific. So how do you translate those translations in an understandable way? Request a free quote for the answer to that question.

Translate any kind of abbreviation

When we talk about abbreviations, we often use the term as a collective term for different ways to write words or word groups shorter. With an abbreviation, you use one or more letters and dots to write words/word groups shorter, E.g. page or n.a.v. You can also make abbreviations by combining certain syllables or parts of them. This creates a new word you can pronounce, such as "hospitality" from hotel, restaurant, café. There are also symbols. A symbol is a short notation for units and currency, for example, where you don't use dots (EUR, kg). Finally, you have initial and acronym words which consist of the first letters of a name or phrase. Initial words are pronounced as single letters (KLM, pc) and letter words as a word (NASA, havo).

Do you have to translate every abbreviation?

The short answer is yes. With a translation, you want to make something clear to readers who do not know the language of the original text. Then, of course, you also want them to understand the abbreviation. So translators must first figure out what the abbreviation stands for in one language and then determine how they are going to fix it in the other.

Sometimes this is very easy. For example, many symbols have the same meaning in different languages. Although "kilogram" is written as "kilogramm" in German, as "kilogramme" in French and as "kilogramo" in Spanish, all languages use the symbol kg. And in Dutch, we have directly adopted many English initial words in the field of technology. For example, pc (personal computer) and cd (compact disc) need no translation or explanation. And you may not have known that the letters of USB stand for "universal serial bus" and those of dvd for "digital versatile disk," but there is no doubt about the meaning of these initial words.

There are also common abbreviations that may be translated into other languages, but whose equivalent you can easily find or may simply already know. Consider the UK, known in English as the UK, or the UN, known in French by the abbreviation ONU. Such abbreviations can often be found on the websites of these institutions or by changing the language on their Wikipedia page.

Translate lesser-known abbreviations

Things get a little trickier when the text contains abbreviations that are obvious to everyone in one language but are less familiar or nonexistent in another. For example, America has a laundry list of government agencies that are all abbreviated with 3 or 4 letters and are therefore known as the "alphabet agencies". Because of news and TV series from the US, most people have an image of the CIA, for example, but probably fewer people know what the ICE is. The translator can adopt such an abbreviation, but must ensure that readers understand what is meant by it. If "ICE" occurs once in the text and the specific name is not important, then "the US "Immigration Service" might be a good solution. On the contrary, if an abbreviation occurs frequently, it is helpful to explain it once (in parentheses) and then simply use the abbreviation.

Translating German abbreviations

The use of abbreviations also varies by language: words that are often abbreviated in one language may not even have an abbreviation in another. 'Enzovoort' is often abbreviated in Dutch, and the same thing happens in German 'usw. for 'und so weiter'. But in German you can also abbreviate the loose 'und' to 'u.' while something like 'apples e. pears' is very silly in Dutch. So you can't just translate all German abbreviations.

As a client of a translation agency, of course, you can also communicate your preference for a particular translation strategy. Perhaps your organization uses many internal abbreviations that are unclear to outsiders. Unless the translator knows your company inside out, it's best to share a glossary and instructions. For example, a common scenario is that abbreviations in internal company texts remain the same in all languages, but descriptive translation must be used in customer-facing texts.

Have your text with abbreviations translated by a professional

So there are different types of abbreviations and different ways to translate them. It is sometimes easy if an abbreviation has the same meaning in two languages. But in any case, it is necessary to be careful with abbreviations: translators must do extra research and take into account the applicable standards. It is an art, but no problem for our professional translators. Scriptware Translations is happy to help if you need an ASAP translation of your resume, SEO for your website, a pdf document, etc. We provide a correct, clear translation that is no secret language for your readers.

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