Volume 10, No. 4 
October 2006


Adetola Bankole

Front Page  
Select one of the previous 37 issues.

Index 1997-2006
TJ Interactive: Translation Journal Blog

  Translator Profiles
A Career in European Translation
by Emma Wagner

  The Profession
The Bottom Line
by Fire Ant & Worker Bee
The Power of Saying "No"
by Danilo and Vera Nogueira
Educating the Customer
by Brett Jocelyn Epstein

  Translators Around the World
Interview with Gabe Bokor
by Verónica Albin
Translating Freud: An Historical Experience
by Leandro Wolfson
Certification Programs in China
by Jianjun Zhang

  TJ Cartoon
Great Moments in Languages—Voice of Translator
by Ted Crump

  Translation Nuts & Bolts
Translation of Vietnamese Terms of Address and Reference
by Thanh Ngo
Dealing with Abbreviations In Translation
by Adetola Bankole

  Language & Communication
Heads I Win, Tails You Lose": Logical Fallacies and Ethics in Everyday Language
by Elena Sgarbossa, M.D.

  Book Review
Dictionary Review: Hungarian Practical Dictionary
by Catherine Bokor, Ph.D.
Book Review: Corinne McKay’s How to Succeed as a Freelance Translator
by Eve Lindemuth Bodeux

  Cultural Aspects of Translation
Connotation and Cross-cultural Semantics
by Salah Salim Ali

  Legal Translation
Incongruity of Company Law Terms: Categorization of Polish Business Entities and their English Equivalents
by Łucja Biel, Ph.D.

  The Related Arts
Adding Value to Translation with DTP Partnership
by José Henrique Lamensdorf

Spanglish: To Ser or Not to Be? That is la cuestión!
by Eduardo González, Ph.D.

  Translators Education
Translation As an Aid in Teaching English as a Second Language
by Valeria Petrocchi

  Translators' Tools
Electronic Tools for Translators in the 21st Century
by Pablo Muñoz Sánchez
Translators’ Emporium

  Caught in the Web
Web Surfing for Fun and Profit
by Cathy Flick, Ph.D.
Translators’ On-Line Resources
by Gabe Bokor
Translators’ Best Websites
by Gabe Bokor

Letters to the Editor

Translators’ Events

Call for Papers and Editorial Policies

  Translation Journal

Nuts & Bolts  

Dealing with Abbreviations In Translation

by Adetola Bankole
Department of Foreign Languages, Lagos State University,
Ojo—Lagos State, Nigeria


Acronyms, initialisms or simply abbreviations may seem insignificant in the field of lexicography, yet they are a problem for translators, and could easily derail a smooth translation or interpretation. This article analyzes the formulation of English acronyms and their reformulation into French; it highlights the challenges they pose to the translator and how those challenges can be surmounted. Since English is believed to be the language of globalization, a simple way out is for the translator or the interpreter to render the abbreviation as 'borrowed' words, followed by an explanation if necessary. A list illustrating the three main categories of abbreviations can be found in the annex.


he task of translation, which is the rendering of the message of a text from one language to another spans three levels of language science: linguistics, extralinguistics and metalinguistics. The present study mainly concerns the linguistic level. As language study at this level can also be subdivided into three different areas, namely, syntax, lexis, and semantics, our emphasis here is on lexis which has to do with the vocabulary of a language. Oftentimes, lexis and semantics are linked together, in which case we can speak of lexico-semantics. Issues on synonymy, homonymy, polysemy etc. are located at this level. It can be noted that even cases of homonymy (though rare) also occur with acronyms. For instance, PO could mean post office, postal order, petty officer etc. while in French, BIT (Bureau international du travail) and OIT (Organisation international du travail) could be synonyms, i.e. signifying the same concept. There are also other French homonymous acronyms such as PJ (pieces joints), PJ (Police judiciaire); RN (Route nationale), RN (Revenu national).

For years, however, the emphasis in linguistic studies has been on phonology, morphology and syntax. In the preface to Jean Tournier's Précis de lexicologie anglaise, David Crystal states that "the contrasts of semantics are less discrete, less determinant and their analysis has been often neglected."(3) Lexicography, which should not be mistaken for a mere list of words, "...makes the student get to grips with realities of language use in a way that no other lingustics topic can."(3) This may be because lexicography also has to do with the techniques of forming words and expressions from the basic lexical units,'lexies primaires.' The lexis of a language grows at a constant rate, which Tournier estimated at approximately 600 words yearly. This could create difficulties for a translator who is not abreast of the constant evolution, as it takes a while for some of these neologisms to find their way into dictionaries. With the emergence of modern information and communication technology, in particular the internet and mobile telephony, there could be so many abbreviations, such as HTML, FAQ, SMS, which are already used in various languages before they are entered into dictionaries. If abbreviations can constitute difficulties for the translator, one could then imagine the situation of the conference interpreter doing his job in the booth, and all of a sudden he is bombarded with a succession of abbreviations from the speaker.

Meanwhile, the formation of abbreviations follows certain patterns, which, if the translator is familiar with them, could leave him stress-free when faced with such a sequence of letters. According to Tournier, there are up to thirty types of abbreviations. Some of these shall be considered, along with how they become reformulated when translating into French, and some of the frequently used international abbreviations are listed by categories in the annex.

The use of abbreviations is a relatively new linguistics phenomenon. The art of reducing a sequence of words to their initial letters became well developed in the late 50s and 60s. This phenomenon portrays the characteristics of the modern era, in which technical and scientific discoveries are developing fast along with all manner of organizations and institutions. Although the word initialism first occurred in the Oxford English Dictionary in 1899, the first acronym was only included in 1943.

Abbreviations often occur as names of professions, art groups and especially as organizations and associations—UNO, USAID, IMF, AU, etc. They also appear as names of appliances, such as TV, Fridge, VCD, DVD, etc., vehicles and on vehicle license plates. Here in Nigeria, national organizations are often called by their abbreviations. We have a series of recently created abbreviations especially with the advent of telecommunication companies in the field of mobile telephony such as MTN, Vmobile, Glo, MTS. All these have become household names without anyone caring to know what they stand for; they are simply brand names of telephone companies. Abbreviations are also found in literary works; e.g., viz, AD, i.e., DV, pm, am, PTO, PS, etc. Another area where abbreviations abound is in academic certificates and names of educational institutions such as B.A, B.S., M.Phil., Ph.D,. etc.

Formulation of Abbreviations

As abbreviations often occur with frequently used long terms for which short terms are more convenient, they aim at facilitating pronunciation and writing, typing, or printing. This, however, doesn't prevent some cynics from alleging that abbreviations are used to render terms obscure. They may occur in the following ways:

First, at the level of pronunciation, Tournier observes: "abbreviations are pronounced letter by letter, because they do not conform to the morphological-phonetical constraints that exist for words." (142) This is why abbreviations such as CPU, LFC, FLCM, etc. are pronounced letter by letter. He states further: "but when it forms a set that corresponds to an existing or possible morphological-phonetical model, it tends to be pronounced as a word." (142) Examples of pronounceable acronyms are UNESCO, UNICEF and OPEC.

Abbreviations have been written using a period to mark the part that was deleted. In the case of most acronyms, each letter is its own abbreviation, and in theory should have its own period. This usage is however becoming outdated as the use of capital letters is sufficient to indicate that the word is abbreviated. Nevertheless some popular style guides still insist on the muliple periods style with unpronounceable abbreviations, such as USA, but not with pronounceable ones such as RAM.

Below are some abbreviation styles:

    1. Reduction of a single word to its initial: C (caution) D (Deutschland), usually on imported used vehicles, X (l'écoles polytéchnique, Paris), nickname for the top polytechnic school in Paris
    2. Reduction of a group of words to the first two letters of each concept: Soweto (South Western Township).
    3. Reduction of concept of a group to equivalent of a syllable: Comsat (communication satellite), USENET (User Network)
    4. Reduction of the initial of just one word of the group: O level (Ordinary level).
    5. Transcription of the abbreviation: emcee for MC (Master of ceremonies) deejay for DJ (Disc jockey)
    6. Reduction of a group to the initial of the first concept and the first syllable of the second: M. Tech (Master of Technology)
    7. Preserving a conjunction: D and D (Drunk and Disorderly)
    8. Preserving the abbreviation in its original language: FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization), also FAO in French, FIFA (Fédération internationale de football), also FIFA in English

Generally, initials of short function words (and, or, of, to) are not included in abbreviations, except to make such acronyms pronounceable.

Lastly, some abbreviations are assimilated into ordinary words and are found written in low case and with time, people forget that they were acronyms. Good examples are: laser (light amplification by stimulated emission of radar) and scuba (self-contained underwater breathing apparatus).

Translating Abbreviations

This form of translation could be regarded as reformulation of abbreviations of one language to another. In most cases the order of initials change due to difference in the grammatical structure of the languages involved; e.g. UNO (ONU). At times, initials may be completely replaced; ISP (Internet Service Provider)—FAT (Fournisseur d'accès à l'internet). Still in other cases, they are reformulated into full words: WIA (Wounded In Action): les blessés de guerre. Some others are simply acquired into the target language as borrowed acronyms: laser

Following the above mentioned categories, a list of common international acronyms figures in the annex, especially those from international institutions, EU, UNESCO, WHO, and not leaving out acronyms of interstate and private persons organization, such as NGO and those of multinationals. Also, in this stage of modern InfoTech, this vocabulary would not be complete without some internet acronyms. They are categorized in 3 (three) groups: A Borrowed acronyms, B Inversion of order of letters and C Replaced initials.

  1. Borrowed Acronyms
  2. These are the acronyms that are identical in the two languages: English and French. These occur for the same reason that brings about the use of borrowed terms or loan words generally.

    The issue of borrowed terms may be explained through one of the techniques of translation. Borrowed words usually arise from language contact of various linguistic communities. This may be due to wars, colonization, trade, etc., or for a need to maintain originality or local nuance of the SL text in the TL text or for simple stylistic reason which is the case with journalists. And at times it is simply the case of a weaker culture being subsumed by the stronger one. This is the case with most of the modern IT acronyms. That is why in French we have acronyms such as CDROM, DVD, FTP (File Transfer Protocol), email, even though the acronym couriel (for e-mail) now exists in French.

  3. Acronyms by Inversion of Order
  4. Some acronyms have the same letters in both English and French but not in the same order. For instance we have AIDS: SIDA, AU: UA, NGO: ONG, etc. The reason for this can be explained by the translation technique of transposition which has to do with the replacement of one grammatical unit or part of speech by another. This is inevitable since the grammatical structure differs from language to language. This difference is particularly highlighted in the position of adjective as regards French and English languages. Whereas in English, qualifying adjectives always precede their nouns, it is the opposite in French except for a few but frequently occurring adjectives. This explains why we have the following acronyms :

    English French

    AU (African [adjective] Union [noun]) — UA (Union [noun] Africaine [adjective])

    IMF (International [adjective] Monetary [adjective] Funds [noun]) — FMI (Fond [noun] monétaire [adjective] international [adjective])

    From the above, it can be noted that the words involved in the two languages are similar, which explains why the same initial letters occur in the acronym translation. On the other hand, the grammatical rules of the two languages mandate a different order or nouns and adjectives.

  5. Acronyms by Replaced Initials

In this third group, the acronyms adopt entirely different initials because the equivalents of the words being reduced to initials are different in the other language. At this level, we have acronyms such as ILO (International Labour Orgnization) becoming OIT (Organisation intenational du travail); WHO (World Health organization) becomes OMS (Organisation mondiale de la santé); UFO (Unidentified Flying Object) becomes OVNI (Objet volant non identifié) etc.

At this juncture, it should be noted that for varied reasons some initials are rendered as full words in another language; e.g. POW (Prisoners of War) is les prisonniers de guerre. In French you always hear of TGV (Train à grande vitesse) whereas in English this acronyms simply translates to high speed train. And SVP (s'il vous plait) is simply rendered as please in English.

Of course, being conversant in the above-stated rules and techniques is not the only thing needed to confront problems of abbreviation, but their knowledge can be of great help to the translator. The remaining problems can then be solved by consulting the necessary translation tools which range from hard-copy dictionaries, glossaries etc. to online ones, such as the Acronym Finder (http://www.acronymfinder.com), which has over 470,000 definitions and, for specifically technical terms, Wiley InterScience Acronym Finder (http://www3.interscience.wiley.com/stasa/search.html). Above all, the translator needs a broad and deep general culture.


It is often said that some of the essential qualities of a good translator are: sound knowledge of his working languages and general knowledge. Furthermore, it is recommended that the translator should work into his mother tongue or first language. In fact this is a prerequisite for gaining employment into international organizations. This implies that the translator is deemed to be naturally more fluent in his first language which is supposed to be the language of his immediate environment for his formative years. Meanwhile, regarding translation of abbreviations to borrow the expression of E.B. Sgarbossa in her article in 2005 August edition of the ATA Chronicle, the "source language may turn out to be the source of trouble."

As mentioned earlier, abbreviations often stand for names of organizations, associations, and educational institutions. Mastery of the language of the target text may not be as important in this case as familiarity with the source-language culture. For instance, abbreviations of multinationals, such as P&G (Procter and Gamble) G.E. (General Electric) would be easily comprehensible to an Anglophone American translator, but as he should be translating into French he would be confronted with abbreviations such as BN (Bibliothèque Nationale) FO (Force Ouvrière), etc.which are promptly discernible to a francophone translator. The difficulty is even higher with abbreviations of multinationals.

In the field of education, one can find plenty of local abbreviations denoting either names of institutions or degrees. For instance, as a Nigerian, I know that names of National universities are usually abbreviated to begin with the prefix Uni-, Unilag (University of Lagos), Unilorin (University of Ilorin), and state-owned universities end with the suffix -su, Lagos State University (LASU), Edo State University (EDSU), etc. But as I normally translate into French, I will be confronted with abbreviations such as HEC (Ecole des hautes études commerciales) LEP (Lycée d'enseignement professionel), etc. These are issues in the field of cultural references. This is the point Michel Ballard was raising in La traduction de l'anglais au français, when he said:

Pour les abbreviations et les sigles relevant
du lexique, il suffit (mais encore faut-il le faire)
de se reporter aux listes figurant dans les divers
dictionnaires selon le domaine auquel appartient
le texte. Par exemple l'abbréviation SATs
figurant ... n'est pas repertoriée dans les
dictionnaires anglais, elle l'est dans le
Webster parcequ'il est un reflet de la
Civilization americaine.(49)

From the above quotation: SAT was not found in the [French-]English dictionary, but it was in Webster's, since it is related to American culture.

In spite of the cultural issues, to deal with problems of abbreviations a good translator must have the latest information worldwide at his disposal, through reading of newspapers, journals, international magazines, the consulting of which has been facilitated by the Internet. And of course while on the job, there are also popular online dictionaries, as earlier mentioned in this paper, to get around the complex task of translating acronyms,.

Another useful tool for the translator to have at his disposal a glossary of abbreviations of the subject field he is working on. In some cases; the translator may also have to consult his client or the author or the source text for more clarification of the terms.

In summary, one last exit route for the translator (especially if he is going from English into French), is to simply render the acronyms as borrowed concepts, as they figure in the original text. In this era of globalization, the issue of translating acronyms is becoming less emphasized due to the constantly widening vocabulary, thanks to the modern information technology. We are being faced with a deluge of new acronyms daily and before these get officially translated from English into French, the French speaker is already using the English acronym and is used to it.

Finally, since English seems to be the language of the global world, it is natural for the acronyms to get 'osmosed' into different languages and thus used. This is common with internet-related acronyms and other terms such as net 2 phone, CDROM, FAQ, email, www...



Ballard, Michel, La traduction de l'anglais au français 2e ed. Paris, Nathan Université, 1994.

Charpentier, Jean, "Mementos" Institutions Internationales. 13e ed. Dalloz, 1977.

"Free Logos Graphics" Abbreviation 25/6/2005 http:/encyclopedia.thefreedictionary.com/abbreviation.

Fremy, Dominique and Michele Fremy, eds. Quids. Paris, Robert Lafont, 1999.

Tournier, J., Précis de lexicologie anglaise. Paris, Nathan, 1988



Borrowed Acronyms


- Acknowledgement
- Accusé de réception


- Application Programme Interface
- Ensemble de conventions définissant de quelle manière un service est joint par un logiciel


- Awareness and Preparedness for Emergencies at Local Level
- Sensibilisation et préparation aux urgences au niveau local


- Association of South East Asian Nations
- Association des Nations de l'Asie du Sud-Est


- Computer Disc/Read only Memory
- Disque optique non-réinscriptable lu par faisceau laser


- European Chemical Industry Council
- Conseil européen de l'industrie chimique


- Chlorofluorocarbon
- Chlorofluorocarbones


- International Occupational Safety and Health Information Centre
- Centre international d'information de securité et de santé du travail


- Convention on Traffic in Endangered Species
- Convention sur le commerce international des espèces de faune et de flore sauvages.


- Decision Guidance Documents


- Economic and Social Council
- Conseil économique et social


- European Union
- Union européenne


- Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations
- Organisation des nations unies pour l' alimentation et l'agriculture


- General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade
- Accord générale sur les tariffs douaniers et le commence


- Globally Harmonized System for Classification and Label of Chemicals
- Système mondial harmonisé de classification et d' étiquétage des produits chimiques


- United Nations Centre for Human Settlement
- Centre des nations unies pour les établissements humains


- Intergovernmental Forum on Chemical Safety
- Forum gouvernemental sur la sécurité chimique


- International Criminal Police Organization
- Organisation internationale de la police criminelle


- International Institute for the Advancement of Women
- Institut international de recherche et de formation pour la promotion de la femme


- Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission Radiation


- National Aeronautics and Space Administration
- Administration nationale de l' aéronautique et de l' espace


- Prior Informed Consent
- Consentement préalable donné en connaissance de cause


Scientific Committee on Problems of the Environment
- Comité scientifique pour les problèmes de l'environement


- Self-contained Underwater Breathing Apparatus


- Scientific International Data Sets


- Union of European Football Association


- Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees


- United Nations International Children's Emergency Fund


- United Nations Institute for Criminal Research and Justice
- Institut interrégionale de recherche des nations unies sur la criminalité et la justice


- United Nations Institute for Research
- Institut des nations unies pour la recherche sur la désastre


- United Nations Institute for Training and Research
- Institut des nations unies pour la formation et la recherche


- United Nations Institute for Research and Social Development
- Institut de recherche des nations unies pour le développement social


- United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East
- Office de secours et de travaux des nations unies pour les refugiés de Palestine dans le Proche-Orient


- United Nations University
- Université des Nations Unies


- Union Postale Universelle


- World Health Assembly
- Assemblée Mondiale de la santé


- World Wide Fund for Nature (NGO also known as World Wildlife Fund)
- Fonds mondial pour la nature


World Wide Web

Acronyms by Inversion of Order of Letters


- Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome


- Syndrome immuno-deficitaire acquis




- African Union


- Union Africaine




- European Bank for Reconstruction and Development


- Banque Européenne pour la reconstruction et le-développement




- Commission of the European Committee


- Commission des communautés européennes




- European Union


- Union Européenne




- International Atomic Energy Agency


- Agence internationale de l' énergie atomique




- International Conference on Chemical Safety


- Conférence internationale sur la sécurite chimique




- International Development Association


- Association internationale pour le développement




- Iintergovernmental Organization


- Organisation intergouvernementale




- International Monetary Funds


- Fonds monétaire international




- International Maritime Organization


- Organisation maritime international




- International Telecommunications (Union)


- Union internationale des télécommunications




- International Union of Pharmacology


- Union internationale de pharmacologie




- International Union of Toxicology


- Union internationale de toxicologie




- North Atlantic Treaty Organization


- Organisation du traité de l'Atlantique de Nord




- Non-Governmental Organization


- Organisation non-gouvernementale




- International Civil Aviation Organization


- Organisation de l'aviation civile international




- Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development


- Organisation de coopération et développement économique




- Organization of Islamic Conference


- Organisation de la conférence islamique




- Palestinian Organization


- Organisation de la liberté Palestine




- United Nations


- Organisation des nations unies




- United Nations Conference on Environmental Development


- Conférence des nations unies sur l'environement et le développement




- Economic Commission for Europe (UN)


- Commission économique pour l'Europe




- United Nations Environmental Programme


- Programme des nations unies pour l'environement




- United Nations Developmental Programme


- Programme des nations unies pour le développement




- United Nations Fund for Population Activity


- Fonds des nations unies pour l'activité de population




- United Nations Industrial Development Organization


- Organisation des nations unies pour le développement



Acronyms by Replaced Initials


- European Chemicals Bureau


- Bureau European des substances chimiques




Global Information Network - Chemicals


- Réseau mondial d'information sur les produits chimiques




- International Agency for Research on Cancer


- Centre international de recherche sur le cancer




- International Conference on Chemical Safety


- Conférence internationale sur la sécurité chimique




- International Confederation of Free Trade Unions


- Confédération internationale des syndicats libres




- International Finance Corporation


- Sociéte financière internationale




- International Labour Organization


- Organisation internationale du travail




- Pollutant Release Transfer Registers


- Inventaire des emissions et des transferts des matières polluantes




- World Customs Organization


- Organisation Mondial des Douanes


- World Health Organization


- Organisation mondiale de la santé




- World Food Programme


- Programme alimentaire mondiale




- World Intellectual Organization


- Organisation mondiale de la propriété intellectuelle