Can you translate acronyms from Asian languages?

An acronym is briefly defined as a shortened version of the various words that make up a meaningful phrase, with every first word of the phrase being abbreviated and then spelled out as a word itself. One example of this is the World Health Organization, which is often referred to as WHO and is read or said out loud as such. While this aspect of abbreviations does convey an element of language economy, in other words, it shortens otherwise lengthy texts and provides deeper context, sometimes it is very difficult to translate acronyms, particularly in Asian languages. This article will consider acronym translation from the perspective of Chinese, Korean, and Japanese and provide some practical examples of how, when, and if such acronyms should be used in official documents or in a business environment. To find out more, keep reading below.

Can and should you translate acronyms from Asian languages?

To translate acronyms can be a challenging endeavor for many professional translators. For example, the term Unidentified Flying Object (UFO) mentioned above, has its own abbreviation in Spanish, which is Objeto Volador No Identificado. In short, it is written as OVNI. However, when it comes to Asian languages, the challenge is compounded. Not least because sometimes there are no direct translations. In some cases, the challenge comes to the fore when an English acronym is so widely and prevalently used in a target Asian language that its everyday usage in the target language is simply substituted for the English version. In other cases, there are translations that use an approximate translation of the English acronym, while in others, a direct translation exists. It all depends on the acronym itself, the environment in which it is used, as well as the target Asian language that the translation is being done in.

This brings us to the question of whether one can and should actually translate acronyms from and to Asian languages. The answer to this question is not as clear-cut and straightforward as one may think. For example, a poll that was initiated among professional language translators indicated a wide degree of disagreement in terms of whether there should be translations of acronyms into and from Asian languages or not. On the one hand, a large group of respondents (52%) indicated that this will depend entirely on the language pairs that are being translated. Meanwhile, 23% indicated that acronym translations should always be performed. Yet others said that this should “never” take place (12%). And the remaining 13% indicated that an acronym translation will always depend on the relevant industry in question.

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With so much disagreement about acronym translation, within the professional translation industry, one thing is clear. And that is that there is no clear-cut answer to the question of translating acronyms into Asian languages. This will always be dependent on context, industry, environment, and language and will always require careful work together with the client as well as taking local or national rules into consideration. Here are a couple of examples of this in practice.

Acronyms in the Chinese language

The Chinese language has hundreds of years of history behind it, as it has developed and evolved over time to produce a number of local dialects and variants. However, the official language of China is Mandarin and it’s used in government, business, education, technology, and other sectors. This essentially means that there’s a level of synchronicity or uniformity in language usage. However, with the slow but steady incorporation of English terms in China and in the Chinese language, there’s been a great debate about whether English acronyms should be directly translated or simply use the English version in official publications.

One example of this is the acronym NBA, which stands for the American National Basketball Association. Since basketball is a very popular sport in China, and many Chinese follow American developments in this sport, it was common for Chinese television to directly use the term “NBA” to describe the sport. However, this sparked a national debate with some people calling the move a dilution of the Chinese language. Hence, the direct reference to and translation of the acronym NBA was removed from national television for a while, only to return a couple of years later.

Other examples of acronym translations from English to Chinese include the terms World Trade Organization (WTO), Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), Gross Domestic Product (GDP), Master of Business Administration (MBA), and others. In essence, each of these terms has its own version in Chinese. The WTO, for example, is abbreviated as 世贸组织 / 世界贸易组织; OPEC is abbreviated as 欧佩克 / 石油输出国组织; GDP is 国内生产总值, and MBA is abbreviated as 工商管理硕士.

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The challenge, however, lies in the fact that some abbreviations have a lengthy translation with more characters being used to describe the English acronym and owing to an economy of language usage, English abbreviations are sometimes directly used in newspapers and other formal channels of communication, with a backlash amongst many in professional Chinese circles who argue about the infiltration of the English language into everyday Chinese and the dilution of the rich Chinese language itself.

It can therefore be generally concluded that to ensure there are no negative ramifications, Chinese language translations or Chinese acronyms should ideally be used when translating business or governmental texts, as opposed to not translating these acronyms and using the English version instead.

Korean acronyms

Translate acronymsWe now come to another language where translating acronyms can pose a challenge and that is translating English to Korean acronyms. Let’s take a look at an example of a case where this can be applied. It relates to translating what may be considered plural acronyms such as Intellectual Property Rights (IPR) or CPUs. What tends to happen with Korean translators is that they do not remove the plural “s” from IPRs or CPUs. But this would be incorrect (because the English acronym itself is in the singular and not plural) and leads to an inaccurate translation from English to Korean, especially when it comes to Korean acronyms.

In the informal sense, when it comes to abbreviations of internet slang, translations can also pose a challenge. For example, the Korean abbreviation “ㄱㄱ”, or “G G” is meant to stand for and represent the lengthier form “고고” which means “go-go” in English. Once again, translating Korean abbreviations into English, whether in the formal or informal sense, can be cumbersome and will depend on the context used (whether formal or informal) and the actual meaning of the word in Korean or English and its subsequent translation. Therefore, there’s no straightforward answer to the question of whether Korean acronyms can be directly translated. This will all depend on the context of the word and the environment in which it’s used in.

Abbreviations from Japanese

Finally, when it comes to Japanese acronyms, it’s important to remember that the language consists of syllable pairs and that contractions of words in Japanese are common and frequent. A further difficulty arises when some loan words from English are incorporated into the Japanese language, such as the words “remote control”, which is rimōto kontorōru (リモートコントロール) in Japanese and when contracted further becomes rimokon (リモコン). It is language intricacies like these that must be taken into account when creating accurate translations from English to Japanese or Japanese to English, especially when it comes to Japanese acronyms. There are numerous other examples of English words that have made their way into Japanese, which have subsequently been contracted, and this is something professional translators must take into account to ensure not only an accurate translation of the terminology but also an effective translation that conveys the correct meaning of the word in the target language.

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Leave acronym translation to the professionals

As can be seen from the information above, in order to translate acronyms into an Asian language, one must take cultural and language-specific contexts into consideration when looking for an accurate translation. In some cases, a word-for-word translation will be possible, thereby converting the English acronym into its accurate Asian language form. However, in many other cases, there are English acronyms that are directly substituted in the target language. But this can lead to disgruntlement in academic and intellectual circles, which posit that the dilution of their language is taking place.

Therefore, accurate acronym translation will need to occur on a case-by-case basis as well as take into consideration the target language in question. English acronyms that need to be translated into Chinese may need to use the full Chinese term, despite lengthier character numbers, in order to ensure that the Chinese language is not perceived as being diluted. Meanwhile, when it comes to Korean or Japanese acronyms, a professional translator will need to take into account language peculiarities such as internal and informal contractions to provide an accurate translation.

If the world of Asian language acronym translation still boggles the mind, then perhaps it’s time to rely on professional translators who will be able to take language intricacies and cultural factors into account in order to yield a more accurate translation of the Asian language acronym translation that you need.