A look at terminology adapted to the requirements of interpretation

Nadia Rodríguez and Bettina Schnell
(Language Update, Volume 6, Number 1, 2009, page 21)

Many years have passed since the Nuremberg Trials in 1945, when conference interpretation was used for the first time. Conference interpretation services have been provided for the international community for 60 years now and continue to generate a strange mix of fascination and mistrust. Moreover, conference interpretation, an extremely difficult activity, remains a topic on which there is scant research and one whose secrets are difficult to unlock, particularly because of the complex mental effort that the activity requires.

However, in the 1980s, scientists began to take a closer interest in the specific nature of conference interpretation. This systematic investigation continues in the form of "interpreting studies" and has become a separate discipline of translatology, or the scientific study of translation.

The number of empirical and theoretical studies has therefore multiplied. They cover a vast array of issues, ranging from procedural skills and cognitive strategies used in interpretation situations to didactic methods in teaching and quality management. Given the considerable diversity of topics addressed in the research, it is surprising that the issue of terminology in interpretation has scarcely received the attention it deserves, especially if one considers the fact that interpreters are called upon to work in very different thematic scenarios, usually for a public of experts, and are given the task of transmitting highly specialized knowledge.

It is impossible for interpreters to acquire knowledge to the same degree as the experts, but they nonetheless have to be able to compile the terminological information required to do their job.

Without retracing the history of research activities pertaining to interpretation, we find nonetheless that the first reports of discussions on terminology in interpretation date from the second half of the 1980s. They consist of three articles by Daniel Gile, published between 1985 and 1987, entitled Les termes techniques en interprétation simultanée (technical terms in simultaneous interpretation), Le travail terminologique en interprétation de conférence (terminology work in conference interpretation) and La terminotique en interprétation de conférence : un potentiel à exploiter (terminotics in conference interpretation: a potential to be developed). However, these articles did not succeed in initiating an ongoing investigation of terminology requirements in interpretation. In fact, the topic was forgotten, only to resurface in the early 21st century in parallel with discussions about the increasing role of technology in the interpreters’ booth.

It is also interesting to note that it is the community of researchers studying interpretation that is taking a renewed interest in terminology. Terminologists, for their part, continue to view terminology work primarily from the perspective of translators’ needs and bypass the specific needs of interpreters. As pointed out by terminologist Klaus Schmitz of Cologne University, the main reason is the type of terminology requirements that interpreters have and the absence of high-performance technology that would make it possible to conduct terminology research in the interpreters’ booth. Consequently, the bulk of the terminology work continues to be relegated to the conference preparation phase.

Current status of terminology in interpretation

To know the current status of terminology in conference interpretation, one should have a look at two surveys conducted in recent years at Bologna University and the Sprachen & Dolmetscher Institut (SDI) in Munich. These surveys focus on the use of computers and terminology management software in the interpreters’ booth and provide us with significant data.

First, many of the interpreters surveyed said that they mainly used traditional tools—somewhat rudimentary tools, in our opinion—such as hard-copy glossaries with personal notes and standard reference works.

The interpreters were disinclined to introduce computerized tools into their professional methods for three reasons: there was no need for them (the main reason); the tools for interpreters on the market were inadequate; or the interpreters had little knowledge of the tools available on the market. The survey conducted by SDI in Munich fully demonstrated the third reason: only 17% to 27% of interpreters were aware of the existence of terminology software programs tailored to their needs, such as Interplex, Lookup and TermDB.

Second, the surveys revealed that a tiny number of interpreters were interested in these innovations and acquired the terminology management programs that were made available to them. As for the interpreters who used the software, they disregarded corpus analysis tools and continued to extract terms manually. In addition, many interpreters used generic software and Microsoft Office applications or created their own in-house software programs that met their specific needs, for the simple reason that the software programs were easy to use and modify.

The surveys show that computers have made only a very small incursion into the world of conference interpreters, whereas the world of intercultural mediation in its broadest sense has been shaken up and transformed by computerized work tools. Why?

Generic terminology management tools, such as Trados MultiTerm, have not been able to make inroads into conference interpretation because of their incompatibility with the requirements of the work phases in the interpreters’ booth and the associated cognitive processes. Moreover, the segmentation of entries in the databases created with these tools makes it impossible to create cognitive entries of conceptual systems that are structured by order of appearance in the discourse and that form an associative network.

Terminology problems in interpretation and solution strategies in use

We will now look in more depth at the terminology problems that interpreters encounter. The problems arise during the various work phases in the interpreters’ booth: first in the listening and analysis phase, then in the message reconstruction phase. The problems that are likely to arise in the first phase have to do with terms in the source language, which are sometimes unfamiliar, unexpected or misheard because, as Gile says, the specialized term—an extremely brief signal—is particularly vulnerable to sound distortion and disruptions, or in other words, noise. During the message reconstruction phase, the interpreter may be unaware of equivalents in the target language or unable to retrieve them from his or her memory during the interval, the brief period of time the interpreter has to produce discourse in the target language.

For each phase, there are various solutions for overcoming terminology problems. In the case of a problem in the listening and analysis phase, the approach interpreters take is to reconstruct the term based on the context. If the problem arises in the message reconstruction phase, the interpreter

  1. paraphrases
  2. uses a hyperonymFootnote 1
  3. naturalizes the term, making a morphological or phonological change to the source language term in order to bring it closer to the target language
  4. asks the fellow interpreter in the booth for help
  5. accurately and phonetically reproduces the term that he or she heard in the source language
  6. searches immediately in the available material (however, the interpreter hesitates to employ this solution, which is often a source of distraction and can cause a considerable loss of information)

Therefore, before even beginning to assess the terminology requirements of interpreters and how to fulfil them, it is worth remembering, as shown in the survey conducted by Valentini in Bologna, that for interpreters, accuracy and correctness of terminology still take second place to the transmission of meaning, and clear and expressive speech. On the one hand, the emphasis on the latter requirements is related to the ephemeral character of the interpreted discourse, which means that interpreters are not required in the same way as translators to use standardized terminology. On the other hand, according to Gile (1985), people who attend information-intensive conferences tend to concentrate on the notional content and not on the language form. Interpreters therefore have greater freedom to use neologisms, foreign words, borrowings or even occupational jargon. In fact, the use of all of these lexical units, which would certainly tarnish the quality of a translation, is permitted in interpretation.

Interpreters’ terminology needs

In order to more effectively identify the terminology needs of interpreters, it is essential to consider another parameter taken into account by Gile, that is, the rapidity of information transmission at conferences. This parameter forces interpreters to identify not only unknown terms, but also terms that they are unlikely to recall, as well as abbreviated forms and proper names, which are not terms in the strict sense.

If we take all of these observations and include them in a strictly terminological assessment, we find that the importance of practical terminology work in interpretation emerges at three specific times: first, during preparation for conferences, when the interpreter learns and memorizes the terminology; second, during work in the booth, where it is sometimes necessary to search for terminology because of the conditions inherent in the occupation, such as random or late sending of conference documents that are often incomplete and rarely multilingual; and, third, after work in the booth, when the interpreter follows up on the terminology work done beforehand.

Terminology work in interpretation

The question must now be asked about both the type of terminology data to be compiled and how it will be managed. In an effort to answer that question, we would like to begin an assessment of the terminology work for interpretation.

In order to do that, and with respect to the work preparation stages in the booth established by W. Kutz (2003), it is necessary to distinguish between theme-based preparation, linguistic preparation, translation preparation and, lastly, interpretation preparation. The terminology work carried out is not done solely during one of these stages, but throughout the process.

During theme-based preparation, interpreters do not limit themselves to finding relevant documents online or offline in order to become familiar with the subject field; instead they begin working at the same time to extract terms specific to the subject field and compile a glossary of some kind. For some, purely terminological preparations for a conference are almost, on their own, a particularly effective theme-based preparation.

For the actual linguistic preparation, the interpreter systematically analyzes the compiled material in order to extract relevant terms, synonyms and hyperonyms, acronyms and other abbreviated forms in order to compile glossaries, usually monolingual, to which are added equivalents in target languages during the translation preparation.

But the terminology work does not stop there. During the interpretation preparation with regard to the written discourse, the interpreter eliminates redundancies and underlines verbs, key words and important concepts, at which point he or she is able to compile a list of terms that will be included later in glossaries. This demonstrates that careful preparation for the interpretation task involves, above all, good preparation with respect to terminology. And nowadays, as in the past, good preparation with respect to terminology is based on the compilation of in-house glossaries tailored to interpreters’ individual needs. What sets this process apart nowadays is the existence of tools for making better compilations and managing terminology information more effectively.

Regarding the importance of terminology during an interpretation session, Stoll (2002) says that terminology research with a software program tailored to interpreters’ needs frees up short-term memory and promotes the retrieval of more syntactical structures, because all of the concepts in the database quickly become quasi-active vocabulary for the interpreter. As for the terminology work done afterwards, it should be pointed out that the glossaries compiled beforehand are not finished products, but active tools that may need corrections and additions at the end of the interpretation session to prevent any substantial loss of information.

A few proposals for terminology activities tailored to interpretation

In light of the preceding, we are able to put forward a few proposals closely related to the content and format of terminology records and a database typology that meets the terminology requirements of interpreters in the interpretation booth.

As for the content of terminology records tailored to interpreters’ needs, it is clear that some fields are identical to those on the records used by translators. These are the subject field and subfield classification indicators, the term in the source language and the equivalent term in the target language, as well as the definition and illustration. However, some elements are distinct from the terminology records used by translators, and these elements result directly from the usual methods followed by interpreters to solve their terminology problems. These elements include hyperonyms, synonyms, abbreviated forms, proper names, names of products and items that come up frequently in the discourse, and complete information on the register and preferences of the client and the organization. The interpreter also notes the pronunciation and highlights it on the record, which helps him or her to locate the term more easily when listening to the discourse and avoid a common terminology problem in interpretation. Lastly, it is important to include on the record phraseology units and verb-noun collocations that make it easier to reconstruct the message with the help of paraphrases.

The visual format of the terminology record must help the interpreter locate information quickly. The terminology record therefore requires a very carefully laid out design; it should be produced in adjustable formats, colours, fonts, character sizes and box sizes. In short, the record must have all of the necessary attributes of a highly personalized record that suits the needs of each interpreter.

To meet interpreters’ requirements relative to terminology management software programs, it is essential to consider the possibility of developing small databases that vary according to the area of specialty or according to the conference and client, and to avoid macro-databases at all costs. Mini-databases should be multilingual and include an option allowing the interpreter to switch the source and target languages. Five features would distinguish the interpreters’ mini-databases from the terminology databases intended for translators:

  1. speed of consultation
  2. intuitive navigation
  3. possibility of updating the terminology record in the interpretation booth
  4. considerable freedom to define the basic structure
  5. multiple ways of filtering data

In a similar vein, it should be emphasized that the usual terminology methodology should be abandoned if the intention is to provide interpreters with specific glossaries tailored to their needs. More specifically, the dominant onomasiologicalFootnote 2 principle does not adapt well to interpretation because the cognitive effort required by the onomasiological structures slows down the interpretation process. In other words, for terminology applied to interpretation, priority should be given to semasiological and associative principles in order to avoid a compartmentalization of terms in hermetic subject fields.

Designing a new model

We wanted to take a look at terminology for conference interpretation purposes in relation to the discipline of terminology. This is not a complete survey of all of the issues relative to terminology tailored to interpretation; instead, it is intended to launch a discussion that is becoming increasingly necessary and should include all interpreters and terminologists.

We have attempted to understand the cognitive aspect of interpretation and identify strategies for solving terminology problems arising in the interpretation process. The objective of these strategies is to provide interpreters with specific glossaries suited to their requirements.

After investigating the types of data to be included in a terminology record designed for interpreters, we found that the terminology methodology in use applies exclusively to the community of translators. What remains to be done is to design a specific model for terminology methodology suited to interpreters’ requirements. This requires an in-depth assessment that is beyond the scope of this article. Ideally, terminologists and interpreters should be aware of the acute need to implement a terminology methodology tailored to the needs of interpreters and should tackle this challenge together with linguistic engineers.


Gile, Daniel (2005), "La recherche sur les processus traductionnels et la formation en interprétation de conférence", Meta, vol. 50, no 2, pp. 713-726.

Gile, Daniel (2001), "Interpreting Research. What you never wanted to ask but may like to know", http://www.aiic.net/ViewPage.cfm/article229.htm.

Gile, Daniel (1987), "La terminotique en interprétation de conférence : un potentiel à exploiter", Meta, vol. 32, no 2, pp. 164-169.

Gile, Daniel (1986), "Le travail terminologique en interprétation de conférence", Multilingua 5-1, pp. 31-36.

Gile, Daniel (1985), "Les termes techniques en interprétation simultanée", Meta, vol. 30, no 3, pp. 199-210.

Kutz, Wladimir (2000), "Training für den Ernstfall. Warum und wie sich die Vorbereitung auf den Dolmetscheinsatz lohnt", MDÜ 3.

Rütten, Anja (2007), "Web 2.0 und andere Ausprägungen des Wissensmanagements für Dolmetscher", http://www.aiic.net/ViewPage.cfm/page2841.htm.

Setton, Robin (2005), "So what is so interesting about simultaneous interpreting?", http://www.pulib.sk/skase/Volumes/JTI01/doc_pdf/06.pdf.

Stoll, Christoph (2002), "Terminologiesysteme für Simultandolmetscher", MDÜ 3, pp. 47-51.

Valentini, Cristina (2002), "Uso del computer in cabina di interpretazione. Inchiesta sui bisogni terminologici degli interpreti prima e durante la simultanea", http://www.aiic.net/ViewPage.cfm/article464.

Will, Martin (2007), "Terminology Work for Simultaneous Interpreters in LSP Conferences: Model and Method", MuTRa 2007– LSP Translation Scenarios: Conference Proceedings, http://www.euroconferences.info/proceedings/2007_Proceedings/2007_Will_M....

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