Creating New Terminology: Do Translators Really Do This?

Here are the seven term formation principles from ISO 704 Terminology Work—Principles and Methods that allow us to assess existing synonyms or new term suggestions.

The rhetorical question in the title above originates in my work with translation students in the Master’s in Translation and Interpreting program at New York University. In their second semester, they may not have thought about translating in subject areas that are new to the target culture and where terminology has not yet been coined. I explain that, as translators, they might get to form new terms. Sometimes, I hear a tiny gasp from students in my online course.

Naturally, not every technical translator will coin new terminology in every assignment. There’s plenty of work in domains with little innovation and on documents with repetitive material. But there are also scenarios that most certainly include new concepts. For example, a patent is a text about a new invention that is by definition a concept that doesn’t exist elsewhere in that form and, therefore, has to be assigned a term. Translators may work in or for organizations where new departments or new roles need to be named on a regular basis. In manufacturing environments, for example, the number of existing products and new versions may be so high that new names are first suggested by computer programs before a human approves them. This is not the norm. It’s still humans who name most new concepts. So, the more systematically they go about it, the better for the audience.

Language professionals from around the world have come together in the framework of the International Organization for Standardization’s (ISO) Technical Committee 37, Language and Terminology, to create ISO 704 Terminology Work—Principles and Methods.1 This international standard establishes the basic principles and methods for preparing and compiling terminologies both inside and outside the framework of standardization, and describes the links between objects, concepts, and their terminological representations. The standard also contains a section on term formation. The following will cover the seven term formation principles from ISO 704 that allow us to assess existing synonyms or new term suggestions.

While not all principles and methods are transferable to other languages, many are. Readers may recognize what works in another language, but also identify additional methods for their languages. My goal here is to share this topic with a wide audience and help make naming a more conscious and deliberate effort.

Why Do Well-Formed Terms and Names Matter?

One of the primary goals of technical material is to pass on information to a user. A large component of technical texts are terms and names (designations). Indeed, terms and names are the main carriers of information, as they’re the representations of concepts covered by the text.

If we invent terms and names randomly, chances are nobody will understand the concepts behind them. Communication will be inhibited or not occur. If we form terminology with a systematic approach, a larger percentage of readers will grasp the concept, and grasp it faster. In his Manuel pratique de terminology, Canadian translator-terminologist Robert Dubuc states: “[a] term is well-formed if the concept comes through either via the etymology or via the components of the term. Terms that follow the morphology of a language are often well-formed.”2 [Note: Translation mine.]

ISO Term Formation Principles

The 2009 edition of ISO 704 lists seven principles of term formation for the English language. They allow us to examine existing or new terms. In fact, a better term for these principles might be “term assessment principles.” The sections on the following pages cover the seven principles, complete with examples from my work as a terminologist. For more details, please see the standard itself. (Link provided at the end of this article.)

1. Transparency

If terms and names are transparent, the informed reader will not need a dictionary or definition to understand them. The meaning of the concept they represent will be clear from looking at the designation. Terms that are transparent reflect important characteristics of the concept (e.g., form or function).

Medical terminology, for example, is generally transparent to the subject matter experts of the field. Medical professionals will immediately recognize the concept underlying the term microprolactinoma as a small (micro-) tumor (-oma) that has an effect on the level of the hormone, prolactin, in the body of the patient.

That’s not to say that all medical terminology is created with transparency in mind. Some are what we call ill-formed. For example, a particular gene of the fruit fly was named Cheap Date, as a geneticist-friend pointed out years ago. Even to him the name was murky, but then he learned that the name was motivated by the fact that flies with a mutation in this gene are susceptible to alcohol.3

Figure 1: Short terms are usually less transparent.

2. Linguistic Economy

While the term/name must be clear and unique, it should also not be a long description. After all, we could use definitions to be precise, but that wouldn’t be convenient in most communication scenarios. Therefore, a term should be as short as possible. This matters even more in environments where limited space is available (e.g., cell phone screens).

Even where space plays no roll, communicators often prefer short terms for convenience. For example, NATO is used far more often then the full form North Atlantic Treaty Organization. But users and creators of terminology must be aware that shorter terms are less transparent. When asked whether DNA is a transparent term, invariably at least one says yes. Tongue in cheek I affirm that everyone knows that it refers to the Democratic National Alliance, a former political party in Trinidad and Tobago. Without knowing at least the subject area, we cannot be sure of the underlying concept. (See Figure 1.)

3. Consistency

Within the subject field, designations should be consistent and reflect the underlying concept system. Readers new to a subject field learn more quickly when the terminology is consistent, as retention is enhanced. Some good examples of this include:

  • Chemical formulas and their corresponding terms that reflect the underlying concept system (e.g., N2O, or dinitrogen monoxide; Cl2O7, or dichlorine heptoxide).4
  • Rotary-wing aircrafts are named based on the number of rotor systems each aircraft has (e.g., a multicopter is one with more than two rotor systems). (See Figure 2.)

Figure 2: Term base entries for consistently named rotary-wing crafts

4. Appropriateness

The designation must be appropriate for the audience of the text and the subject field and shouldn’t have any unwanted connotations. This principle suggests that we pick the right register for the audience. But it also helps us avoid creating terms that are hard to pronounce or that have distracting undertones.

Even companies that aren’t concerned with many of the other principles discussed here obey the latter aspect of this one when coining new product names. For example, when Windows® Vista was named, language experts for over 100 languages were asked what Vista meant to them. When only the Lithuanian linguists mentioned that višta means hen in their language, the Windows team deemed Vista acceptable for use worldwide.

5. Derivability and Compoundability

A new concept and its term may lead to new ways of communicating about them. If possible, we should keep in mind while coining the term that we may have to form other parts of speech (derivability) or compounds (compoundability) that are based on the term in the future. Here are two examples:

  • Starting with the Microsoft® Office 2007 suite, the user interface navigation changed from menu-driven navigation to the “ribbon,” a graphical control element in the form of a set of toolbars placed on several tabs. Pretty soon other software developers “ribbonized” their interfaces and introduced ribbons as navigational aids. And eventually the ribbon was broken down into “ribbon tabs” and “ribbon groups.”
  • When German terminologists decided that the noun for the English “upload” would be “Upload” in German, they didn’t think about the term as a verb yet. For a while, even the IT community struggled with the past tense of the term, which could be upgeloaded or geuploaded. Both sounded cumbersome and looked incorrect.

6. Linguistic Correctness

A new term must follow standard rules of the language with regard to spelling or grammar. Particularly areas of business that are sales-oriented are prone to violating this principle in their naming. Being hip trumps being correct. And yet, following established rules allows us to create terms or names that will be acceptable to a larger audience, less exposed to ridicule, and less likely to necessitate a change.

Inspired by English, many business owners of small businesses in Germany use the apostrophe “s” for possessives in their business name: e.g., Mirko’s Dönerbude or Erika’s Nagelstudio (correct: Mirkos Dönerbude and Erikas Nagelstudio). As linguists, we’re aware of hyphenation, capitalization, and other rules that apply to our languages and follow them.

7. Preference for Native Language

Often, we have a choice between a loanword, which we could introduce from the source language into the target language, and a term in the native language of the target market. The preferred term in most cases is a term in the native language (not a loan), because it’s generally easier for target-language readers to understand. This principle applies specifically to our scenario of creating terms during the translation process.

Particularly the IT professionals in other countries are willing to use English terminology, but that doesn’t always work out. Even IT experts in Germany voted to replace the above-mentioned example of the verb uploaden with the existing and perfectly fine German term hochladen when asked in a survey during an industry event in 2004. Replacing such a prevalent term many years after it was introduced is extremely costly for a company.

That’s why it was a surprise when Microsoft insisted on using the English term “firstline worker” (for a new category of workers) in many target-language markets. It’s one thing to retain the name of a product or a company name, but it’s not advisable to impose terms for general concepts on another language. Even if we don’t speak Japanese, we can see from the excerpt shown in Figure 3, which comes from a Japanese website, that it might be a problem.4 Just think of the sales representative who is trying to introduce clients to a product for firstline workers. It’s easy to imagine that by the second time they have to pronounce it, they’ll have invented something that works more naturally for them.

Figure 3: Excerpt of a Japanese website with English terms and names

There’s Nothing Easy about Naming

In my classroom, we look at terms in the context of their underlying concept and assess whether or not they meet the principles discussed above. Students notice that most terms don’t meet all the principles. As mentioned earlier, a term can often only be transparent (where the meaning of the underlying concept is readily understood) or short (where the meaning is less transparent). When this is the case, a concept might be represented by both a long and a short form. For instance, the long, more transparent, form should be used initially, but then the shorter form can be used in the rest of the document, especially if space is an issue. Sometimes long forms aren’t very easy to pronounce, and therefore might lack appropriateness. Again, this is where a short form might come in handy.

There’s nothing easy about naming, especially if we don’t do it regularly. Companies that are serious about their linguistic presentation and professional image put work into naming their products, features, departments, job titles, and most of all the company itself. As their extended representatives, translators must put equal care into the coining of new terms and names. ISO 704 provides us with seven term formation principles to guide us in this endeavor.

Notes
  1. ISO TC37 Language and Terminology. “ISO 704:2009 Terminology Work—Principles and Methods,” Vol. ISO 704 (Geneva: ISO/TC 37/SC 1, 2009), http://bit.ly/ISO-704.
  2. Dubuc, Robert. Manuel Pratique De Terminologie, 4th Edition (Brossard: Linguatech éditeur inc., 2002).
  3. Krulwich, Robert. “Fruit Fly Scientists Swatted Down Over ‘Cheap Date,’” NPR All Things Considered (February 9, 2009), http://bit.ly/Cheap-Date.
  4. “Naming of Molecular Compounds,” http://bit.ly/naming-compounds.
  5. IT Media News, http://bit.ly/Japanese-firstline.

Barbara Inge Karsch is the owner of BIK Terminology, a terminology consultancy and training company. As a consultant and trainer, she works with companies and organizations on terminology training, terminology development, and the implementation of terminology management systems. She draws on her 14 years of experience as an in-house terminologist for J.D. Edwards and Microsoft. She has been an adjunct instructor in the Master’s in Translation and Interpreting program at New York University since 2012. As a U.S. delegate to ISO Technical Committee 37, Language and Terminology (International Organization for Standardization), she is leading the revision of ISO 12616 (“Terminology work in support of multilingual communication—Part 1: Fundamentals of translation-oriented terminography”). Contact: bikterminology@gmail.com.

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