Translators and ad hoc terminology research in the 21st century

Kim Lacroix
(Language Update, Volume 7, Number 4, 2010, page 28)

When I started the M.A. in translation program at the University of Ottawa, I was already working in the field of translation and, like many other new translators, had quickly become aware of the differences between what is taught in school and what is practised in “real life.” What? You mean I don’t have a whole week to translate these 300 words? Unsurprisingly, that luxury just doesn’t exist in a production environment.

I have always been interested in specialized languages. So I wondered, what do experienced translators and terminologists do when they come across a specialized term and need to find its equivalent? How do they carry out their terminology research? Do they do it the same way that we learned in school? Where do they look? I also wanted to know if these two groups used the tools available on the market today (term extractors, comparable and parallel corpora, and concordancers, to name just a few), or if there were other tricks I didn’t know about. Which tools and which sources do they actually use?

In order to answer these questions, I decided to carry out a short surveyRemark a under the supervision of Dr. Aline Francœur. The type of terminology research that interested me the most was ad hoc term research (and more specifically bilingual ad hoc term research), and so this survey dealt only with this type of research rather than thematic research.Remark b

What is ad hoc term research?

It is arguably the most common type of terminology research: its purpose is to fulfill a particular, sometimes one-time need (hence ad hoc). An ad hoc term search answers a specific (often urgent!) question like “What does the term bandwidth mean?” or “How do you say skydiver in French?” According to Célestin, Godbout and Vachon-L’Heureux, who co-wrote the Méthodologie de la recherche terminologique ponctuelle, “In a way, anyone who has ever tried to define a word, to find the word to describe a certain concept, or to look for the equivalent of a term in another language has already carried out ad hoc term research.”Footnote 1 So bilingual ad hoc term research is the search for the equivalent of a term in another language.

How is ad hoc term research carried out?

The first step, of course, is to make sure the search hasn’t already been done: check terminology databases, bilingual dictionaries and lexicons. If the term is not found, you need to carry out what I call a “true” bilingual term search. Most terminology textbooksRemark c agree that to find a term equivalent, you should follow these steps:

  1. determine the source term’s subject field
  2. define the source term
  3. use the context and definitions of the term to pinpoint its characteristics and find keywords pertaining to it
  4. use these characteristics or keywords to try to find a matching term in subject-field-specific target language documentation. For example, if I am searching for the equivalent of the term glisseur in the subject field of skydiving equipment, I could use keywords found in my context, and easily translated into English, such as “skydiving equipment,” “parachute,” “canopy,” “fabric,” “square,” “grommets,” etc.Remark d

According to terminology theory, “target language documentation” should not include translated texts, since these do not represent “natural” language. However, as shown in the survey data, translated texts are used in ad hoc term research carried out in practice.

Why is ad hoc terminology research important?

Even general texts can contain jargon (specialized vocabulary and terms related to a specific subject field). Terminology research is more than just looking up a term in a bilingual dictionary or database to find an equivalent. It requires in-depth analysis of systems and concepts, as well as excellent knowledge of word-formation principles and language rules. It is important to be acutely aware of what subject field the term is used in before simply looking it up in a dictionary or terminology database. To take a common example, the word survey has a different meaning (and should be translated differently) depending on whether it is used in the field of statistics (enquête or sondage) or geology (arpentage). This may seem straightforward enough, but sometimes the context doesn’t make the subject field all that clear!

The survey data

Unfortunately, I had to limit the scope of my survey because it was carried out in the context of an M.A. degree. Owing to time constraints, I wasn’t able to do two different surveys, one for Anglophones and one for Francophones. Since I had to choose, I decided to survey only translators working from English to French and terminologists working mainly in French (with the option of repeating the survey at a later date for translators working in the other direction or with other language pairs). The survey was carried out in French.

My pool of survey respondents included 93 translators and 18 terminologists. However, only 67 of these translators and 8 of the terminologists answered all of the questions in the survey. As my group of terminologists is not large enough to be representative, I will be examining only the translators’ responses in this article.

Most of my translators had between 2 and 10 years of experience – 54.8% of them, in fact. Another 28.2% had between 20 and 30 years of experience, and the rest fell somewhere in between. Not surprisingly, 62.1% of the translators worked in the public sector, whereas the rest worked for private translation firms (15.1%), as freelancers (13.6%), or for businesses in the private sector (9.2%).

This survey was divided into three parts. In the first part, I asked the respondents to give information about themselves: their education, where they had worked and their years of experience. In the second part, which consisted of three open-ended questions, I asked respondents to (a) describe a typical ad hoc term search; (b) name the three categories of tools that were most useful to them; and (c) name the three specific tools that they found most useful in ad hoc terminology research. Finally, in the third part, I asked a series of questions on the frequency of consultation of specific sources. These questions were all in the form of “How often do you consult ‘x’ source when carrying out an ad hoc bilingual term search?” The answer choices were “Always,” “Almost always,” “Pretty frequently,” “Rarely” and “Never.”

In the second part of the survey, the categories of tools mentioned most often were (unsurprisingly) terminology databases, general dictionaries and the Internet. Now, when someone tells me they “found it on the Internet,” I’m skeptical. Of course, there are many valuable sources of information on the Internet — but it’s a matter of using your judgment. (Not that any professional wouldn’t double-check a term found on an authorless, dateless website…especially if it’s written entirely in Comic Sans on a pink background!)

These are the results from the third part of the survey:

SourceFrequency of consultation
Almost always
Pretty frequentlyRarely/Never
General French-language dictionaries47.7%44.2%8.1%
Translated texts (online)26.8%55.8%17.5%
Translated texts (electronic)25.6%45.3%29.1%
Specialized dictionaries17.5%47.7%34.9%
Legal texts (laws, contracts)16.3%39.5%44.2%
Specialized texts15.2%34.9%50.0%
General bilingual dictionaries9.1%46.6%44.3%
General English-language dictionaries7.0%24.4%68.6%
Technical standards4.7%18.6%76.8%
Target-language subject-field experts2.4%31.0%66.7%
General encyclopedias2.3%9.3%88.3%
Article databases1.2%16.5%82.3%
Source-language subject-field experts0.0%27.4%72.6%

Some of the sources where translators would, according to the textbooks, most likely find reliable equivalents (“target-language documentation in the subject field”: article databases, technical standards, etc.) seem to be some of the sources that are least frequently consulted. Of course, technical standards and legal texts are only helpful if they exist in your subject field.

The sources that, in theory, aren’t as reliable for terminology research (translated texts) seem to be some of the most frequently consulted. The easiest way to find an equivalent can sometimes be to pair up a source text and its translation. It’s true that working translators don’t have a lot of time to spend reading target-language documentation and looking for the terms matching source-language concepts. But there is a faster way that may be more reliable than recycling another translator’s term. Searching for knowledge patterns (in addition to simple keywords) in monolingual, subject-specific corpora might be helpful.

What is a knowledge pattern?

A knowledge pattern is “a linguistic pattern which is repetitive and expresses domain knowledge about the terms.”Footnote 2 Examples include:

  • “* is a *”
  • “* is made of *”
  • “* is defined as *”
  • “* consists of *”
  • “* such as *”
  • “* is another *”
  • “* is a kind of *”

Using corpora and knowledge patterns for ad hoc term research is not a new idea, but I am reiterating it here because I believe it could really help those translators who aren’t using these tools. As Dr. Lynne Bowker explains in a 1998 article,Footnote 3 the advantages of consulting an electronic corpus of texts include ease of use (easier than reading through complete texts looking for keywords!), consulting speed, the fact that the texts may well be more up-to-date than dictionaries and the fact that today’s technology enables us to create and store corpora that are bigger and more complete than many other resources, simply because of their sheer size. Specially designed corpora may be more useful than Google (yes, Google!) because they eliminate almost all of the “noise” associated with unreliable texts or web pages, or texts in unrelated subject fields. Less search time is wasted in evaluating the quality of the sources.

I, personally, am far from being an expert on knowledge patterns and corpora building, but I do strongly believe in using the electronic tools that exist today to their full potential. I believe in the importance of using the correct terms in context and, accordingly, in the importance of terminology research. I think that thorough, but efficient, terminology research could mean higher-quality texts, clients that are even more satisfied and faster turnaround time. Speed, price, quality—could it be possible to overturn the conventional wisdom that would limit us to just any two of these? Might we in fact be able to achieve all three?


Bowker, Lynne, and Jennifer Pearson. Working with Specialized Language. A Practical Guide to Using Corpora. London: Routledge, 2002.

Cabré i Castellví, Maria Teresa. Terminology. Theory, Methods, Applications. Amsterdam: John Benjamins Publishing Company, 1999.

Dubuc, Robert. Terminology: A Practical Approach. Adapted by Elaine Kennedy. Brossard: Linguatech éditeur inc., 1997.

Dubuc, Robert. Manuel pratique de terminologie. 4th edition, Brossard: Linguatech éditeur inc., 2002.

L’Homme, Marie-Claude. La terminologie : principes et techniques. Montréal: Presses de l’Université de Montréal, 2004.

Pavel, Silvia, and Diane Nolet. Handbook of Terminology. 2001. [2010-08-20]

Rondeau, Guy. Introduction à la terminologie. 2nd edition, Chicoutimi: Gaëtan Morin éditeur, 1984.

Copyright notice for Favourite Articles

© His Majesty the King in Right of Canada, represented by the Minister of Public Services and Procurement
A tool created and made available online by the Translation Bureau, Public Services and Procurement Canada

Search by related themes

Want to learn more about a theme discussed on this page? Click on a link below to see all the pages on the Language Portal of Canada that relate to the theme you selected. The search results will be displayed in Language Navigator.