Terminology survey results

When John took over the content publishing and localization engineering team for a software company, he heard one consistent complaint from his employees: The product terminologies, neither in the source nor in the 30 target languages, were not standardized. Small wonder: they were enterprise-resource planning products that his company had acquired in prior years. Terms were managed for some of them by the original teams, but integrating correct terms consistently into a suite with new staff was a tremendous challenge.

“I am spending 80% of my time dealing with terminology management issues,” said John in 2008. Two years later, the team had a fully functional workflow for source terminology. With correctly documented source terminology, the target team can now work on setting up correct terms for the target languages, and translators can make sure that they use that terminology consistently. In a large, virtual and complex organization, there is always room for improvement, but today John can devote time to the next pressing issue. Do other companies in North America manage their terminology? Or do they leave that part of client communication up to chance? These and other questions were the motivation for a team of TermNet consultants to create a survey for communication professionals — writers and editors, translators and translation project managers who work for companies in the United States or Canada. 

TermNet, the International Network for Terminology, is a nonprofit organization headquartered in Vienna, Austria. It brings together companies, universities, institutions and associations that engage in the further expansion of the terminology market. In 2010, TermNet received funding to create the ExcellenceTerm project, which focuses on the development of the North American terminology market, through terminology services, such as the Terminology Summer School, or products such as a registry of terminologists and terminology consultants.

The survey focused on the automotive, the mechatronic, and the information and communication technology (ICT) sectors. It was to provide basic market data of at least one of the sectors, which could then be used to conduct more qualitative research in other sectors and locations. The electronic survey was launched in November 2010.


Concepts and audience

One of the main principles in terminology management is that we define concepts in order to agree on them. So, before diving into the survey data, let’s set some baselines. Terminology management is defined as the systematic research, documentation and reuse of concepts and their terms. Research of terminological data is rooted in theory and based on terminology working methods. It includes such tasks as creation of new terms or names, which most communication professionals will participate in at some point of their professional lives. Along with sound term creation practices, reuse is a crucial reason why companies should be interested in managing their terms. Rather than having content publishers recreate definitions over and over again, a terminologist documents concepts, corresponding terms and metadata in a database. This allows everyone to access the information. Consistently used terms support clear language and enable not only others in the content supply chain, but ultimately the customer. Participants of the survey were given this definition of terminology management. While a good number were clear about what terminology management entails, it was also clear that the term means different things to different people. 

Of the 145 people participating in the survey, 81% completed all mandatory questions. Most respondents resided in the United States or worked for US companies, either as freelancers, at language service providers, or as in-house communication professionals. Some of the large companies represented were the SAS Institute, Rosetta Stone, Amazon, Oracle, Parametric Technology, Nintendo and SolidWorks. 77% were individual contributors and 23% were management.

The majority of respondents work primarily for the information and communication technology sector. Figure 1 shows the results of all respondents. Of 82 respondents from the language industry, more than 50% work most often for the ICT industry. Only five participants never work for the ICT industry. Consequently, survey results largely represent dataandopinionsfromindividuals either employed full-time by the ICT sector or working freelance, veryoften for theICTsector.Whataboutthelife sciences, where errors put lives in danger? The automotive industry, where parts are produced, named, maintained, bought and sold by many vendors? Or the high-tech sector, where imprecision can trigger errors and proliferate costs? We didn’t hear from many who are engaged in these industries. In fact, the owner of a LinkedIn forum in the aerospace and defense sector stated that the survey did “not relate to [the group’s purpose] in any way that I can see.” One of the reasons that we had a clear slant toward freelancers or employees who work for US software companies is that most of the personal invitations went to this stratum. Another reason might be that at least in the United States, terminology is very closely tied to localization. In a few cases, our personal invitationstosourcecommunicationprofes-

sionals were met with a variation of “but I don’t know anything about localization.” Additional research has been going into the other sectors.

For those employed by an enterprise, the main source language was English (95%). 87% of respondents work for companies that translate material into other languages and most of them translate into many languages. In response to this optional question, 18 respondents said they worked for companies that translate into between 11 and 50 languages; nine have ten or fewer target languages; and five have 99 or 100 languages. What’s more, 58% think that their number of languages will increase in the near future. 

Most of the source language content is created in-house. 57% said that creation of source content is not outsourced and 0% outsources all content. Nonetheless, there are a lot of external contributors to the content supply chain.

Decentralized production of complex material in many formats and translated into many languages — these all necessitate terminology management, but also lead to a high return on investment (ROI). What does the terminology management landscape look like? Several of the participants had at least a job role as a terminologist, if not the position of a full-time terminologist. 79% of those communication professionals who work for a company that translated their material and who knew something about the technologies and processes said that their companies did terminology management. It seems a high percentage, and we suspect that “terminology management” was interpreted very loosely. When asked who terminology was for, 84% responded that it was compiled for translators or even terminologists (see Figure 2). Does that mean terminology for terminology’s sake? No, as many of those who stated that the target audience was terminologists were upstream content publishers who obviously provide terms and definitions to target terminologists.

Nonetheless, the use of terminological products — the output of the

terminology research and documentation

process — seems underdeveloped. Based on the data, only 41% use defined terminology to help users understand a product better. Product terminology lists or concept trees are fantastic aids for education and training of users, but also of employees and partners. Defined terms and names are also the backbone of machine-driven processes, such as consistency checking, machine translation or controlled authoring. And with just a tad more effort, terms from a terminology database could support search engine optimization.


Terminological issues

The survey gave more insight into the problems of not managing terminology than of what else it is already supporting. Most participants had been confronted with some terminological problem or other with technical terms, names, abbreviations or marketing phrases. The only surprise might be that 4% had not run into any of the issues in Figure 3.

Eleven participants had also not encountered any consequences from linguistic problems. All others had seen at least one from the following graphic. One respondent pointed out that customers do complain, but that “they don’t often trace their woes to terminology confusion even when it’s the culprit; tech support likewise has no way or incentive to record terminology problems.” And that indicates one of the dilemmas: It is easy for a terminologist to identify a communication issue caused by malformed terms or incorrect usage. But customers, customer support or even those in the content supply chain don’t know enough about terminology management and don’t have the right tracking mechanisms. Bugs in the software are easier to track. Not for nothing do many localization teams have “bug databases” where their linguistic issues get filed, and there might even be a category for “terminology bugs.” Even at this late step in the process that is carried out by some of the more terminologically knowledgeable in the content supply chain, terminology bugs may only pertain to the target language. Source terminology problems might not get filed.

Figure 4 shows a variety of consequences caused by linguistic problems. One thing that was mentioned 12 times in response to the question “What caused the problem?” was lack of skills or knowledge. The category mentioned ten times was the lack of collaborative environments, starting with the culture (development in silos, no standards set up-front, and individuals not sticking to agreements) to tools. Generally, it was obvious that respondents were happy to use the most sophisticated tools. Where they were missing, they pointed that out. And the third most important category of causes of linguistic issues was the availability of information at the right time. Either terminology was not prepared or was insufficiently prepared. For example, important metadata was missing; terms were simply invented, unmanaged or not approved.

Terminology continues to be deemed a target-language affair. When asked who is involved in terminology processes in a company, we see again that terminology tasks come late in the game, namely during the translation or localization process (Figure 5). It is small wonder that discussions are lengthy when concepts are not defined by the creators, but rather left up to interpretation by the content supply chain. Collaboration is a key need for survey respondents, most of whom were downstream contributors such as translators and localization project managers.

Along with lengthy discussions to get the information, writers, editors and translators review their work over and over again. One respondent who is managing a microbusiness stated that at his company they “deal with the existing situation and verify, check, recheck, verify, reverify.” The customers don’t know, as the initial quote already contains a considerable number of checks. If that were the case across the board, the industry as a whole would be quite inefficient: a one-off check, or four or five, over the same document is usable only in the sense that the content chunk, in the source or target language, would have higher quality and could be reused later on. Other than that, the ROI of checks and reviews is much lower than it would be with a well-managed terminological entry.


What translators

and LSPs can do

The ideal scenario would obviously be that enterprises all take on managing their terminology from the beginning of the content supply chain down to the last message in the language of their smallest market. While I am dreaming, content publishers, marketing and branding experts, localization project managers and other communication professionals can do a variety of things so that terminology issues are not to remain the topic of “more discussion than action,” as Don DePalma put it in his recent tekom review. While a glossary does not equal terminology, it is the minimum that a content publishing team should produce. Customers will appreciate it. For example, I recently bought a new software package to do my accounting. Unfortunately, it didn’t come with a list of concepts and terms, and I had to sift through help files and other online material to figure out what the difference between two labels on a screen is. Once you have made the minimum leap of identifying key terms, add them to a centralized terminology tool. There are plenty of inexpensive terminology management software solutions on the market that can get you started. 

If you, as a communication professional working for an enterprise, made it to this point, what have you accomplished? You have cut down on unstandardized terms and definitions. You have facilitated translation of your product and reduced potential for error by humans and machines. And not least of all, you have enabled your customers to work with the software more efficiently. 

As a language service provider (LSP), you can support your clients in the above, for example, by offering terminology management services. Many LSPs already employ trained terminologists. If it doesn’t make sense to have one on staff, look for trained terminology resources among your freelancers or in the TermNet registry of terminologists. As long as enterprises put the burden of terminology research on the freelancers through LSPs, you can offer to reduce the number of reviews that you currently do by managing the client’s terms. As an added benefit, provide the client with a list of key terms at the end of the project. That is a reusable asset rather than a one-off process. Schmitz and Straub demonstrate effectively with very conservative figures that a well-set up system will pay off in its fourth year. If there are a higher number of languages, the ROI will set in earlier. Many people in an enterprise, from engineering to content publishing, create or use terms and names and therefore should be applying, be supported by or, at minimum, be aware of terminology practices.

Though in my experience it takes two years to become a solid terminologist, there are more and more ways to get started or to get some additional training. For many years, TermNet has been organizing a week-long terminology seminar, called the Terminology Summer School. Instructors put together a well-rounded curriculum that can lay the foundation for budding terminologists at LSPs, in enterprises or in the home office. As of last year, students can opt to take the exam for the Certificate for Terminology Managers. This new certification is part of the certification program created under the auspices of the European Certification & Qualification Association. Students either participate in a three-to-five day preparatory seminar, such as the Terminology Summer School, or they take online training that leads to certification. The online portion will be ready in Fall 2011. More information on these courses and other events is available on the TermNet website. Another resource for those starting out in or getting deeper into terminology management is the tekom Studie by Klaus-Dirk Schmitz and Daniela Straub. The tekom Studie and the TermNet survey both showed that those who don’t understand terminology management remain skeptical about its return on investment.

But as John, the manager of the content publishing and localization team we met in the beginning, will tell you, terminology management helps reduce customer complaints about incorrect terminology as well as localization cost and improves content quality by standardizing terms and providing translators access to definitions.



De Palma, Donald A. “Multilingual Technical Publishers Extend their Capabilities.” 2010. Blog retrieved from www.commonsenseadvisory.com/Default.aspx?Contenttype=ArticleDetAD&tabID=63&Aid=703&moduleId=390

   Schmitz, Klaus-Dirk, & Straub, Daniela. tekom Studie: Erfolgreiches Terminologiemanagement im Unternehmen. Stuttgart: tekom. 2010.