Terminology guidelines and the Chinese language

Terminology guidelines are rarely discussed at conferences and trade fairs for the translation industry. However, terminology guidelines are crucial for ensuring consistent translation and therefore translation quality. A terminology guideline is a document containing rules for the correct use of preferred language. A terminology guideline is the first step toward the creation of controlled vocabularies and the first “to-do” when starting a terminology management project. As the result of the diligent and constant work of terminology curation, a terminology guideline is paramount for ensuring the success of terminology management implementation.

In particular, a terminology guideline:

Collects terminology examples from text corpora.

Describes methods for selecting preferred terms among synonyms (muffler or silencer? Anschnallgurt or Sicherheitsgurt? Textgestaltung or Layout?)

Defines the rules for the correct use of standard language (registration number versus rego)

Gives directions for the spelling of terms (retry versus re-try)

Defines methods for the creation of consistent abbreviations (surfactant versus surface active agent, RegDir versus Regionaldirektor)

Provides the rules (compounding, derivation) and examples for term creation.

A terminology guideline also serves as orientation for the modeling of terminology databases and is the reference document for cleaning the data collected in terminology extraction projects. Therefore, a terminology guideline should be considered as a strategic document that supports organizations in establishing a corporate language and creating controlled vocabularies.

While a great number of governmental organizations have already completed the creation of terminology guidelines and glossaries, manufacturing companies in all industries and countries are still struggling to keep order in their terminology collections. One reason for the delay in implementing terminology management is the complexity of this task. In fact, terminology management projects usually involve the organization in its whole and require a great amount of resources — time, people, know-how, technology and money. Another reason for the delay in the implementation of terminology management is the fact that these projects often end up revealing organizational problems (such as untimed processes or poor knowledge management) whose solutions would require an additional amount of resources.

As a result, companies delay the implementation of terminology management projects until streamlined processes are in place. The rise of semantic components (such as HTML5) and semantic technologies (such as semantic search) is increasing the awareness for the relevance of terminology management at management level. The result is a better understanding for the various meanings of semantic and the returns on investments of terminology management. Document management systems, knowledge management systems and online marketing techniques (such as search engine optimization) all perform best when a set of terminology rules and controlled vocabularies are provided — taxonomies, metadata and keyword lists. 

The use of graphic symbols (ideograms) to represent an idea or a concept is the most relevant characteristic of the Chinese language. Unlike alphabetic languages, where the symbols reflect the pronunciation of words and not the meaning, in Chinese, ideograms transmit semantic meaning. In the Chinese writing system, the relation between a term and a concept is unique and unambiguous. Words using the same character but having different meanings are rare in Chinese, and due to this monosemic nature, the Chinese language is much more precise than nonideogrammatic languages. Nonideogrammatic languages present a high frequency of polysemy and homonymy, which can result in confusion — consider the words bank (in the context of rivers or money) and mouse (in the context of computers or rodents), for example. The term localization itself is ambiguous in German, English, Italian and Spanish. The Chinese language, on the contrary, uses different characters to express different meanings. As seen in Table 1, the semantic component of the ideograms make clear what kind of localization is meant.


Term creation in DIN, ISO and GB

To analyze similarities and differences of the principles for term creation between languages belonging to different language groups, I compare the general principles of terminology work contained in terminology norms DIN (Deutsches Institut für Normung), ISO (International Organization for Standardization) and China’s GB (国家 标准 Guojia biāozhǔn, National Standard). Chinese terminology norms are the adaptation of ISO norms, and my goal is to highlight the similarity of principles in an interlinguistic perspective.

DIN 2330 (1993: 6) mentions being “Genauigkeit, Knappheit und Orientierung am anerkannten Sprachgebrauch” (unambiguous, concise, appropriate and in use in a language community). ISO 704 (2009) lists “transparency, consistency, appropriateness, linguistic economy, derivability, linguistic correctness and preference for native language.” The Chinese Standard GB / T 10112 (1999: 5) refers to the work of TC / 37 (ISO) and since 1988 has mentioned “clarity, what is most used in a language community, conciseness and focus on standard language.” The statement declaration makes clear that the ISO norms have undergone an adaptation for the specificity of the Chinese language. Table 2 highlights the adaptations making clear that the majority of principles as stated in ISO 740 can also be applied for the Chinese language.


Term formation methods

in German and Chinese

A comparison of methods for term formation as mentioned in DIN and GB norms should highlight the similarity between different language systems and suggest the answer for the question: “Which rules should a terminology guideline for the Chinese language contain?” I am aware that I am doing something different compared to the statements of DIN and ISO that term creation principles are not subjected to an international or European standard (DIN 2330: 1993, p 12), Annex 1 ISO 740: “Term formation patterns depend on the lexical, morphosyntactic, and phonological structures of individual languages and recommendations cannot be given in an International Standard” (ISO 740, A.1). Nevertheless, through this table could be highlighted the possibility of an international standard in the same terms as present for the “adoption of standardized terminological entries in standards” (ISO 10241-2) or in the ontology web language. Table 3 does not list all methods for term formation. For a full list of term formation methods please refer to the norms DIN, ISO and GB.


Terminology in China

The opening of China to the world in the 1990s also started the process of harmonization of standards between China and Europe. Successful cooperation in the field of standardization — recently the translation of 60,000 DIN standards into Chinese — proves the strong bond between China and the rest of the world. Worth mentioning in the context of terminology harmonization is the work of ISO/TC 37, International Information Center for Terminology (Austria) and Internationales Terminologienetz (Austria). Since the 1980s these organizations have been supporting the international knowledge transfer in the field of terminology research and providing valuable inputs to the China National Institute of Standardization (中国标准化研究院) and the China National Committee for Terms in Sciences and Technologies (全国科学技术名词审定委员会) for the harmonization of standards. With 93 subject field subcommittees and more than 3,000 scientists participating in examining and approving scientific and technological terms, China is demonstrating organizational excellence for the establishment of curated monolingual and bilingual terminology resources. Noteworthy in this context are the terminology collections carried out by the Chinese Academy of Sciences (中国科学院). Since the 1980s its publishing house has published terminology collections for dozens of subject fields, among them astronomy, physics, biochemistry and electronics.