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Webinar review: The Basics of Terminology

02 May 2019

In April 2019 the German BDÜ Weiterbildungs- und Fachverlagsgesellschaft mbH organised a webinar for translators about the basics of terminology. The webinar was held by Dr Nicole Keller, lecturer at the Institute of Translation and Interpreting at the University of Heidelberg, Germany.

Concept, term, object & definition

Dr Keller began with a definition of the basic concepts used in terminology. As the basis for the definitions, she used the German standards DIN 2330, DIN 2342 and their English equivalent, ISO 1087.

She started by explaining the difference between a concept and a term. According to ISO 1087, a concept is a “…unit of knowledge created by a unique combination of characteristics…”. For example, the idea behind the word “table” is a table top with four legs. This is irrespective of what the actual word is in any given language.

Although not bound to a particular language, concepts are influenced by cultural and social factors. For example a tree has a set of specific characteristics (e.g. roots underground, wooden trunk above ground, foliage), but what an individual person pictures as a tree might differ depending on where they live. This has the undesired consequence that concepts can end up in different categories.

A term identifies a concept. For example the words tree, Baum, or arbre all identify the concept “roots + wooden trunk + foliage”.

Objects are real-world examples of concepts (including abstract concepts).

There are several types of definition, but in terminology, the most important definition is one that defines the content.

These four elements constitute the Semiotic Triangle of Reference according to Suonuuti (Suonuuti, Heidi (1997): Guide to Terminology. Nordterm 8. 8. Peter Sandrini).

Terminology in action

When creating a database, terminologists (and translators) can choose between a descriptive approach (collecting the terms that are currently in use) and a prescriptive approach (determining which term should be used for a specific concept). The former is generally the starting point for creating a company-wide terminology database, the latter is normally used by translators who decide on which term to use for a particular concept throughout a translation.

Whereas a terminologist in a company might be working with an entire specialist field, translators generally look at individual terms. This approach does not require a thorough knowledge of a given area of specialisation, but it is highly error prone.

Initially, databases can either be monolingual (source language is reviewed and entries are made without any influence from the target language), or multilingual (allows for detection of unclear definitions in the source language).

In the past, the starting point for a database was the term. Today, the first entry in a database is generally the concept. The advantage of the concept-based approach is that lists are not made based on language pairs, and that changes are easier to implement.

An example of a term-based database would be a dictionary where the spelling of a word is the first entry, followed by a list of this word’s meanings.

Entries in termXplorer and SDL MultiTerm

As an example of the concept-based approach, Dr Keller showed an entry in an SDL Studio termbase: a picture of a lock, followed by the German definition and the German term. The French and English equivalents were then added to this termbase entry on a separate linguistic level. Her entry had three levels: a concept level (independent of the language, contains administrative information, images, area of specialisation), a linguistic level (language-specific data, definition and source of the definition), and a term level (data relating to the specific term, most comprehensive level, grammatical notes, example of term in context, status, client, comments, etc.). She then showed this structure in termXplorer and SDL MultiTerm, where these three levels correspond to Entry level, Index level, and Term level.

Practical application in translation

As the presenter rightly pointed out, translators generally do not have the time to follow a descriptive approach and collect all of the terms that are in use for a single concept.

What I did find helpful is the concept-based approach, using an image as the starting point. Quite often an online image search is a very good alternative, or addition, to looking up an entry in a dictionary.

The key take-home points are

  • The concept-based database approach with an image and a definition in each language is ideal for projects where more than two languages are involved. This ensures that all of the translators have the same understanding of the given concept.
  • Make use of the different entry levels in database tools for future reference, and share them with other translators you work with.
  • Be aware of potential errors when using the prescriptive approach: it might be a good idea to invest a bit more time in the research phase to avoid having to change to a different term during the translation process, or finding out after delivery that another term would have been more suitable.

By Karoline Spiessl

Photo by Barry Chignell via


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