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CIA and “SEE-ya”: Adventures in translating abbreviations

By Admin on 23-Nov-13 21:37. Comments (12)
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Dear reader,

The name of the agency is abbreviated, in English, as an initialism (each letter pronounced separately, “C-I-A”). In Spanish, the initialism is transformed into a true acronym, pronounced as if it were a word: “SEE-ya”.

In an earlier column, we observed how  abbreviations made up of initial letters (sometimes, initial syllables), can be divided into two subtypes: (i) acronyms like PIN or  RAM, which are pronounced like words, and (ii) initialisms like ATM or NGO, pronounced letter-by-letter. These abbreviations present many curiosities and challenges to the translator. Here are just a few examples…

  • Where English uses the initialism “UN” for the United Nations, Spanish has“ONU” (pronounced “OH-new”), for Organización de las Naciones Unidas.
  • The birth of “laser” as an acronym for “Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation” was long forgotten in English by the time Spanish officially adopted láser.  Likewise for “radar”, “scuba”, and “MIDI”.
  • “CIA”, a famous initialism, is different. The agency’s name has an official Spanish translation: Agencia Central de Inteligencia,  but the Spanish abbreviation, oddly, is not “ACI”. Rather, Spanish long ago imported the initialism directly and made it an acronym: CIA (pronounced “SEE-yah”). An additional oddity is that the acronym is occasionally spelled Cía, which, with a period following, happens to be the Spanish abbreviation forCompañía (Company)—and “The Company” is a fairly well-known nickname for that agency.
  • Yet another situation is that of “compact disc”. This term has an accepted Spanish translation, disco compacto.  As with “CIA”, though, the abbreviation is not “DC” (as you might expect) but “CD”, straight from English.  Until about a decade ago, this was usually pronounced “seh-DEH” in the Hispanic world; but, more and more, Spanish speakers use English phonetics to say it: “see-DEE”.

Much agility is needed to translate and interpret these terms. The circumstances of their birth are diverse—and so are the paths they take from one language to another.

¡Buenas palabras!

Copyright © 2013 by Pablo Julián Davis. All rights reserved. A version of this essay was originally written for the 12-18 May 2013 edition of La Prensa Latina (Memphis, Tennessee), as part of the regular bilingual column “Mysteries and Enigmas of Translation”. Pablo Julián Davis (www.interfluency.com) is an ATA Certified Translator (inglés>español) and a Supreme Court of Tennessee Certified Interpreter (inglés<>español) who also provides custom-designed cultural/linguistic coaching and training.