I do not enjoy acronyms. Rather than saving time by shortening the number of words to be typed out, I waste endless time trying to track down their significance. Occasionally, the initials used are familiar, and the same in both languages. PCB, or polychlorinated biphenyl, would be easily recognised within the context of a document listing substances, for example, and the same acronym is used in both French and English. No worries there. Often, however, the meanings of the letters that loom out of the shadows are less than clear and my search for a reliable rendering is fruitless. On nights working late, I have paranoid visions of some secret society locked away in some dimly lit, murky basement inventing acronyms, the connotations of which are only intelligible to a chosen few, leaving the rest of us to grope in the dark.
One of the biggest problems is that there is often no way of knowing whether the initials in question were originally conceived in the source or target language, or whether this elusive meaning is used internationally, as is sometimes the case. Sometimes a corresponding acronym does not exist in the language the document is being translated into, and it would be inappropriate to invent one, assuming one had managed to find the meaning of the original in the first place and translated it in full. To make matters worse, clients have varying tastes as to whether they want acronyms changed at all. It is possible to get into a mess.
I have recently been working on specifications for a new electrical installation in a building in a European capital. The initials ASI, which featured throughout the series of files and in French stand for “alimentation sans interruption”, can be translated as UPS (uninterruptable power supply). This was not too difficult to find, and what really helped was that all those collaborating in the translation project made contributions to a collective glossary, thus maximising consistency and saving time for us all.
However, the initials OIBT almost led me into making a grave error. After searching through my usual trusted reference sources – Linguee, ProZ term search, Reverso, WordReference – I came up with what I thought was the corresponding acronym in English, which was ITTO. It was only when checking through after completing the translation that I discovered that these initials actually stand for “International Tropical Timber Organisation”, which obviously didn’t fit the piece I was working on. After further extensive research, it transpired that the letters in this context stand for “l’ordonnance fédérale sur les installations électriques à basse tension” or in English “Federal regulations on low voltage electrical wiring”. Although grateful that I’d spotted this potentially disastrous mistranslation before delivering the completed documents, it still left me with the unanswered problem of how to represent the initials in English. As far as I’m aware, there is no FRLVEW. Even if there is, it probably means something entirely unrelated, which would be completely unhelpful to the person who will eventually have to read this account in order to understand what they have to do – which components to connect up to which, etc.
So what help is available for resolving this problem? The Harrap Business Dictionary provides a number of alphabetically listed meanings for French acronyms with their English counterparts, as does my now becoming battered hardback copy of the Collins Robert bilingual dictionary. My English-Italian Medical Dictionary and Phrasebook by A.H. Zemback offers a few obliging interpretations of abbreviations, for the names of hormones, for example. The acronymfinder.com site is also helpful, as is the acronyms page on thefreedictionary.com. Probably my favourite site is abbreviations.com, which claims to provide “910 acronyms and abbreviations related to the French terminology and jargon”.
Even with all this support, many acronyms manage to remain a mystery. This may be because there are often several alternative explanations for the same initials. For instance, abbreviations.com comes up with no less than 67 different definitions for the initials FSR. Knowing the context of your document obviously narrows the field. So if, let’s say, my document was concerned with electronics, I might be confident in assuming that they meant “Force Sensing Resistor”, whereas “Flight Status Request” would be more likely if the document had been prepared by the military. The fact that one can never be sure of which language the initials are derived from further complicates the issue. These same initials can also be Falange Social Revolucionario in Spanish.
If anyone reading this has useful advice on this particular skill, I would welcome your suggestions. Until then, this type of code-cracking will always entail a certain amount of guesswork as far as I’m concerned.