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Acronyms on Parade

Best practices IMHO

Acronyms: We all use them, we all hate them. Here are my best practices for using acronyms in translations:

1. Do define acronyms the first time they are used in the body of the text

  • Except those that are universally understood (EU or US) or never written out (IBM and SAP)

2. Do not burden the reader by introducing acronyms that do not recur

  • Even if the source text does it (ditto for “defined terms” in a contract)

3. Do not invent a target-language acronym where none exists

a. Use source acronym where relevant for references and citations

    • Handelsgesetzbuch (HGB) = German Commercial Code (HGB) [not “GCC”]

b. Ignore source acronym where irrelevant

Beware the false acronym

Let’s look closer at an example of 3b: German logistics professionals often refer to KEP-Dienste. KEP is an abbreviation for Kourier, Express, Paket. This bundling of “courier, express, and package” services is simply not used in the parallel English business jargon, so translating KEP-Dienste = CEP services (?), even if you explain the acronym, is not a good idea. It creates an acronym where none exists and produces an English that sounds translated. (Google “CEP services” and look carefully at the top hits: They are all translated from the German—a gigantic, billowing red flag for translators!)


Google “CEP services” and look carefully at the top hits: They are all translated from the German—a gigantic, billowing red flag for translators!


In the contexts I’ve encountered, KEP-Dienste refers to companies like FedEx, DHL, UPS, DPD, and TNT. In US English, these companies are generally called parcel services. No acronym! Here’s another solution:

This example illustrates the same concept in the reverse direction, by the way: We commonly refer to electric vehicles as EVs, but Germans do not use a parallel acronym.

Over to you

Readers: What are your best practices for managing source-text acronyms in translation?

One thought on “Acronyms on Parade”

  1. Most acronyms grate on my ear, so I keep them at an absolute minimum in my target texts. But what I enjoy least of all is when a given abbreviation in the source language could have thirty possible meanings, of which five are potentially relevant to the subject area. And the client doesn’t have an answer when I ask about it.

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