ULG's Language Services Blog

Localizing Acronyms


Acronyms and abbreviations are one of the trickiest localization items to handle. While shortening words and phrases can make life easier when writing in your local language, translating acronyms can be a nightmare for linguists.

Abbreviated phrases are tough to localize because they lack consistency – an acronym in one language is most likely spelled out differently in another. When translators encounter abbreviations and acronyms, they come in many different forms depending on the language they’re in.

Acronyms may appear in translation in the following ways:

1. The acronym appears as it does in the source material

If there are particular acronyms that a client requests remain as they are in the source document, the first occurrence of the acronym will have a translation of the term definition in parentheses, but is then used “untranslated” throughout the rest of the document.

Occasionally, two different languages may use the same acronym. This can occur when:

  • The languages are related : “FDP” is the same in German (Freie Demokratische Partei) and English (Free Democratic Party),
  • The initialism is coincidentally the same: “UNU” is the same in English (United Nation University) and French (Université des Nations Unies), or
  • A specialized field is dominated by a superstrate language: English is the lingua franca of science and medicine, so many terms like “MRI” or “CT” are used so commonly they need no translation in context.

2. The acronym is changed to a localized acronym

The acronym may contain the same letters in a different order: “AIDS” (Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome) is translated as “SIDA” in Spanish (Síndrome de Inmunodeficiencia Adquirida).

In another scenario, the acronym may have different letters: “WHO” (World Health Organization) is translated as “OMS” in French (Organisation mondiale de la santé).

3. The acronym is fully translated because there is no localized acronym

Thus, “POW” (Prisoners of War) is simply translated as les prisonniers de guerre in French.

Unless a client specifically requests that acronyms be handled in a particular way, ULG standards are that translators localize their treatment of acronyms and abbreviations as fully as possible.

This means that when there is a corresponding acronym in the target language, they will use it, and when there is not, the term will appear fully translated.

French examples are from “Dealing with Abbreviations in Translation” by Adetola Bankole in Translation Journal.