Terminology and consistency – An inseparable pair

Silvia Cerrella Bauer 28 Jul 2014 3 min read
Managing terminology is a well-established best practice and ensures consistency in the quality of translations.
Many corporate customer surveys on translation continuously show that one of the major challenges in translation and in technical communication consists, by and large, of reducing or avoiding inconsistencies. This blog aims to highlight the impact of consistency in technical communications and translation and how terminology management can effectively contribute to achieving and, furthermore, maintaining consistency throughout corporate content.
Defining consistency
According to the Oxford online dictionary, the word ‘consistency’ derives from late Latin consistentia and denotes permanence of form. In addition, the dictionary provides the following definition: “The quality of achieving a level of performance which does not vary greatly in quality over time.”
As a matter of fact, among the various goals to be reached with terminology management, the pursuit of consistency comes (almost) invariably right at the top. Terminology management as a business process is thus closely intertwined with the notion of maintaining a constant, minimum level of content quality over a long period of time – the longer the better.
Consistency errors
As far as the term ‘consistency’ is concerned, there are basically three types of errors that can occur in technical documents (K. J. Dunne, 2007):
  1. incorrect terminology (e.g. when the wrong terms are used for designating a given concept);
  2. inconsistent terminology (e.g. when different terms are used to refer to the same concept); and
  3. ambiguous terminology (e.g. when one and the same term is used for designating more than one concept).
The first two errors are most typically found in content in the source language. The third one can generally pertain either to source and target language content. Of all these, inconsistency is by far the most frequently encountered error (see survey on terminology management by Schmid, K.-D. & D. Straub, 2010).
The need for consistency in technical writing and translation
I remember giving a talk at the University of Ottawa (Canada) on the benefits of managing terminology professionally to a group of computer linguists in 2011. One professor who attended my talk argued that human beings are by nature ‘creative’ and like to exploit the richness of the language to define and reason about different matters, and to express themselves in different ways to say the same thing. How could it be that consistency was to be pushed forward, thus hindering creativity? He was right, to a certain extent. To be creative and use synonyms is good, even desirable, for some types of texts. This holds true, for example, for literature, and in commercial settings, for content with marketing and advertising purposes, when it is about creating one-off, unique publications. For the latter, consistency – at least as far as key corporate terms are concerned – cannot be neglected either!
However, for technical content in the source and relevant target languages, consistency is a must.
  • First of all, because it saves time and money by making the task of writing and translating easier: once a solution for a term or an expression (or phrase) is found, there is no need for ‘reinventing the wheel’ when creating new technical/translated content (economic and efficiency requirements).
  • Second of all, because users of the relevant documentation have to be able to understand the content by finding in it unequivocal designations for given concepts, in order to avoid misunderstandings that could result in more or less serious risks for the manufacturer (usability and liability-related requirements).
  • Finally, because the content owners (e.g. the corporate customers) want the content recipients to clearly distinguish them by means of their targeted, specific corporate vocabulary (requirements related to brand and corporate identity)
Having said that, it must also be noted that consistency – albeit a requirement – is not the panacea in the sense that, a document is not necessarily a ‘high-quality product’ just because it is consistent. Ultimately, terminology management is an upper-ordinated process in which consistency finds its place. The former applies professional methods and principles – strictly compliant with industry standards – to ensure that the ‘right’ consistency (in relation to specific requirements) is ensured at all times.
Content consistency
Attaining content consistency means that decisions have to be made as far as:
  • which terms are to be assigned to which company-related concepts (such as product and service names, parts of products, etc.) and subject fields, and for which target languages (obviously the source language will be object of the decision);
  • which rules must apply to coining terms (with specific rules for each language) and to the choice of term equivalents in the target languages (criteria such as internal requirements, frequency of use, norms etc.);
  • which data – apart from the terms themselves and their equivalents – have to imperatively form part of single term records (or ‘terminology entries’), and which minimum requirements these have to fulfil to be regarded as validated (correctness, data consistency, status etc.).
One way or the other, retrieval of the ‘right’ terms at the ‘right’ moment is to be ensured. To do so, terms are to be systematically captured and undergo a review process that can be kept very simple or made very comprehensive, depending on the underlying scenario. A repository of this vocabulary – a ‘terminology collection’ – is to be set up and continuously built up, often in so-called ‘terminology management systems’.
Process consistency
Attaining process consistency means deciding on:
  • how terminology targets (quantitative and qualitative) are to be formulated and prioritized;
  • how terminological data are to be validated and updated (at which time intervals and by whom);
  • how many people having which skills are to be involved in managing terminology and at which stages (e.g. roles, task and workflow definition for a ‘core’ terminology team and any other subject-matter specialist involved regularly or at a specific point in time).
The team concerned will then equip itself with instruments such as a ‘guideline for terminology management’; in other words, a document describing a term entry’s life cycle from registration to approval, as well as the relevant processing stages. It could include checklists, information on the scope of the relevant data categories and on the competences of each team member taking part in the process, and so forth.
The most important, frequently unattended challenge: enforcing consistency
To sustainably enforce consistency, all parties involved have to perceive it as something you cannot do without and want to contribute to it. This is easier said than done.
This is where a good terminology manager comes into the picture, who is also ‘consistent’ as to his reliability and actions, and able to motivate his team and the stakeholders for terminology management and the importance of content consistency. The terminology manager will have to provide evidence of this, by gathering concrete examples where attempts to achieve consistency have failed and what the consequences were. And, the other way around, report on success stories whereby terminology consistency led to cost reductions in text document production, shortened time slots for the release of key documents or helped increase customer satisfaction. Hopefully these hints help to get you started!
For more information on given points highlighted in this blog, please see:
Silvia Cerrella Bauer

Silvia Cerrella Bauer

Owner and Project Manager of CB Multilingual
Silvia Cerrella Bauer is the Owner and Project Manager of CB Multilingual, a company providing high-end multilingual communications solutions based in the Zurich region. Before starting CB Multilingual, Silvia served in a number of language and terminology management roles for Swiss Post, euroscript and SIS SegaInterSettle, in Switzerland.
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