Acronyms are often a headache for translators: do you keep the original acronym or do you create a new one from your translation of the name of the organisation? It all depends on how well-known the said organisation is. The WTO’s acronym in French (OMC) has been around for years and is as well-known as the English one.
However, it is a different matter for lesser-known bodies. If you translate the name of an organisation, it makes sense to also translate their acronym. But then you turn what is often a well-known sign (for specialists of that field anyway) into another one that might well be completely unrecognisable. Different clients normally have marked preferences on this topic and of course, I respect their choice. My preference, however, goes to the following solution: keeping the original name and acronym, with a translation of the name in French in brackets when it first appears. Often, the target readers know what you’re talking about anyway and a translation would only confuse them. For example, I recently translated documents for RICS (Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors) and there was little sense in trying to use a different acronym that would be totally alien to everyone.
Acronyms like GPS (global positioning system) are particularly tricky to deal with. It is translated as “système de positionnement mondial” but the resulting French acronym (SPM) isn’t as familiar as GPS.
I believe that French words should be used above English ones when they are perfect equivalents, but in this situation, I find myself in a difficult position: I have a perfectly satisfying translation (système de positionnement mondial) but a near-unknown acronym (SPM)… My answer was to keep it in English the first time it appeared with its acronym, to add the translation between brackets and to use GPS in the rest of the text. The target readers would be specialists in the field of geography, so I knew they would not be fazed by this at all. If it had been a text to be read by a wider audience, I think I probably would have used “système de positionnement mondial” throughout the text, even if it might have proved slightly heavy.
As an aside here, I would just like to point out that “système de positionnement global” would be a mistranslation, as “global” in French means “general” and not “worldwide”. If you do a search on google, you’ll find, however, that it is much more commonly used than the right version: 1,640 hits v. 365 hits.
I think what happened here is what Robert Castelo described in his comment to my “Spin Doctor” entry: a term appears (in this case, a wrong and literal translation of an English term), people start using it, other people see that a lot of people have been using it, so they use it and it becomes adopted. Nothing to do with the quality of the term in question, it might be wrong or inadequate, but so many people are using it that it becomes a standard term.
When it comes to more general acronyms, I have a particular favourite: FAQ (Frequently Asked Questions). In French, the literal translation is Questions Fréquemment Posées. It is efficient, but then the acronym becomes QFP, which is not as instantly recognisable as FAQ. So many sites on the Internet being in English, most French speakers become accustomed to using common English acronyms. This is why I much prefer Foire Aux Questions ("Question Fair"). Not only does it retain the original acronym, but it is also metaphorical and thus gives it an amusing and interesting slant.

By | 2016-10-18T15:52:21+00:00 December 15th, 2003|Technical corner|8 Comments

About the Author:

I am Céline Graciet, a freelance English to French translator. Since 2003 I’ve been writing on all sorts of areas linked to translation and the life of a translator.


  1. Anthony Hope December 11, 2003 at 1:07 pm

    Hi, you’re probably gonna hate this annoying, nit-picking little comment, but I thought it might just squeeze into the bounds of constructiveness on account of your blog being language-related. Anyway, here goes.
    1) “SPG” should be “SPM”.
    2) It’s “fazed”, not “phased”. (Although a Google search would probably show that people are starting to use the latter regardless of context 😉
    I’m a pedant. So sue me.

  2. Céline December 11, 2003 at 1:19 pm

    Anthony, I am most grateful to you for pointing that out. Nit-picking is one of my favourite pastimes and you’re right, it’s a little bit of a shame to have spelling mistakes in a language-related blog. I need to remember to run a spell-check on my entries (especially the ones in English).
    I have spent hours checking every word in this comment. Please don’t tell me it needs correcting.

  3. Jemima December 13, 2003 at 3:02 pm

    Of course, a spell check wouldn’t have spotted either of the errors. A friend of mine has just had someone be nasty to her by suggested she use a spell checker on her emails (nasty as the comment was designed to undermine my friend’s confidence). The email in question was perfectly spelt, but the words were spelt wrong for the context. ‘Their’ instead of ‘they’re’, for example. English sure is tricky.

  4. Al Mattei April 2, 2004 at 5:46 pm

    You want alphabet soup? Try The National Academies, which is split into the National Academy of Sciences (NAS), National Academy of Engineering (NAE), and the Institute of Medicine (IOM). Our alphabet soup spans the alphabet; one organzation that specifies itself as studing behaviour science has been labeled ABAS, then CBSSE, and is now DBASSE. Why it skipped “B” I’ll never know.
    Ironically, we don’t use the acronym for the overall organization ….

  5. Elizabeth Margaret April 2, 2004 at 5:47 pm

    I just found this, and reading your discussion, realized one common English example. MSF* is a common way to refer to Doctors Without Borders, possibly partly because DWB sounds a little too much like other TLAs (Three Letter Acronyms) such as DOB (Date of Birth).
    * I don’t want to try to embarrass myself by trying to remember the correct accents in French, but hopefully you’re familiar with the organization.

  6. Robert Castelo April 2, 2004 at 5:48 pm

    I’m waiting for the term SAQ (Seldom Asked Questions) to catch on…

  7. linca April 2, 2004 at 5:49 pm

    “international” acronyms, like AIDS, SARS, usually have their French version which is almost uniquely used, in France at least ; except for computer stuff, such as CD-ROM. Same for international organisations : OTAN, ONU, CIO … (most of these institutions have French among their official languages anyway). OTOH, American or English organisations are referred to by their local acronym, BBC or NASA indeed. But these goes for other languages too : the French press uses Tsahal, UCK, KGB, as in their native languages.

  8. Anthony Hope April 2, 2004 at 5:49 pm

    I’ve occasionally wondered whether the sheer ubiquity of English can force out perfectly good French acronyms and abbreviations.
    For instance, the French for “AIDS” is “SIDA”, but does that mean that French-speakers and -writers *never* say “AIDS” instead? And is NATO *always* OTAN? What about other well known abbreviations such as BBC or NASA?

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