The terminological minefield

Preamble and perambulation

I preface this blog with some trepidation. Terminology, expressed vaguely as one word, is a huge topic, and yet forms only one of many considerations we as translators need to take into account when transforming a text from source to target.

My trepidation stems chiefly from the realisation brought home to me sharply in a number of rigorous ways over the last few months that the learning curve – apart from being a trajectory which is infinite in nature – can get steeper, and not gentler, with the passage of time, even after one has amassed a fairly bulky boatload of experience.

One other misgiving I have is that I am by no means the most assiduous documenter of terminology. Many others do this better than I do, such as Steve Dyson who has self-published A French-English Glossary of Naval Technology, the subject of my very next blog. This makes me no less insistent on the correct term; it simply makes those more organised than I more efficient.

My subtitle, by the way, since I googled it after I thought of it – as one so often does with terminological checks – led me to a delightful e-book. Click on the image below if you are curious.

preamble and perambulating

I have also included a preamble to my blog on terminology, since most glossaries and terminologies worth their salt do exactly that, by way of orientation as to the system used and conventions applied, and so on. Mine, of course, is more of a disclaimer, as are many preambles to all sorts of works. I am sure you could find a few examples on your own bookshelves quite quickly.

Thoughts about terminology and specialisation

Terminological accuracy is a matter of using the right word or phrase in the right context. That may be an oversimplification, but one has to start somewhere.

Generally, we all do start somewhere, and very early on in life. Based on the notion that everything has a name and there is a name for everything, we spend some part of our childhood looking at books similar to this one:

Richard Scarry- Cars Trucks and Things That Go

No one actually tells us that this could be loosely termed a terminological study, and certainly big words are mostly avoided at this stage of our lives, although I do have a clear memory that in my second year at school in 1970 we had a subject called ‘Environmental Studies’, the first lesson of which went into extraordinary detail about the need for fresh water and how sewerage and sanitation facilities are a prerequisite for any urban settlement. I kid you not!

Terminology, however, encompasses more than a knowledge of the correct equivalent term in the target language. It is more than picking the right term from endless word lists in bilingual glossaries created by other translators or other organisations. It is so much more than using what you think is your good judgement to pick the most likely choice in a third-party translation memory in a CAT tool in the Cloud. As translators, we should be using that knowledge in combination with our linguistic knowledge to build up our own bank of ‘names for everything’. This latter activity has a direct impact on the quality of the translations we produce.

What is required to use the correct term is a knowledge of the world in which those words and terms occur – the space those terms inhabit. In other words, you need a knowledge of the subject being translated.  This is also referred to by the scary term ‘specialisation’.

How do you get that knowledge?

Although in no particular order, I do believe that a combination of the following factors are at work when engaging with any text. You acquire the knowledge you need for the translations you do

– through experience of the world;
– by researching texts properly before translating them;
– by education or training in a specific field – and learning it bilingually;
– by listening when experts speak;
– by reading what experts write;
– by doing; on-the-job experience, often far removed from the world of translation.

Training will have little impact, however, without the complementarity of translation practice and lots of it – preferably under the supervision of someone more experienced in both the field and the languages concerned.  Hen’s teeth? You bet. Well, almost.

Finding the hen’s tooth

In the absence of a competent translation and revision partner in each of your language pairs and preferred or specialist fields, what do you have to fall back on? I do hope that you are not scratching around in the dust picking up seeds and pebbles instead, all the while proclaiming that these look like hen’s teeth and will do just as well.

When faced with terminological uncertainty, group discussions among translators in translators’ forums can help you. When this happens you need two things on your side.

The first is time. Unless you are well-versed and highly skilled in the subject field of your translation, you will not achieve terminological certainty – also known as terminological accuracy and excellence – if you are in a great hurry.  Research takes time, and you need to conduct your own research once you receive suggestions and assistance from colleagues.

The second factor is that you need to approach suggested solutions to your queries with a healthy dose of discernment, since too often, term question threads degenerate into a situation of the blind leading the blind – and this, even when someone who does know the correct answer has supplied it early on in the thread!

Term hint: This is not a hen.

Thankfully, this is not always the case, and term queries can result in each person who contributes to the thread offering you a different aspect to consider, all of which will help you to make the correct choice. You do need to be aware of the pitfalls of this particular resource, however, and only resort to it when you have exhausted all other methods available to you.

All other methods

I shall not mention the obvious that for the last couple of decades – ever since internet browsers allowed users to open more than one tab or window at a time – everyone, including translators, has had a wealth of searchable information at their fingertips. Nor shall I compare and contrast the merits of various CAT tools, translation memories and termbases to be derived therefrom, or the usefulness of parallel corpora or the limitations of Excel spreadsheets,  or how all of these are further complicated when you want to operate a trilingual, as opposed to a bilingual, terminological reference work. The truth is that there are many translators who are far more knowledgeable and efficient in these matters, and any input in this specific area by me would merely be insulting to their hard work and mental muscle-power.

Regardless of which method you use, the important thing is to have a system to record terminological knowledge gained so that it is useful to you when you encounter similar texts in the future. We have our own brains and I would hope that we all put enormous faith in that organ during the course of our work. Our brains need reminders, however, and if you have been a diligent terminologist, then your brain can relax when it comes to remembering a good many terms, and instead focus on other aspects of the translation at hand. It is also useful as back-up when you need to explain your translation choices.

Explaining translation choices

I have been known to write notes to agencies and to direct clients explaining choices of terminology, especially when to my horror I discover the internet is already polluted with an erroneous term or translation. If I do not, some revisor (who has not done nearly so much research on the text as I did when I translated it and quite possibly does not know the subject field as well as I do) will gaily change my careful, precise choice to the most popular – and decidedly incorrect – choice found in the dodgiest of online dictionaries. Why this happens may be because such revisors, who form part of the translation agency structure, will not have scoured the literature on the subject in the target language.

paying me for the right words
I made this poster after a spate of enquiries via my website as to my rate per word.


Whatever the case may be, the introduction of errors into a translation by a revisor does happen (and once is once too often), and when you find a lot of bilingual terminological garbage on the internet, it is always a good idea to include notes on the translation in your covering e-mail when delivering your translation. It is so much easier to do it in advance, rather than after the fact. Explaining translation choices helps your revisor – who, if you are lucky, will sometimes have an equally cogent argument for something else.  I say lucky, because there is nothing worse than going through life unchallenged. And it is very boring to be right all the time. Remember that learning curve I mentioned in the preamble?

If you are working in a translator-revisor team of your own choosing, it is also useful to explain your changes when revising your partner’s translation, and vice versa – especially if the joint effort is a large project, and terms and concepts are likely to crop up again later on in the text. Such comments let the translator know that the changes made were not merely preferential. The practice galvanises your own expertise in the matter, and helps the translator orientate herself in a way which provides a useful learning experience to which she can relate. Of course, this process is a two-way street, not every change has to be annotated, nor does the translator have to be female!

The dialogue thus created contributes to a better overall work, and of course, gives the translator free rein to object if she does not like your changes on matters where her knowledge surpasses yours.

In translations, as we all know, the nature of what is ‘correct’ is fluid up to a point. We often have a choice of at least two acceptable expressions, and have to choose one. Beyond that point, terminological accuracy wins the day. Terms are not always pretty, and can sound downright strange to those not in the know, but if they are correct, they are correct, and that is an end to the matter. It depends largely, as they say, on the context.

How free must we be?

A literal translation may or may not give you the correct term.  Most often, a literal translation is the worst thing to do. There are many exceptions. There is no short cut. You have to know.

You have to move away from literal translation; move away from source-text-based translation to what some might consider “free translation”. Much of what is loosely defined as free translation is not free translation at all. It is the employment of something called functional equivalence (or dynamic equivalence) first written about with any degree of intelligence and clarity by Eugene A. Nida.

I was horrified as a mini-survey I conducted informally among young translators recently that very few have the foggiest idea what is meant by functional equivalence.

On a basic level:

When not wishing to comment, the Portuguese say ‘Sem comentários’, the literal equivalent of which is ‘Without comments’. In English we say ‘No comment’. See that singular ‘comment’? That is the correct term. Nothing else will do. If you go around writing ‘no comments’, I will know you do not know the term. In other words, the functional equivalent of ‘sem comentários’ is ‘no comment’.

It gets more complicated than that, as you will readily understand after a few seconds of serious thought.

The chief difficulty (apart from the others aspects mentioned above) is the changing nature of language. This is complemented by the developing nature of knowledge bases, which means that original terms and systems change over time.  (Yes, ‘knowledge base’ is a term: look it up.) The British billion has disappeared.  Accounting terminology has changed radically, since the mid-1990s, I suppose. So if you are still using accounting terms you learnt by heart even five years ago, don’t you think it is about time you studied the most recent IFRS, IAS, and GAAP if you have to, and did comparative analyses of it in all your language pairs merely to discover how much work you need to do to get back on track?  Don’t worry. A balance sheet is still a balance sheet. And if you cannot read a balance sheet, you should not translate annual financial statements, because you will end up writing a load of codswallop. Learn that the debits are on the window side.  And if you don’t know that joke, ask an accountant to explain it to you. That will put you off for life. And just as well. Only of course, if you claim to work with accounts, or business or press releases about business.

If your chief domain is all about three-quarter inch nipples, you would be better off knowing the metric equivalents by heart if you are translating for a European audience?

You get the idea: the deeper you go, the better. It will give you a greater understanding of semantics in both your source and target language.

Fields do not just have grass

Let’s talk about semantic fields. I am not talking about literature, or synonyms. A quick and dirty definition of semantic fields can be found here. The Visual Thesaurus promoted at, as indeed any other thesaurus deal with this matter to some extent.

I am talking about the interrelationship of terms.  As a translator you have to see the inter-relationship of terms in your source language and the interrelationship of the terms referring to the same content in your target language. The size and shape of semantic fields differ from language to language. It also depends on the perspective of the writer or speaker. I once stopped the car and asked a passerby for directions to somewhere in Lisbon. His response was that the place was ‘far away’. This African laughed her head off when, three minutes later, we found the place we were looking for. For years, I drove 15 minutes on the open road to get to work. That was ‘not far’.

Studying semantic fields as and when you arrive at them is a bit different from a bilingual glossary. The two might intersect at intervals, but are not the same thing.

People do not talk or write based on glossaries. Sure, experts have common terminology, but when they come to describe the thing with a name which you find in a word list, it is conceptualised differently in one language than it is in another. This is another reason why we repeat the refrain, ‘it depends on the context’.

How big is a container?

German has a lovely word. Behälter. On a basic level, it is a ‘container’. It is an ‘elastic’ word; it stretches to cover everything from a small storage vessel (for rice for example) which you could conceivably hold in one hand, to a crate of variable size containing postal items, or a container with solid plastic walls containing hygienically wrapped frozen fish to a massive stainless steel tank with a 2,000 litre capacity.

Google Images gives something of an idea of word usage in each language:

The German ‘Behälter’ covers a much greater variety of objects than its general English equivalent ‘container’.


The English 'container' has other words or words used in combination for objects about the size of a crate.
The English ‘container’ has other words or words used in combination for objects about the size of a crate.


Here’s the thing: Think of a tank in English. It is big. In English a tank cannot be lifted. Semantically, it holds liquid, or gas. Can a tank ever be a container in English? No, not really, unless you say ‘huge container’. How big is a German Behälter/container? When (and in what context) does a German ‘container’ become an English ‘tank’? What has this got to do with the fermentation of wine?

Well, it makes me laugh when I find the words ‘container’ and ‘receptacle’ used almost interchangeably in a German to English translation of a website of a wine producer (somewhere on the Iberian Peninsula) when what is being referred to is a fermentation tank used in the production of red wine which looked something like these tanks, taken from a different website:

fermentation tanks
Fermentation tanks | Gärbehälter. To my knowledge, the wine industry does not put wine in ‘containers’ in English, unless it has already been bottled, crated and is ready for export.


That was not the only error on that website. I hope I have been sufficiently vague so that even forensic translators who are persistent trackers of the internet cannot find it.

So that is one word. Welcome to the terminological minefield. Tread carefully.

©2016 Allison Wright

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