Effective and efficient terminology management can make the difference between success and failure of when introducing a product or service in a foreign market
collection of words that have special meaning in a project
word that has the same meaning as another word
word that has a special meaning in a given subject field
database that contains a collection of words that have special meaning in a given subject field
collection of words that have special meaning in a given subject field
terminology management system
type of software application that enables users to efficiently collect, process, and present terminology
translation memory system
type of software application that enables human translators to reuse previous translations stored in a translation repository
What is terminology management?
Terminology management is the activity of systematically collecting, processing, and presenting words that have special meaning in a given subject field – the emphasis being on the word systematically. The goal of any terminology management effort is to ensure that the words that are most closely associated with a given organization’s products, services, and branding are used consistently – in the source language and in all the languages into which the various types of documents the organization generates are translated into. Managing terminology effectively in an organization typically involves the following activities:
Identification of key terms
Finding the words that are considered important enough that they should be used consistently within and across documents is not an easy task. If the organization has a team of terminology stakeholders (e.g. representatives from product development, technical communication, marketing communication, and legal service groups) that decides on terminology before development and authoring begins, the challenge is to reach consensus among the diverging interests.
If no terminology circle has been instituted, which is the most typical scenario in the business world today, and the team members within the various organizational groups have already generated a wide variety of documents (e.g. specifications, software, manuals, and marketing collateral), it may be difficult to collect all relevant documents and the sheer volume of text may require automated extraction of terminology and subsequent manual clean-up.
Development of entries
Once the question of which terms should go into a glossary has been resolved, the next issue is: How much supporting information is needed. There is much debate whether it makes good business sense to collect anything other than simple term lists. ISO 12620 specifies almost 200 possible data categories for a terminological entry, and yet ISO 12616 lists only three of those as mandatory, i.e. term, source, and date. For many organizations, the most practical solution will probably be a data model that involves less than two dozen data categories.
In all major terminology standards, definitions are an optional data category. Even though writing definitions can easily be the most time-consuming and expensive part of developing an entry, a definition is typically the most valuable part of an entry, especially if the organization uses the terminology database as the universal knowledge base that it is. It's the definition that helps an engineer pick the correct term from a range of options, and it’s the definition that lets a new employee understand an unfamiliar concept better than any other information in an entry. A quick note for those who struggle with definition writing: A terminological definition is not the same as an encyclopedic entry. A good terminological definition is a brief, to-the-point statement that should not be longer than one sentence.
input device that consists of multiple sets of keys for entering data
Review and approval of glossaries and termbases
The importance of having subject matter experts evaluate monolingual and multilingual terminology collections prior to their publication and use cannot be overemphasized. Glossaries and termbases are normative documents that will ideally be used by all communicators within an organization, as well as its external vendors of communication services such as PR, marketing, advertising, and translation agencies. It is therefore imperative that a person who is intimately familiar with both the domain the terminological collection covers and the organization that sponsors the terminology project, signs off on each entry. Reviewers typically focus on the accuracy of definitions and decide which terms are desirable and should be used (preferred terms) and which shouldn't (deprecated terms). In the case of translated glossaries, the review should be performed by a subject matter expert who works in the country where the target language into which the glossary was translated into.
The only constant in business is change, and this adage certainly applies to terminology management. As both technology and language are constantly evolving, so should glossaries and termbases. In other words: In order to provide internal and external communicators with the relevant and up-to-date terminology, the terminology repositories need not only be continuously expanded with new and emerging terms but existing terms must be evaluated for validity on a regular basis.
Why should my organization manage terminology?
Consistent corporate communication
Terminology management enables organizations of any size to use the same terms consistently within and across the communication types that accompany a product or service. Typical communication types include specifications, drawings, user interface/human factors data, software strings, help systems, technical documentation, marketing materials, documents for regulatory submission, etc. As multiple authors typically contribute to these communications, terminology management is the most efficient solution for ensuring that the organization speaks with one voice.
Streamlined authoring, editing, and translation
Having a comprehensive, project-specific termbase available at the outset of a project frees developers, writers – and ultimately, translators - from the tedious task of researching terms on their own and reduces the danger of multiple communicators accidentally coining multiple terms for the same feature, which either goes undetected and causes confusion for the user, or causes unnecessary expense and delays for terminology harmonization throughout the product lifecycle.
Any communication directed at the user of a product must be consistent in the naming of features and functions to maximize the usability of that product or service. The challenge is to maintain terminological consistency not only within a given document but also across documents and even document types. For example, the term used for a menu item in the software must be the same in all screens of that software product where that menu item occurs as well as on every page in the online help system that touches upon that menu item and all pages in the user manual that deal with that function. If there are any inconsistencies, users might get frustrated and confused, resulting in otherwise unnecessary calls to support centers.
If my language service provider uses a translation memory system, is there still a need for creating a termbase?
Integrated terminology management
Many language service providers use a translation memory system for storing and reusing translations. While it is true that a translation memory makes it possible to retrieve not only translated sentences but also sub-sentential elements such as terminology, this so-called concordance feature is no substitute for creating a termbase. Here is why: In the absence of a termbase, translation memories typically contain synonyms, i.e. multiple translations, abbreviated forms and variants of the same term, making it very difficult, if not impossible, for teams of translation professionals to consistently pick the same translated term. Also, using the concordance function every time a term occurs in a text to be translated is very time consuming and results in low productivity. And that’s the best case scenario where the term has actually been translated before: For new terminology, the translation memory system is no help at all.
What are the risks of not having a terminology management strategy?
Without tools and process in place that ensure consistent use of approved terms by each member of the various teams that contribute material for external communication in the course of a launch of a product or service, differences between the terms that appear in the product or are part of the service and the documents that accompany those products and services are inevitable. Discrepancies between what users see while interacting with a product or service and what these users find in user assistance texts such as online help, tutorials, or user documentation can have a negative impact on the experience a user has with a product or service. This type of problem should be of particular concern to vendors operating in the life science space, as any usability issue may have serious consequences. But even if no patient is impacted, terminological inconsistencies not only reflect poorly on otherwise well-designed products or services, they also cause unnecessary and costly calls to support and customer service centers.
While it is certainly true that managing terminology costs money, not managing terminology can cost a lot more. Consider this simple fact: With project-specific glossaries in place, all communicators including developers, writers, translators use only approved terms – and compliance with the corporate terminology can be checked using automated tools. Without glossaries, the product and every document associated with it will have to be checked manually for consistency with all other documents. Because of the complexity of the task, there is a good chance that not every inconsistency will be discovered – after all, who has the bandwidth to read all involved in the launch of a product or service– and fixing those inconsistencies that are found is expensive.
But having to correct consistency into existing documents, and the detrimental effect this has on a project’s budget and release schedule, is not the worst-case scenario. Much worse would be a case where a launch has to be postponed because of delays in the launch caused by incorrect and/or inconsistent terminology. The author is familiar with one case where a product launch in a major international market was delayed for many months due to translation and terminology issues, which resulted in the loss of millions of dollars of revenue.
When is the best time to start a terminology project?
Effective terminology management starts long before the first source document in a global campaign is even written. The terminology circle should decide on new terms for features and functions at the specification stage. Starting terminology management later, e.g. by extracting terms from existing documents, means by necessity changes. And changes are always expensive and time-consuming: A study conducted in the automobile industry indicates that a terminology change at the maintenance stage (i.e. after publication) is 200 times more expensive than a change at the product data stage (i.e. at the specification stage).
Figure 1 Terminology Cost Pyramid (Source: Schütz, MULTIDOC Project)
Are there any relevant international standards for terminology management?
Yes, the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) has created a number of standards that outline best practices in terminology management. Below are
ISO 704:2000 Terminology work – Principles and methods
This 38-page document is an excellent introductory text to terminology management, including guidelines for writing definitions.
ISO 1087-1:2000 Terminology work – Vocabulary – Part 1: Theory and application
This is another overview text that describes the major concepts used in terminology management.
ISO 12616:2002 Translation-oriented terminography
This document provides information on managing terminology specifically for translation environments.
ISO 12620:1999 Computer applications in terminology – Data categories
This document specifies the data categories that should be used to ensure easy data exchange between systems that store and process terminology.
In addition to these standards on terminology management practice, ISO publishes literally hundreds of standards that contain monolingual and multilingual glossaries, e.g.
ISO 5492:2008 Sensory analysis -- Vocabulary
ISO 5598:2008 Fluid power systems and components – Vocabulary
ISO 9241:2008 Ergonomics of human-system interaction -- Part 302: Terminology for electronic visual displays
ISO 22493:2008 Optics and photonics -- Microbeam analysis -- Scanning electron microscopy -- Vocabulary
ISO 12207:2008 Systems and software engineering -- Software life cycle processes
Also, many national standardization bodies as well as governmental and non-governmental organizations publish extensive domain-specific glossaries that can help a terminology management effort to get off to a fast start.
What kind of infrastructure do organizations need to manage terminology effectively?
A number of organizations have built up sophisticated internal terminology management capabilities. Medtronic is a good example of a life science company that has spent well above a million dollars on hiring dedicated terminologists, developing custom software, and translating terminology internally. For large, multibillion-dollar organizations that have their own local resources in all the markets they serve, this model makes perfect sense.
For smaller organizations that have less experience in the area of globalization and yet wish to jumpstart a terminology management effort, it may make more sense to use an external vendor for most of the terminology tasks. In an outsourced scenario, the organization sponsoring a terminology project provides two resources: a) during the development of a glossary, the organization makes its subject matter experts available to the vendor for tasks such as ranking of synonyms (e.g. preferred, admitted, deprecated/do not use) or writing/reviewing definitions and b) after a given glossary is complete, the organization provides a means for sharing that information, typically a searchable site on the organization's intranet.
Here are the five key factors that determine the effectiveness of an outsourced terminology management project:
Strategy: Make terminology management part of the overall launch plan for a product or service
Timing: Initiate the terminology development effort at the earliest possible time
Allocation: Plan for subject matter experts to be available during key phases of terminology project
Selection: Use a language service provider with experience in terminology management
Hand-offs: Include the finished glossary as a resource to be used by all internal and external contributors to a launch
About the author
Uwe Muegge is a Director at CSOFT and has more than 15 years of experience in the translation and localization field. Before joining CSOFT, he served as the Corporate Terminologist at Medtronic, the world's largest manufacturer of medical technology. Uwe is currently a member of the technical committee for terminology at the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) and teaches graduate courses in Terminology Management at the Monterey Institute of International Studies. Uwe Muegge can be reached at +1 (952) 955-7708 or email@example.com.