Our latest monthly chat was on a topic at the core of technical communication: terminology. Fourteen of us working in technical communication and translation got together by phone/web chat to share our thoughts and experiences on this topic and hear how we were all managing our terminology.
Terminology isn’t just for localisation
Unfortunately when some companies hear the word “terminology”, they simply think “localisation” – terminology management is a part of the translation process. But it actually kicks in right at the beginning of product development. If you don’t watch your source language terms (for most of us that’s English), then you risk messing up your translated terms too, impacting quality, cost, and time to market of your products across all languages.
Most of us in the chat had between 500 and 5000 English terms documented, usually kept in Microsoft Excel. Some used a permission-based wiki to manage their company’s source language terminology as it is ideal for sharing and collecting information in a central repository. A participant remarked that terminology management systems (TMS), which are used to store and retrieve terminology information, can be difficult to implement.
Yet many of us have problems keeping terminology consistent and correct across all our required languages. And a frequent reason was multiple groups across a company creating their own terms, such as software developers.
Best practice: Collect and control terminology early in a product development cycle.
Who “owns” the terminology?
We agreed that the terminology management process and reaching consensus were more important for ensuring consistent and correct terminology than which tool is used to manage the terms.
Practically none of us had access to a terminologist. The terminology work usually falls upon the technical writers and translators. Yet a common problem faced by several in the group was not being included in the team designing the user interface and advising on the terms to be used. One translator in the call has been asked by a client to propose English terms for them to use in their software.
A couple of us were in the fortunate, and enviable, position where the Technical Publications department is responsible for their all company’s English terminology. In one company the developers can’t use a term in the user interface unless it has been approved by Technical Publications. Sadly this is not usual in most companies.
Best practice: Have a terminology team that selects, defines, and approves the terms.
Controlling the English
Unfortunately for many of us dealing with inconsistent or poorly defined terminology is a regular problem.
One solution proposed in the chat is to use simplified English. One participant uses an open-source (and free) term checker for ASD Simplified Technical English, which is fully customisable. Go to simplified-english.co.uk for more information on this tool.
Mergers and acquisitions (M&A) had a mixed impact on terminology. Sometimes companies let acquired/merged groups keep their different terminologies as often their products stay separate. However, when products are integrated following an M&A, reaching consensus on terminology can often become political. Managing terms then becomes particularly complicated.
Best practice: Use consistent and correct terminology that has been approved by the company.
Importance of structuring terminology
The translators in the group regularly have to work with terms that are poorly defined so it’s often difficult for them to know the context and figure out how to translate the terms.
We need to provide more information about a term than simply its definition. If you only provide a list of English terms and their translations without definitions or context, then over time the quality of the software and documentation translations will decrease. Unfortunately we didn’t have time to discuss how we collect our terms.
Every term should at least have a definition, subject field, context, part of speech (noun, verb, adjective, or adverb), and abbreviation/acronym (if relevant). Depending on how many products and channels there are, you could also classify the terms by product/channel group. It’s also worth thinking about including the associated deprecated terms so that everyone knows not to use them.
Best practice: Document each term with appropriate metadata.
Find out more on managing terminology
An excellent document how to manage terminology is: Terminology for Large Organizations (link opens PDF).
Results of a survey done in 2010 on terminology practices in the localisation & translation industry: TTC Survey 2010 (link opens PDF).