Standardizing terminology within a company is a difficult task, the more so because Spanish has 20+ varieties. BY MARIO CHÁVEZ

A quick definition of terminology is the creation, organization, and classification of terms. A glossary is just a list of specialized terms. Monolingual glossaries were the ancestors of our modern dictionaries.1 Translators have been using lists of terms since the beginning of our profession, aided now by increasingly—and sometimes maddeningly—complex terminology software, one example of which, MultiTerm, they’re quite familiar with.

As a member of a team of translators within a medium-sized software company, I am responsible for creating and maintaining the terminology in my language pair, and sometimes start from scratch due to the novel nature of many database concepts, such as checking out documents, rendition, redaction, registering a workstation for a module and so on. The task seems simple and straightforward enough. After all, who better to build terminology and technical vocabulary in a specialized field than the translators who create the texts, right? Not quite so.

Diplomacy a must

Unlike German, Portuguese or other languages, Spanish expresses itself in rich variations according to each country it’s an official language of, from Colombia to Chile and from Bolivia to México. Even when I strive for a homogeneous “International Spanish,” I have to acknowledge and respect the preferences of the company’s customers and of other Spanish-speaking employees. Several countries are represented therein: Ecuador, Venezuela, Perú, Colombia, México, Puerto Rico, and Argentina.

So, to my regular duties I had to add that of a diplomat, since I have to preserve the correctness of the expressions being created and walk the fine line between sounding like a know-it-all and yielding unreflexively to the first preference given to me. For example, the term “assessment,” which can be translated as evaluación in most texts, had to be rendered as estudio because the requester, from Puerto Rico, didn’t feel evaluación conveyed the full meaning of this tool for enterprises.

When I first came to the company, I was determined to standardize the software terms in use. Using Microsoft glossaries as a baseline—since our company is a Gold Microsoft partner—I went about changing nonstandard terms to Microsoft standard ones. Months later, however, I started butting heads with one QA team leader because he felt I was changing terms without fully consulting with him or because he disagreed with my choices. Part of it was my fault, as I would choose a big word instead of a more down-to-earth term. An example is “redaction/información oculta. At first, I had chosen censura to render the concept of “redaction,” a legal term that means hiding confidential information, as in the case of a letter written by a soldier from a combat zone. If such soldier had indicated the name of the battle place, military censors may strike it out to avoid disclosing strategic information.

But both the QA team leader and my manager objected to the use of censura as they deemed it too strong a nuance for “redaction.” This was, of course, a cultural perception, not a semantic one. So I proposed a compound noun, información oculta, which means the same but has none of the stigma of censura. Plus, I could use ocultar información as the verbal form for “redact,” which appears in our technical literature.

Another challenge was the translation of a marketing tagline, “Time to Make a Difference.” Initially, I used my own version, Hora de sobresalir, but further consultation with the Spanish-speaking marketing specialist and my manager determined a different solution: Es hora de marcar la diferencia.

Having freelanced for most of my 17+ years in the business, I am very familiar with the current mentality among translators: educate the client. As freelancers, we have little or no interaction with the actual customer but with the project manager from the translation bureau, who may or may not be knowledgeable in translation processes. Since we have little say in the final terminology being implemented, we tend to develop a love-hate relationship with some of our clients. Imagine how this relationship may start off on the wrong foot when your client is your boss!

Gentle insinuation

One of the first things I learned, from the various exchanges my manager and I had over the past year, is that any procedural changes to improve the quality of work have to be gently insinuated until you are in a position to take the initiative with the support of your manager. This approach requires a great deal of patience because the translator has to learn to apply initiatives on the team’s timetable—as dictated by company goals—not on his or her own. Case in point: some areas of the interface I’ve started working on are a mixture of different translation styles and terminology choices because several people took part in their translation over the years. Streamlining these areas requires perspective, time, discipline and standardized terminology, but other translation priorities often push such improvement back to a third or tenth place. In a typical catch-22 situation, I am often faced with satisfying requests for improving some old translation in the interface while being unable to devote more time to streamlining it in a wholesale fashion…which would have rendered moot the improvement request in the first place!

Another thing I learned during my tenure here is that not every college-educated Latino professional is familiar with the words I use. I have to remind myself that I need to give them a context and build a bridge between their experience and familiarity with mine. For example, for the imaging term “despeckle I created the neologism desmotear, but my manager was unfamiliar with such a term, precisely because I had to create it. It took us a couple of conversations to bridge the gap between “desmotear sounds bad” to “agreed.” Patience, the right attitude, and a willingness to compromise are key to help others buy into the translator’s proposed solutions.

Of course, there are some wins and some losses. While some solutions are adopted without objection, others, especially with more colloquial terms, are resisted. This is to be expected, as the different stakeholders in the development of our Spanish terminology have different experiences, different cultural backgrounds and different objectives to accomplish.

In this dance of compromise, some translations, such as mapa de bits (bitmaps) and secuencia de comandos (scripts), play the wallflower role, never to be asked out again. The important thing for me, as a translator, is to remember that my Spanish-speaking colleagues will respect my terminology judgment better if a) they have a say prior to adoption and b) they are part of a dialog of equals. By equals I mean equal partners in building new terms for our field of application, not equals as sharing the same knowledge of language and translation techniques and strategies.

After 9 months of pulling and pushing with my manager, who is a native Spanish-speaking engineer, we worked out a list of approved terms for the interface and I made the necessary adjustments in the localization. However, the days and years ahead will see more linguistic negotiations as our company implements new technologies and creates new concepts around them. The main groundwork being finalized, I can focus on other lexicographical priorities. MC


[1] Translators Through History, p. 229, in chapter 8, Translators and the writing of dictionaries, by Henri Van Hoof, John Benjamins Publishing Company (1995).