In Terms of Terminology

In Terms of Terminology

Consistency and clarity are cornerstones of good translation. For this reason, many companies and organisations provide their own terminology. But what happens when a translator objects to a particular term? Where does the balance lie between linguistic integrity and providing a service? Keep reading to find out when glossaries should be strictly followed – and where there is room for discussion.


The customer is always right?

It seems straightforward: when a customer provides a glossary, they want it to be used. Ideally, specific terminology makes the translator’s job easier. It provides clarity, reduces the likelihood of key terms in a text being unsatisfactorily translated, and minimises nit-picking over ambiguities.

Certainly, when it comes to things like department names, job titles, key product or service descriptions, glossary terminology should be strictly followed unless there’s a strong reason not to.

But so often language is ambiguous and context-dependent, and this is where even the most carefully curated terminology can become problematic. For example, when is a “Standort” a “location” (a popular one-size-fits-all translation), and when might “site” or even “facility” or “branch” make more sense?

Words that have close target language equivalents and are frequently used in specific fields can also be tricky – “Kompetenz” being one that springs to mind. Many organisations explicitly want it to be translated as “competence”, where a native speaker might be tempted to use “skills”.

What should a translator do in this case? Challenge or let it pass?


Why “imperfect” terminology might make sense

A good translator has to find the right balance between their linguistic duties and their duties as a service provider. Sometimes this entails putting personal preferences aside and understanding the reasons for a more pragmatic approach.

In the majority of cases, if a company has a preferred translation for a term like “Standort”, it will work in English, even if the translator feels another term might sound more natural or elegant. Likewise, the word “competence” might sound a little off to native speakers, but context also has to be considered. For example, research shows that in certain fields – such as adult education with a European focus – it is in an increasingly established and default term.


Terminology must prioritise comprehension!

This brings us to an important point: the trend towards using globally understood concepts. While some language purists might not like it, there are clear practical benefits to having a one-size-fits-all translation for a particular term, or preferring terms with close equivalents in multiple languages. In fields like education and science, where international networks play a key role, or for corporations that need to communicate with stakeholders in many countries, using standardised, stable and accessible terminology simply makes communication and doing business easier. This doesn’t mean that the skills (or competencies) of a good translator are not required – but there is not always room for intervention.

While truly problematic terminology should be addressed and, if necessary, an alternative solution found, translators need to bear the above factors, and the question of target audience, in mind. Sometimes making sure your audience knows what you’re talking about is more important than the finer points of linguistic grace.

In a word, unless they’re doing something like literary translation, translators need to remember that they are above all providing a service. Even if the terminology provided doesn’t always appeal to the translator, the wishes of the customer must always be borne in mind.

(N.B., 2021)

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