Acronyms and abbreviations: lost in translation?

Chances are, you’ve probably used an acronym or an abbreviation at some point today, or at least in the last week. We often use these linguistic shortcuts semi-subconsciously, because they’re so ingrained into our speech patterns. You may not even be entirely clear on the difference between the two: an abbreviation is any shortened form or a word or phrase, and an acronym is a specific type of abbreviation, where the first letter of each word making up a phrase is combined to make a new, shorter word.

For example, when we take the letters N (from North), A (from Atlantic), T (from treaty) and O (from organisation), we come up with a new word: the acronym NATO.

Abbreviations for all

The medical profession, the military and many other fields use acronyms and abbreviations on a daily basis, often because they’re handling time-sensitive information in potentially critical circumstances. There’s no doubt they’re useful. Then again, the UK Government website has a 373 page-long PDF of MOD (Ministry of Defence) acronyms and abbreviations, most of which you’ve probably never heard of – unless you work for the MOD. For example, I was interested to learn that my initials, FH, variously mean Field Howitzer, Flying Hour and Frequency Hopping in MOD-speak.

However, certain acronyms and abbreviations are so ubiquitous that we don’t think twice about using them. NHS (National Health Service), PCR (polymerase chain reaction) and WFH (work from home) spring to mind as three recent examples of essential abbreviations for English speakers in the UK. The great thing about acronyms and abbreviations is, they convey substantial amounts of information in the most concise way possible, in theory saving both the speaker and the listener time and effort. ‘Polymerase chain reaction test’ doesn’t exactly trip off the tongue, unlike its snappier counterpart.

But unless all parties involved in a communication know and understand what a given acronym or abbreviation means, opportunities for mistranslation are rife. (Does anyone else’s mum still use LOL to mean ‘lots of love’?) Some acronyms and abbreviations are so obscure that it seems wildly implausible somebody went to the trouble of inventing them in the first place. So even if this article is about to tell you FMTYEWTK (far more than you ever wanted to know) about acronyms and abbreviations, it’s best to ALOTBSOL (always look on the bright side of life) …


The use of abbreviations and acronyms far pre-dates the internet era. For example, the acronym SNAFU (Situation Normal: All F*cked Up) started out as the name of a World War Two cartoon character, designed by Warner Bros. Studios to help with the war effort, and later became common parlance among the military in the Vietnam War. Nonetheless, internet slang, endless WhatsApp conversations and quickfire instant messaging have undoubtedly contributed to far more widespread usage of acronyms and abbreviations. Character limitations on platforms such as Twitter have driven us to communicate in shorter, sharper ways. How can we cram more words into less space?

Language is constantly evolving to reflect and meet the needs of the people using it, which is probably why pre-tech generations never came up with gems such as ROFL (rolling on the floor laughing). They were in the same room, rolling on the floor laughing together – no acronym or abbreviation needed. Meanwhile, across the Channel, French teenagers are MDR (mort de rire – literally, ‘dying of laughter’) when they see a funny meme. Elsewhere in Europe, the Swedes shorten the term for intense laughter, asgarv, to the abbreviation ASG (and Millennial Swedes probably follow it up with the cry-laughing emoji: truly a cross-cultural phenomenon, even if it’s not cool anymore according to Gen Z).

Translating abbreviations and acronyms

As we’ve just seen, some acronyms and abbreviations have obvious and widely-used translations in other languages, making the translator’s life much easier. However, this is not always the case. There are several strategies translators can adopt when faced with an acronym or abbreviation:

Some languages ‘borrow’ acronyms and abbreviations from other languages, often when the two countries and cultures are linked in some way – through trade, invasion, sharing a border, or all three. Borrowing tends to reflect linguistic cultural dominance. For example, the English acronym ‘laser’ has no French translation, because the English term has simply been absorbed into French. (You’re not alone if you didn’t know that ‘laser’ stands for Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation!)

Depending on the grammar of a language, certain English acronyms and abbreviations may simply be reversed in their foreign language translations. In French for example, IMF (International Monetary Fund) flips to FMI (Fonds Monétaire International). The same is of course true for EU (European Union), which switches round to UE (Union Européenne) in French. Well-known abbreviations for institutions such as IMF and EU will normally have standardised translations in other languages.

Other acronyms and abbreviations undergo a full transformation in translation, with each initial being replaced by a different letter in the target language version. Did you know, for example, that UFO becomes OVNI in French? Unidentified Flying Object re-emerges as Objet Volant Non-Identifié (literally, ‘non-identified flying object’), with ‘O’ being the only shared letter between the two abbreviations.

Now and then, an acronym or abbreviation with no equivalent in the target language may appear in a text. When this is the case, translators will need to explain the meaning of the foreign language abbreviation the first time it is used. If the abbreviation re-appears later in the source text, it can then be used without explanation in the translated text. Alternatively, it may be best to simply do away with the acronym or abbreviation all together in the target text, if using it is only going to cause undue confusion.

Translations of a more specific or technical nature almost always require extra terminology research – this is particularly true for translating abbreviations and acronyms in these kinds of texts. If the meaning of the abbreviation is obscure even in an English source text, Acronymfinder is a useful place to decipher all those confusing letters! (If, for example, you came across EBIDTA in a business text, would you know it stood for Earnings Before Interest Depreciation Taxes and Amortisation? – thought not.) Most languages will have similar databases of acronyms and abbreviations online, which can be a godsend for tricky translations; Spanish translators, for instance, will find Siglas a great place to start.

In rare cases, translators may choose to invent a brand-new acronym or abbreviation when their target language doesn’t supply one. For creative projects, this could be a fun and effective strategy – as long as the new abbreviation makes sense. If the text for translation is scientific or medical, however, the choice to invent a new abbreviation or acronym should always be ‘approved by specialists’.

As with all translation, appropriately translating acronyms and abbreviations is a skill that takes time and practice to hone. If your business, charity or NGO writes abbreviation-heavy copy that needs translating, shop around for a quote from a professional translation agency. Discuss your target markets with the agency, and then let them handle the translation side of things. That way, you’ll avoid any embarrassing or costly errors.

A cautionary tale: when the now-defunct company PowerQuest were taking on the French market, thankfully they did their research and realised they’d need to change their name for their French campaign. This was because their initials, PQ, meant something quite different in France. Specifically, toilet paper. And lastly, a note to translators, copywriters, marketers and sign-writers everywhere: only use an acronym or abbreviation if it actually makes sense. Here are some examples you may wish to avoid in future… and MTFBWY* in all your abbreviation and acronym-related endeavours.

(* May the force be with you. Obvs.)

Need professional translation of acronyms and abbreviations? Get in touch with any questions or head to our website for a quote, we’d love to help.

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