02 July 2017

A warship by any other name

A warship by any other name

Steve Dyson explores naval terminology across borders*

This paper is intended for journalists, technical communicators and translators writing in English about naval programmes originating in non-English-speaking countries.

Let’s begin with naval prefixes like HMS and USS which are part of a ship’s official name. First, it’s very rare to see HMS (His/Her Majesty’s Ship) in the long form, even in, say, daily newspapers which normally explain all acronyms and abbreviations. The same goes for USS (United States Ship) and USNS (United States Navy Ship) in the US. There are at least two reasons for this: these abbreviations are listed in most general–purpose dictionaries and they are already familiar to most readers. Less common warship abbreviations are often explicated, but not always fully, especially in specialist publications. SSBN, for example, is rarely seen in its formal but distinctly odd-sounding long form ‘ship submersible ballistic nuclear’. The more natural sounding ‘nuclear-powered ballistic-missile submarine’ is much more common but leaves the ‘SS’ unexplained.

Some navies, including the French and Spanish, do not use prefixes in their official languages. Despite this, some English-language writers apply their own prefixes to the names of ships operated by these navies. In so doing, these writers have created a new category of prefix that is not part of the ship’s official name. While a NATO staffer may have good reasons (involving uniformity, etc.) for using prefixes of one sort or another with the names of all ships, irrespective of their country of origin, this writer’s needs, aims and context differ significantly from those of a translator or journalist who earns his living writing in English to promote the French naval defence industry.

Technical writers and journalists need to know that these designations do not follow the normal ‘rules’ for explaining abbreviations. Among other functions, the unwritten code behind this – and all jargon – may be to help specialists set themselves apart from the uninitiated.

In the generic term ‘amphibious assault ship’ the adjective ‘amphibious’ qualifies the noun string ‘assault ship’, not the head word ‘ship’. This is not at all obvious to non-specialists and is even less so when the term is shortened, as it commonly is, to ‘amphibious ship’. Anyone unfamiliar with the notion is likely to conjure up a comical image of a huge ship trundling up a beach and across the dunes to face the enemy...

Another example is the term ‘power projection ship’, which has emerged as a higher-level generic covering aircraft carriers, helicopter carriers, assault ships and similar vessels and reflecting modern-day naval doctrines. Aside from sounding fresher, new terms carry additional weight when they refer to a new doctrine or other transformational change, to use another term that is now de rigueur. Time will tell whether ‘power projection ship’ takes hold or not, the pacesetters being technical journalists and naval shipbuilders’ marketing departments. Similarly, some shipbuilders’ marketing departments now appear to avoid the word ‘assault’, possibly because of the negative connotations, possibly because they promote themselves as naval defence contractors, with due stress on the word ‘defence’.

A few words about why USN short-form designations. Without going into the details of US Navy designations, it’s worth pointing out that many are designed to overcome difficulties arising from the fact that English is a left-branching language. In English, we say “yellow rope”, whereas the French, who speak a right-branching language, say “corde jaune”. When cataloguing in a right-branching language, alphabetization automatically results in items of the same general type being listed together. In English, quartermasters, cataloguers and others must adopt artificial right-branching structures, often with commas (e.g. “rope, yellow” or “ship, submersible, ballistic, nuclear”), to achieve the same result. Military designations in English adopt this practice, in part or in full, to structure catalogues and lists. Unfortunately, the complex conventions adopted are far from transparent to the uninitiated, let alone non-native speakers and inexperienced translators. Some designations appear to derive from a mix of left- and right-branching rules, but I have yet to master the logic (if there is one).

Things become even more complicated when writing in one language about programmes (and their abbreviations) created in another. Consider the French Navy’s BPC programme (where BPC stands for ‘bâtiment de projection et de commandement’). When writing about this in English, it’s obviously important to mention not only the official designation (BPC), but also what it means. The shipbuilder, DCN, uses ‘BPC force projection and command vessel’. This reads well and has a certain rhythm to it despite the fact that it effectively says the same thing twice (once in the French abbreviation and again in full in English). Jane’s Naval Forces, a publication many look to for guidance in such matters, once called it an ‘amphibious assault, command and power projection ship (BPC)’ which, to me, doesn’t read as well.

French ships, including Le Triomphant-class SSBNs, with names including the French definite article ‘Le’ may, in addition, take the English definite article, although different authors have different opinions on the matter… In either case, writers can help layout teams to avoid ugly line breaks between words that should not be separated by replacing the space after ‘Le’ by a hard space.

On 7 October 2004, Jane’s Navy International (see Jane’s homepage and Jane’s Naval Forces) carried an article entitled “French Navy’s first Mistral assault ship takes to the water”, stating “the French Navy’s amphibious force regeneration plans achieved a major milestone on 6 October 2004 with the launch of FS Mistral, the amphibious assault, command and power projection ship (BPC), from DCN’s shipyard in Brest.”

FS stands for French ship. Jane’s and other English-language publications sometimes use this prefix and others like it, despite the fact that it’s unknown to the Navy in question. While the RN’s HMS Ocean is marked as such, the French Navy’s Mistral certainly doesn’t carry the English-language marking FS and I’ve yet to see a French officer writing in English use it.                                                                                                            
The US magazine SeaWaves uses the abbreviation FS consistently when referring to French vessels.
Note also that Jane’s Navy International, like other publications that write frequently about programmes originally named in other languages, is perfectly comfortable with a French acronym (here BPC) accompanied by a long-form designation or other explanation in English.                                                                              
Yet another detail of presentation that can take a while to get used to.
Other examples include: ENS for Egyptian Naval Ship, FGS for Federal German Ship, HS for Hellenic Ship, etc. For more, see http://www.seawaves.com/prefixes.htm.

So what are the lessons from all this? Although naval terminology might be expected to follow a highly structured nomenclature, there is huge variation. It would take a much longer article to consider all the challenges facing copywriters and translators trying to reconcile their clients’ entrenched habits with the need for more consistent designations and yet another to consider the impact on rhythm and readability. In the meantime, language professionals need to research their clients’ preferences and model their texts accordingly. And if you are commissioning translations, providing glossaries and style guides helps ensure that the end product is accurate and in line with client expectations.

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* An earlier version of this paper was published in the Winter 2005 issue of Communicator, the quarterly journal of the UK-based Institute of Scientific and Technical Communicators.
USN hull classification symbols (aka hull codes) are explained at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hull_classification_symbol
Steve Dyson writes (in English) and translates (from French) technical journalism and technical and corporate brochures, websites, datasheets and press releases for Europe’s naval defence industry.

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In response to this article, Tony Eyre of MISTC wrote:
“It might interest readers to know that, here at Rolls Royce, we use a convention when writing submarine names that is agreed and preferred by the Navy.
Single ships in commission (that is, in active service, even if laid up for repair) are written in upper case: HMS TRAFALGAR.
Ships of the same class are written with initial capitals but without ‘HMS’ : Trafalgar Class (not HMS Trafalgar Class).
Decommissioned ships are written with initial capitals but lose their HMS status: Valiant.”

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Glossary. Too little research.

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