Abbreviations are rife in medical texts. Some, such as DNA, are universally known and more common than their expanded forms. Others, such as CI (confidence interval) fall into a grey area. Widespread use of such abbreviations in English means they have been adopted in other languages too, particularly in the medical field. Out-of-English translators are then faced with a dilemma: should they translate commonly-understood English abbreviations or follow the practice of medical writers in their language and keep them in English?
Hyuna Ham* has been deliberating the pros and cons of translating well-known abbreviations out of English. She has written this guest post as a recapitulation and, above all, to hear your thoughts on the matter. Over to you, Hyuna.
95% CI: a de facto term?
Increased global use of English abbreviations means that, for example, everyone in the scientific world knows what “95% CI” means, in English-speaking and non-English-speaking countries alike. This is probably due to:
- global cooperation in the science communities,
- predominant use of English in the scientific literature,
- education using English materials in many countries,
- study or work abroad by scientists, and
- possible generation-related attributes (younger professionals tend to use more English terms than the older). This is my opinion, based on my observations over the years.
I conducted a small informal survey in 18 countries among translators with whom I work. The responses revealed that:
- the English abbreviation “CI” is commonly used and well understood in most countries,
- older and more experienced translators always prefer the initialism of the translation of “confidence interval” in their languages if applicable, but they all acknowledge that “CI” is understood,
- in many languages, the term “confidence interval” is one word (and therefore a two-letter abbreviation would have to be invented),
- in some countries, the term is indeed two words but is never used in an abbreviated form.
Sometimes, a journal gives clear guidelines on abbreviations in its style guide or instructions to authors.1
A simple rule I usually apply to abbreviations I wish to keep in English is to translate the term in parenthesis/square brackets the first time it appears and use the English abbreviation alone thereafter. This particularly applies when the abbreviation is used or referred to multiple times throughout the document and also when it makes better sense to use it, for example, when space is restricted in a table.2
Besides the space-related limitation, another translation conundrum occurs when an abbreviation appears in tables or even in the text without glossing the term at all. To solve this, some translators decide to add a Translator Note to explain what the abbreviation stands for.
Over to you
I would appreciate your feedback on this issue. Specifically, I’d like to know:
- Do you use common English abbreviations in general, and CI in particular, in your out-of-English translations?
- How can we verify that an abbreviation in another language has reached the same level of usage as “CI” in English? Is Google sufficient to measure usage in particular countries?
- Stepping into my shoes as a project manager, would using “CI” for all countries (e.g., 95%CI) be justified for reasons of consistency?
- In which languages would “CI” be considered an error?
If, on the other hand, English is your target language, please let me know in the comments below how CI is dealt with in your source language texts.
I look forward to reading your comments below!
1 Abbreviations, Acronyms, and Initialisms, Emerging Infectious Diseases
2 AMA Manual of Style: A Guide for Authors and Editors (10th edition)
* Hyuna Ham manages PA Translations, a specialized translation provider in New York, USA. She has a background and experience in immunology and IVD product development. She cherishes long-term collaboration with translators, many of whom have worked with her for the last 18 years!