NCTA, Perspective

December 2020 Virtual General Meeting: an Introduction to Terminology Management

by Fernanda Brandão-Galea

In the final NCTA General Meeting of 2020, it was with great excitement that we welcomed Alaina Brandt as our featured speaker for a talk about terminology management.

Since I am about to finish my tenure as NCTA Events Director, a position I held for 4 years, I was determined to bring a topic equally relevant to translators and interpreters. We’ve made it a year-end tradition to invite speakers from the most recent ATA Conference to accommodate our members who could not be there or who missed the particular session—a common dilemma given the number of competing options and simultaneous sessions.

In my search for a speaker, I followed #ATA61 on Twitter and found #ATA61Terms101—the hashtag for Alaina’s talk on Terminology Management 101, a topic close to my own heart.

Alaina teaches Terminology Management at MIIS (Middlebury Institute of International Studies) at Monterey, is an ATA director, and serves on Technical Committee 37 on Language and Terminology (International Organization for Standardization) and Committee F43 on Language Services and Products (ASTM International). In summary, she was the perfect speaker for the topic, and I was thrilled that she immediately accepted our invitation.

A bit of theory

Alaina started with a little bit of theory, describing the semantic triangle formed by object, concept, and designation. We can understand “object” as anything perceived or conceived; “concepts” as mental representations of objects; and “designations” as labels or words used to represent objects perceived in our minds.

Walking us through the classic example of a “table,” Alaina demonstrated that even among speakers who share the same language, the conceptualization of the object can be different. We can imagine a table with 3 legs, 4 legs, and even no legs if it is suspended from the ceiling. The difficulty certainly increases when we refer to abstract concepts, such as “love.” Luckily, we translators and interpreters already know that words do not carry meaning, but are arbitrary and empty, with the meaning actually residing in the brain. We also know the importance of context, because concepts only take on meaning within a specific context.

Terminology management in action

After this bit of theory, Alaina shared examples of when terminology goes well, and when it goes wrong. Coinages are usually created from trade names, such as “aspirin” or “xerox,” which illustrate terminology successes. If you “googled” examples, you’ve inadvertently stepped in another one. But there are bad stories too. Alaina brought up the Chevy Nova example: The Spanish phrase “No va” means “it doesn’t go,” which is not such an appealing way to describe a car.

As we can see, terminology is a powerful tool that businesses can use to lead customers to buy a product, or not. In the second part of the session, Alaina delved into the practice of terminology management, detailing a workflow in five stages, summarized as follows:

1. Planning

At this starting point for the workflow, you need to identify the subject area (subject field, subject matter, domain, vertical), understand the audience, know the purpose of the project, and establish the process, because the flow can change according to the project.

2. Resource collection—corpus

A corpus (plural: corpora) is a collection of texts on a particular subject. A well-formed corpus, Alaina mentioned, requires a significant volume of words drawn from original texts (not translations) and a variety of authors who are subject matter experts communicating with other subject matter experts as their audience.

3. Analysis—term extraction

During this third stage, “special” language, or language used in a particular subject area, needs to be separated from “general” or “natural” language. In the process of extracting terms, the technical tools usually include some “noise” (invalid term candidates) and “silence” (missing key terms), which requires human analysis and review.

4. Terminology documentation

After the extraction and proper analysis, the terms are compiled into a terminology base. Terminology work is not translation, so “source language” and “target language” labels should not be used. In terminology work, the focus is on single concepts—a distinction from lexicographical work, where all possible meanings for a given word are collected.

The information associated with each term entry in a terminology database is organized according to a hierarchy with three information levels (entry, language, term). At the entry level, the information gathered applies to the entire entry regardless of language (e.g., subject field). At the language level, all the information applies to a specific language. At the term level, all the information is applicable to the unique term, and it is at this level that we collect information like gender and number.

5. Dissemination

It is possible to manage terminology in a spreadsheet, and this is a great way to start. But collecting data points around your term makes it easier to reach scalability over time, and if you structure the data according to TBX (termbase exchange) standard, it will be possible to add categories in future without requiring significant rework.

Practical take-aways

  • Start small, define your processes, and test it until you think the quality of the entries is good and you are confident in the process. Then you can start adding more terms.
  • Avoid adding too many terms or general terms. Include the ones you’d like to have translated consistently.
  • Remember to write concise definitions.

Before you go

It is always good to reinforce the benefits of good terminology management. By using the same terms consistently in all types of communications (marketing, legal, product, development, etc.), companies can save time, energy, workload, and therefore money. The increased consistency also improves translation quality, which benefits the brand image of companies in global markets.

If you want to know more, Alaina invites you to take the “Introduction to Terminology Google Classroom” course by Translation Commons. Access the course for free by registering on Translation Commons and visiting the Learning Center.