Changing Methodologies: A Journey Through Time

Monique Boileau
(Language Update, Volume 5, Number 3, 2008, page 18)

Presentation made by Monique Boileau on November 23, 2007 at the annual congress of the Ordre des traducteurs, terminologues et interprètes agréés du Québec.

Terminologists who work within a governmental corporate structure where they must generate the necessary revenue to keep the operation going have to adapt their working methods to the organization’s ever-changing needs. With the passing years, the methodology used within the federal government, and in particular at the Terminology Standardization Directorate (TSD), has been deeply influenced by this situation. Let’s see how.


Until not so long ago there existed what I call the "Australopithecus terminologist," who lived in a world of paper. He or she had little contact with departments or TERMIUM® users. Terminologists worked in isolation, although the results of their research were known even abroad. They followed self-defined priorities. Exchanges with the outside world were in the context of work that was sometimes done in committee and sometimes in specialized commissions. Their methodology was completely traditional. Though some rudimentary tools were available to assist with the terminologist’s work, only limited means of communication existed. Let’s take a closer look at Australopithecus.

Tasks and methodology

Australopithecus does either thematic research, which will produce TERMIUM® records or publications, or ad hoc research. He or she defines the subject-field tree by means of encyclopedias and reference works, enters each term found on a paper index card, accurately indicates contexts and definitions by citing the appropriate sources and may add a comment. The assembled results, once sorted, are used to build records. The terminologist defines the concept by choosing the most relevant context or definition. A textual match is mandatory. The translation unit is often accompanied by a usage example. The record cites as sources works published by publishers: monographs, vocabularies and glossaries.

The usage is attested in written sources, except in ad hoc research, where oral sources are allowed. The drafting of definitions is done only in collaboration with specialists, for purposes of publication only. After revision, the paper index cards are sent to Data Capture for input. All records are accessible internally (full, partial or working records). Systematic uploading of glossaries or vocabularies is authorized, to meet the expectations of Bureau translators. Lastly, terminology studied in committee is marked "officially approved" rather than "standardized." Only terms taken from standards (ISO, AFNOR, etc.) or published by official organizations (like NATO) are regarded as standardized.

"Modernicus" appears

Some ten years ago, Australopithecus underwent a metamorphosis. The factors driving the change were closely related to the decision to distribute TERMIUM® widely, both within the federal public service and to the general public.

The TERMIUM® data bank became a commercial product, and users and subscribers became partners.

Methodological changes

Definition drafting workshops in both official languages are organized for all terminologists. The need to come up with definitions leads to greater collaboration with specialists, especially in the technical and scientific fields. I defy you to define the following terms in 45 minutes or less, unless you are a specialist: matrice de cooccurrence des niveaux de gris or its equivalent "grey level co-occurrence matrix" (hint: the field is remote sensing, image processing).

In addition to creating definitions, translation and transposition are drafting processes used to ensure the concept is understood in both official languages. Comments are used to further explain the concept.

By recording phraseologisms, terminologists can meet the expectations of users who want to know the co-occurrents of a term (e.g. the Combinatory Vocabulary of CAD/CAM in Mechanical Engineering and the Combinatory Vocabulary of Fractal Imagery).

The examples cited in some records serve only to confirm usage. The obligation to write definitions means that some records are less well documented and that synonymic research is less exhaustive, especially in very specialized fields.

Putting quality into words

An expanded TERMIUM® Guide adapted to the new working methods is published. The Methodology Committee is created to standardize methods and see that the new Guide is rigorously implemented.

A universal quality control system is instituted and a two-year supervision plan for new recruits set up. Systematic revision of the work of newly hired terminologists becomes standard practice.

Staff upgrading in methodology necessarily means organizing revision workshops for team leaders and self-revision training for all other terminologists. Discussion forums are started up—a very modern way of consolidating competencies recently acquired in workshops and discussing any problem cases.

Content management by field is made a priority, to ensure that both recently created records and those already in the data bank are in compliance with the Guide. Customers who subscribe to TERMIUM Plus® also have a contribution to make. All comments sent by e-mail on records in the data bank are passed on to the terminologists, who must follow them up as soon as possible.

Networking with the departments, a winning strategy

The terminologist is at the heart of these exchanges as a project officer, consultant and collection manager.

Distribution of TERMIUM® to the public service as a whole increases the visibility of terminology within departments. Terminology is offered as added value when service contracts are signed between the Bureau and its clients.

The TSD sets up the Federal Terminology Council, whose mandate is to standardize terminology common to federal departments and agencies in both official languages.

Many of the publications that appear arise from collaborations with departments and serve to expand TERMIUM®. The Human Resources Management Glossary, the Passport Canada Glossary and the Alternate Forms of Delivery Glossary are available on the Translation Bureau site. This strategy of partnership between departments and the TSD benefits translators and freelances, who find their clients’ terminology in TERMIUM®.

Next, the provinces and territories come on board. The National Terminology Council is created, through which the TSD seeks to meet the needs of the provinces and territories. At the request of the Northwest Territories’ government translation service, the TSD publishes the Diamond Cutting Vocabulary.

The list of co-operating departments lengthens. Committees are popular, such as those at National Defence, Agriculture Canada, Parks Canada and Natural Resources Canada.

Nor are our foreign collaborators in short supply—the World Road Association, the terminology and neology commissions of the Délégation générale à la langue française et aux langues de France (DGLFLF), ISO and NATO. Terminology resulting from these collaborations goes into the data bank.

At the Bureau, specialist translators organize themselves and set up working groups, with terminologists’ participation, to develop new terminology for such projects as laser gyro (RLG) platforms (Technical Translation Division), the International Space Station, and RADARSAT-2 (Canadian Space Agency). This "upstream" research fosters greater rationalization of work and resources, while giving access to quality terminology. Standardization of terms facilitates revisers’ quality-control work as well as the work of translators using translation memories.

More and more client departments ask the TSD to check their databases or build custom databases for them. Such is the case, for example, of the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission. Profitable, billable projects for the Bureau, and new records for the data bank. Networking with departments helps the TSD contribute to the "terminology standardization" effort traditionally reserved for committees and other mandated commissions.

Terminology widens its field of influence

The TSD decides to add Spanish and Portuguese to certain records to meet new requirements. Trilingual terminologies are put together and result in publications (e.g. the Export Financing and Insurance Vocabulary). This innovative trend gave rise to the Language Nook of the Government of Canada, a reference and self-learning tool that enables federal public servants to enhance their language proficiency. The site abounds in linguistic advice on grammar, syntax and usage difficulties for Francophones and Anglophones alike. The site’s mascot, Dagan the Dragonfly, helps users to improve their knowledge through exercises, examples and games.

International exchanges are emphasized, as shown by the publication of trilingual glossaries developed in co-operation with the Réseau panlatin de terminologie (REALITER) on bioethics and electronic commerce. Trainers go to Latin America, Africa and Nunavut to give terminology workshops.

New tools: from physical to virtual

Terminologists can’t do without the Internet. Internet use depends on the terminologist’s ability to use the tool effectively. A poorly worded search string can give disappointing and sometimes even laughable results. I recently looked for information on the term chevrette (part of a whip saw). By searching on chevrette and scie, without any other particulars, I got information on almost every chevrette in the world, including Quebec Minister Guy Chevrette. A thorough knowledge of search strategies is absolutely essential to obtain the desired results.

The Internet tools frequently used by terminologists include search engines (Google, Alta Vista, etc.), telephone books, images, free and fee-based databases, discussion forums and e-mail.

From their computer workstation, with a few clicks, terminologists can access specialized sites anywhere in the world: university theses, research reports, manufacturers’ documentation, databases (UN, ESA, CSA, NASA, IATE), legislation, standards, encyclopedias, etc. On their network they can consult general and specialized dictionaries. It is important to note, however, that the Internet is not a panacea and is in no way a replacement for published books.

The main disadvantage of the sources found on the Web is that they are ephemeral. Their only usefulness is to confirm terms’ existence at a given moment.

Although terminologists do apply rigorous criteria to their selection of Internet sources, at times the poor linguistic quality of the reference texts obliges them to rewrite whole sentence segments or even whole paragraphs. Another irritant—and complication—is the lack of rigour in the source content.

Terminologists surround themselves with resource people by creating networks and discussion forums with specialists and manufacturers from all over the world.

Among the other unconventional uses that can be made of the Internet are the definition of the subject-field tree, the establishment of notional networks, the search for co-occurrents, the verification of terms’ frequency of use, identification of idiomatic expressions in special-purpose language and retrieval of texts broken down by geographical location or site category: commercial, governmental, academic, etc.

The Internet provides a window on the world. TSD electronic publications are offered free of charge on the Translation Bureau site. TERMIUM Plus® is also accessible everywhere on the planet.

Dedicated tools

YVANHOE is an in-house term extraction tool that retrieves data from digitized texts for subsequent transfer into data-capture software (LATTER-DOS or LATTER-WINDOWS) in a TERMIUM®-compatible record format.

LATTER software is used to input the data into the records and to manage collections. Data may be exchanged between two instances of LATTER or between LATTER and TERMIUM®.

PUBLICIEL software is used to develop publications. Data exported from LATTER to PUBLICIEL is laid out by the terminologist. A desktop publishing team makes the fine corrections. This software supports several printing formats. Both LATTER and TERMIUM® have rudimentary desktop publishing functions, which are mainly useful for selected print jobs.

Various term extraction tools are used to track terms for glossary building. The TSD is currently looking for a bilingual extraction tool to be used as an auxiliary tool for translation memories.

E-mail seems like the perfect multitasking tool to share or follow up on files (virtual committees), route batches of records, manage duties and archive various documents.

What is required of terminologists in 2008?

A thorough knowledge of both official languages, strong ability to analyse and synthetize data, ability to work as part of a team, flexibility and exceptional adaptability, as well as aptitudes for writing, communications, teaching, management and technology.

TSD terminologists’ concerns

Because terminologists must use a broad range of software programs every day, they often feel at a loss because of a lack of adequate knowledge of the tools at their disposal. Continuous training and self-learning are not sufficient to correct the situation. Customized or "à la carte" workshops could be offered to meet specific needs.

The creation of diversified career profiles (terminology and training, terminology and communications, terminology and promotion, etc.) could be a novel way of meeting certain career expectations.

For terminologists, the future is at once promising and hazy. The profession has not developed at the same rate as translation or interpretation. On the labour market, terminology is marginalized, its status ill defined. Because of this, candidates who might wish to embark on a career in terminology are hesitant and unsure.

As specialities are becoming increasingly complex, workplace training is no longer sufficient. It is very time-consuming and yet does not guarantee full autonomy. The shortcomings become evident in exchanges with specialists or when the person must do scientific or technical writing. Although the TSD continues to emphasize the hiring of candidates with dual training—translation and a major in certain other disciplines (technical, scientific or legal, for example)—special measures should be put in place to help nonspecialists already on the job.

Terminology now offers career prospects that greatly exceed the current ambit of the profession. One need only think of artificial intelligence (hierarchization and categorization of concepts), the development of dedicated software for natural language processing, computer-assisted translation (dictionary development) and fundamental knowledge classification research. Accordingly, universities need to develop programs corresponding to the new market realities so that the profession can regain its former prestige.

Terminology is an emerging profession, and one that has yet to be redefined.

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