by Jen O Neill
We’re increasingly hearing about how important it is for us to manage our terminology as it impacts documentation quality, translation cost, branding and customer satisfaction.
It’s no secret that most terminology problems start in the source content. Unfortunately the inconsistent use of terms in user interfaces, online and printed documentation, marketing material and web content often only comes to light during the translation when it can be too late or too expensive to fix.
Glossaries used by writers are often inadequate
Although we all probably use company glossaries or style guides to help us use terms correctly and consistently in our work, the glossaries often represent only a fraction of the terms we actually use in our work.
A clue that our glossaries may not be comprehensive enough can often come from the translators (our customers may also be having problems with our terms, but we’re rarely in contact with them).
Translators often complain that those responsible for creating the source content don’t document enough terms. They may receive a glossary from us with only a couple hundred terms or less to help them with their work. According to the terminologist, Barbara Inge Karsch, content creators document only around 20% of the terms needed by translators.
Also see our post on the SDL terminology survey last year.
For example, in my company we found out at the translation stage that we had five different ways of saying “power up” in our English manuals:
Power up, power on, energize, activate, start
However, only one of these terms, “power up”, was included in our glossary. The other four were unapproved undocumented terms that had all been used (several times) at some stage by writers. Perhaps when reusing existing content from different products or by a contract writer new to our products.
How many terms should we document?
It depends. It depends on the size of your project, the complexity of the products being documented, number of terms already documented, your budget and resources.
Barbara Inge Karsch has a good discussion on selecting terms in her blog post “How many terms do we need to document?”
However, few companies can afford the services of a dedicated terminologist. Indeed smaller companies may not even have an editor to help ensure that terms are correctly used by writers.
As technical writers we have to stop pretending that terminology is a “translation problem”.
We’re implicated as creators of the source content. We need to ensure that we develop comprehensive glossaries at the start of a project. This will free developers, writers, and ultimately translators, from spending time researching the terms themselves and potentially coming up with multiple terms for the same feature, which then go undetected throughout the product life cycle and can impact usability and incur extra costs.
Heading towards terminology management
Ideally we shouldn’t be keeping our terminology in a style guide or spreadsheet as they can eventually become too inflexible. Unfortunately terminology management tools are still expensive. For many of us, particularly if we’re lone writers or work for a smaller company, they may not yet be an affordable option. This is why Microsoft Excel is so widely used in the tech communication environment to manage glossaries. Everyone has it.
So spreadsheet tools are useful to help start us managing our terminology as they let us collect the terms we work with. And that’s the challenge, collecting the terms. Developing and maintaining a comprehensive glossary is hard work. But the sooner it is done in the documentation process, the better.
As Barbara Inge Karsch says,“As terminology management becomes more accessible and as needs for terminology data become more important, it is up to content creators and LSPs [localisation service suppliers] to learn more about this area and to find ways to consider terminology requirements earlier on in the document creation process.”