Dealing with Abbreviations In Translation
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.
The 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 associationsUNO, 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:
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).
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.
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.
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 :
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.
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:
les abbreviations et les sigles relevant
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
Acronyms by Inversion of Order of Letters
Acronyms by Replaced Initials
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