The triangular semiotic monster


A plea for contemporary terminology work

So, you’re standing at the gas station vacuuming crumbs off the car floor and thinking to yourself: “This is easy, why do I always wait until I hit the car wash to do this? What I do instead is keep brushing crumbs off the seat like a kid sweeping dirt under the rug.”

This reluctance to use technical tools to clean up the crumbs is not unlike the reluctance of companies to do professional terminology work. Everyone knows that terminology management is useful, everyone knows that it makes work easier. But the issue is only addressed when the pressure has risen to the point that major solutions are inevitable. Up till that point, the employees and external language service providers go on gathering the right terms crumb by crumb every day. On their own, and again and again. But “clean” corporate language doesn’t have to be the trip to the car wash that many make it out to be.

The LinkedIn post of a freelance translator we came across the other day bears mentioning here. In commenting on the speed of translation work, he writes enthusiastically that he recently began using glossaries. Translating is much easier and faster for him now that he works with glossaries prepared in advance for his projects. Good for him. But it is a pity for his clients if the translator creates and uses his glossaries in isolation. Especially because the technologies available today make it possible to create individual terminology solutions without large investments, meaning the client too could benefit from the defined terminology.

But our habit of repeatedly suffering small annoyances to avoid the dreaded effort of a full wash and wax is apparently too great – even when in the end a quick rinse might be all that is necessary.

In recent decades, a growing number of constantly improving tools has been developed to support and facilitate the use of language in companies, thus also enabling them to enter into professional terminology management step by step. So the days of decentralized lists on paper or in Excel should be long gone. All you really need to know is how to use these tools for yourself.

When talking to the various parties involved in the creation and translation of corporate texts, almost everyone will confirm that they’re aware how hugely important it is to use appropriate terminology consistently. Especially with corporate language taking on increasing meaning. The corporate language manual is now considered a recognized component of corporate identity. In some cases, it is even considered more important than its visual counterpart, the corporate design manual.

Benefits of terminology management:

  • Improve readability for higher quality in corporate communication
  • Support your branding through uniform language
  • Reduce risks and misunderstandings
  • Reduce translation costs
  • Improve the quality of translations
  • Simplify access to information and knowledge in the company

And yet, practice shows that in the vast majority of cases, adequate terminology work is not done. Authors may still define the key terminology when creating texts. But they often do so in local Excel sheets and without state-of-the-art integration into authoring or content management systems and tools for linguistic quality assurance.

In most cases, persons or departments in charge of translation management do not receive an adequate budget for the introduction and ongoing maintenance of a terminology management system – perhaps in part because management considers this more of a nice-to-have than a must-have. Translation service providers are often unwilling or unable to invest in additional effort due to project schedules. Not least because many translators do not want to take on these additional, mostly unpaid, tasks.

Company-wide introduction of terminology management does indeed pose challenges of both an organizational and financial nature. Which system should be used? Who should use it? How can external service providers who work with corporate language or contribute translations be connected? What are the workflows, especially approval workflows for terminology (internally and externally)? With questions like these, terminology management turns into a huge, costly, and terrifying triangular semiotic monster that few dare to tackle.

At Gemino, we are firm believers that this must not be. And much more important: It doesn’t even need to be! Where it is already impossible for many structures to do textbook terminology work and use the great and powerful tools that are out there to achieve end-to-end corporate language consistency, the alternative must not be to do nothing at all! “Lean” and “agile” have been on everyone’s lips for years. But how can these concepts be applied to the field of terminology work?

Is there a compromise – not a “lazy” and inferior alternative – that is at least a viable option?
Minimal terminology management in the best sense?

One approach is the Pareto principle, which states that using 20 % of the means can already achieve 80 % of the result. Omission is the name of the game. Don’t confuse this with stopping work after providing 20 % of the service! Rather, it’s about intelligent omission. The trick now is to find out which are the 20 % of the means that can achieve 80 % results in your individual situation.

We encourage you to think about how you can apply this principle to the contemporary use of terminology in your field. You’re certain to find numerous small starting points which taken together can make the lion’s share of the positive effects of textbook terminology management a reality. And with the effort of minimal terminology management at that.

By the way, this same approach works on the crumb problem too. Instead of cleaning too much or not at all, a handheld vacuum cleaner for €40 is the alternative. And it pays for itself pretty quickly since you’ll be saving the €3 costs of using the vacuum at the gas station.

When it comes to “light” terminology management, here are some starting points for “intelligent omission”:

Practical recommendations

Less is more!

  • Start with a corporate dictionary instead of a termbase
    Lower your expectations. Don’t aim for the “perfect” termbase that contains all conceivable information and metadata. In the simplest case, work with a monolingual or multilingual dictionary – perhaps supplemented with forbidden terms. Think about what additional information you really need – and what you will want and be able to maintain in the long run.
  • Use simple technology
    Find ways to make essential information as easily accessible as possible to all stakeholders. Depending on the size of your team, a shared Excel sheet on the intranet may already be a viable option. Think of solutions that work without large initial investments, installation, training, etc. Remain as open as possible with regard to the formats used to avoid unnecessary restrictions when exchanging data in the future.
  • Trim down your workflow
    Simplify the workflow of generating entries (term candidates) and defining and releasing them as much as possible. Where are the core competencies for determination – internal or external? Who can extract terminology most easily, or who needs to define or translate it anyway as part of the content creation process? Also, do you need a complete terminology guide or will a few basic rules in the header of your terminology list do the job?

Follow these guidelines to develop your own minimal terminology management!

Get started – with small steps. As soon as the advantages in terms of quality and your bottom line start coming in, you may be able to convince any skeptics and expand the whole system step by step towards perfect terminology management.