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Terminology and translation: The importance of using terminology the right way

Once a discipline of its own, terminology is now linked to a number of other related disciplines, such as translation (human and machine), semantics, linguistics and communication, among others.

On an everyday basis, we communicate using what we refer to as common language. Experts, however, resort to specialised language to communicate within their own field and with a wider audience.

From the standpoint of translation as a professional activity, terminology is conceived as an instrument. Terminology resources provide translators with the necessary information to solve their doubts; in other words, to find an equivalent in the target language, learn the meaning of a term in the source language or select the best option among several alternative terms.

But beyond its instrumental function, terminology also helps translators acquire knowledge about a specific domain or field of expertise, to adequately translate a concept into their language. In this sense, terminology enables translators to organise their knowledge on the subject, and provides them with the lexical units (terms) to express the specialised knowledge units of the field adequately.

In collaboration with Karen Rolland

Karen Rolland holds Postgraduate Diplomas in Translation Studies from the University of Edinburgh (Scotland) and the Institut Supérieur des Traducteurs et Interprètes (Brussels, Belgium). She worked as an in-house French Translation Department Coordinator for several years in Athens (Greece), where she developed sound expertise in Translations Project Management, Glossary and Terminology Database Compilation, as well as Translation and Editing of European Commission’s R&D projects. In 2012, she started her journey into the world of freelancing, collaborating with universities, NGOs and the private sector, among others. She is currently expanding her knowledge and expertise to the Humanitarian sector and to Plain Language, and was recently hired by Translators without Borders (TWB) as an external Consultant on French Plain Language for Writers, Editors and Translators.

There is no such thing as “the right terminology”

As translators, we will encounter various subject matters, specific to each client. Depending on the client, we will determine what we consider being the “correct” terminology, in accordance with the end-user, the reference terminology and the documentation the client may provide.

In other words, even though two pieces from two different clients may seem identical in meaning, they may be expressed – and translated - in a very different way, because of specific “preferences”.
For the purpose of this article, we will focus on three main expertise fields, namely technical, legal and marketing content.


Each field and specialty typically uses a vocabulary that relays a variety of specialised concepts by means of technical language. These special terms convey concentrated meanings that have been built up over significant periods of study of a field. The value of a specialised set of terms lies in the way each term condenses a mass of information into a single word. Technical terminology is often thought of as a shorthand, a way of gaining great depth and accuracy of meaning with economy of words1.

Technical terms can also lead to a great density of prose that is difficult to understand, even for the specialised reader. Observe these four principles when using and translating specialised terminology:

– Writers must match terminology to the ability of the audience. They may use a term with great accuracy and still not reach their audience. It is important to be aware of the audience’s level of understanding. If the readers are not experts in the field, writers will need to substitute more general terms in place of their specialised terms. That means that they may not be able to write with great accuracy about their topic. In turn, translators must ensure the terminology they used in the translation reflects the level of literacy adopted by writers for their target audience.
– Use terms with consistency. Be sure that you use the same translation for a given item each time. If you shift from using mass to using weight in referring to the quantity of an object, if at first you call a tool a spanner and later call it a wrench, or if you shift from the Kelvin scale to Centigrade for measuring temperature, you may confuse the reader.
– Provide clear definitions or explanations of unfamiliar terms. If you are using a specialised term that is not widely used in the audience, even if the target audience is an expert one, be sure you provide a clear definition of your term.
– Create a terminology list, ask your translation project manager to forward it to the client for validation, and suggest this list is attached as an Appendix to the final deliverable. It can greatly help a reader who wants to remind themselves of what you mean by a specific term. 2

In order to deliver an understandable and ready-to-use translation, the translator will have to communicate with the client and make sure the term(s) chosen are satisfying.Companies and clients may have preferences over specific terms rather than others. It is good practice to ask the project manager (PM), before starting your translation, for any reference document, glossary or lexicon created by/for the company or client. If no such material is provided, create a list of specialised/problematic terminology, and send it to the PM with your translation. Ask for feedback or validation before you deliver your final translation. It is important that the client has a say on the terminology they want us to use for their technical content.

You will find translations of technical terms or expressions from official termbases such as IATE or Termium, which provide official and unofficial translations depending on the context and field of expertise.stion go to app settings and press “Manage Questions” button.

Legal terminology relies on a very specific set of language rules, hailing from a tradition of the science and practice of law that goes a long way back.
Although the language and terminology used in legal documents is prone to change these past years, giving way to plain language to facilitate understanding by a wider audience, there is still room for improvement.
The very emphatic style of legal content must be transposed in the translation, no matter how cumbersome the sentences may read. Such is, often, the purpose of legal texts.


You will find legal translations from official websites such as EUR-Lex, the online gateway to EU Law. It provides the official and most comprehensive access to EU legal documents. It is available in all of the EU’s 24 official languages and is updated daily. This portal will give you an overview of the terminology and phrasing in legal content.

Marketing content offers more flexible language and terminology rules.
More often than not, we will receive corporate guidelines as well as an outlook of the corporate culture of a specific company or client.
The translation must by all means reflect the corporate tone and all content must keep the style adopted in the source text, whether it is journalistic, catchy, formal, funny, ironic, etc. The translation must have the same impact as the original on the reader.
To translate marketing content, we must be creative and keep an open mind for the reasons mentioned above.

Marketing content does not require any specific terminology knowledge or mining. Often, the terms used in marketing content are simple terms, transposed into plain language, so it is understood by a wide audience and readership.

These are simple examples of how important it is to have a sound knowledge of the field you are translating, and to use the available tools in a smart manner, rather than simply copying a term translation without first checking which context or field of expertise it refers to.

Terminological problems of translation

Even though translators may be doing everything ‘by the book’, and no matter how knowledgeable we are, we simply cannot know the meaning of all terms in all their contexts. We will encounter issues. ​

A translation problem is terminological only when it affects terms, i.e. lexical units with a precise meaning in a given special field. A terminological problem may be related to term understanding and the term pragmatic properties in the original text, or to the search for equivalents. The following are situations we all have encountered: ​

When encountering these problems, we must proceed to thorough research in order to understand the context, and find the correct meaning. If in doubt, we must express it to the PM who will pass it on to the client, and use or create the most fitting translation if an “official” term or expression has not yet surfaced.

Non-existing terms

While doing research on specific terminology, we may come across problems caused by the inexistence of terminology, namely:

When we start our research, we work from one assumption: every term has an equivalent translation. In case our research isn’t bringing fruitful results, we need to look for other, more creative solutions. ​

In case of a non-existing term, we must come up with a new translation of the term, looking at the lexical structure of a word or another way to make the term understandable for the target audience. This is a difficult exercise, and we shall always ask for confirmation and validation. ​​

When faced with a number of options for the translation of a term, we should apply the following rules, in this specific order:

If no term matches these two criteria, we must then consider creating a new term that does match, insofar as possible, the criteria. ​

However, we should be aware of the number of existing terms and the probability we are overlooking fine alternatives.

Ambiguous effect of terminology databases

As translators, we consider terminology as a tool for translation. Ask a data scientist performing, for example, a corpus analysis, and they will tell you the opposite: translation is a tool that provides them with the terms and allows them to learn about their context. Both perspectives are valid. However, improving our terminology knowledge means we should not rely exclusively on a glossary term. We must be creative and aim at improving our own terminology databases (term bases). ​

Language evolves - so does terminology. What was in use 20 years ago may not be today. In order to avoid working with outdated and unusable terms, we must constantly update our terminology databases with new terms. ​
Imagine a technical dictionary that you inherited from your parents, dating back to the 1960s.​
Technology and industry equipment have greatly evolved since the 1960s (for instance, there were no autonomous vehicles back then). Some terms will remain unchanged; others, however, will have evolved along with the technology revolution.​
Terminology does not help us in the short term only, but has wide implications for our development in industry-specific language. Sharing terminology databases means we are able to learn from each other’s knowledge and preferences.

Terminology Management Systems

While working on a long-term project or with a specific client or company, terminology management processes will ensure terminology is fed into a term base that will be used during the entire project, for this specific client or company. This ensures terminology consistency, should several translators work on one given project simultaneously. Once a specific term or term list has been validated, all translators can use this precious list. ​

Terminology Management Systems (TMS) such as SDL MultiTerm, TermWeb, LogiTerm Web, Acrolinx, etc., are specifically designed to collect, maintain and access terminological data. They are used by translators, terminologists, technical writers and various other users. In translation, they enable us to integrate the terminology databases with our translation systems, facilitating frequent updates and to build on the existing terminology.

Terminology Mining

Where to look for established, approved or official equivalent terms:

Definition of Terminology in translation

Our QA (Quality Assessment) system provides a framework for describing and defining quality metrics and is used to assess the quality of translations performed by our translators. ​

Terminology issues relate to the use of domain- or organisation-specific terminology (i.e., the use of words to relate to specific concepts not considered part of general language). Young Translators evaluates this according to the ´Terminology´ dimension and the associated error types: ​​

Issues identified as company terminology are only relevant when the team is provided with a Terminology Base (Glossaries) or sometimes even a Style Guide from the client. ​

Issues are identified as Inconsistent with domain when term is used contrary to general domain guidelines standards. ​

Issues identified as Inconsistent use of terminology when terminology is used in an inconsistent manner within the text. For example, The text refers to the same component as the “brake release lever”, “brake disengagement lever”, “manual brake release”, and “manual disengagement release”.


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