Terminology: Tips and Tricks to Boost Your Terminology Work

 Translators very often have a love-hate relationship with terminology. We desperately need term equivalents, especially when dealing with specialized texts, but finding them usually requires a great deal of time and effort. If not managed properly, this time investment can lead to less than optimal processes and to frustration. Our goal in this post is to share some tips and tricks to improve your terminology work and, subsequently, your translation process.

Book Terminology
Book terminology from Beck Valley Books website.

According to Gornostay et al. 2010, translators spend 30% to 60% of their time doing terminology work. Though this might seem like a lot of time, it pays off in the form of higher-quality translations. Indeed, Popiolek (2014) indicates that studies done by corporations show a significant and measurable improvement in quality when terminology management is implemented.

For the purposes of this post, we see terminology as a discipline related to translation and many other fields. The following definition proposed by Popiolek (2014) provides a way for us to focus on the concept of terminology as it applies to a translator’s daily work:

From the point of view of the translation and localization industry practitioners, terminology management can be more practically defined as the activity of systematically collecting, processing, classifying and consistently applying vocabulary that has specific meaning in a given subject field or context (terms) according to some governing methodology.

Popiolek identifies three main stages of terminology work. Though her work is focused on terminology work for QA, it is still perfectly applicable to terminology work during translation:

  1. Terminology management – here we can include the collection, processing and classification of terms;
  2. Implementing terminology management – ensuring that appropriate terminology is used correctly and consistently throughout the translation;
  3. Maintaining an integrated terminology management data base – Ongoing maintenance and updating of terminology

Let’s focus on the management stage, since it is usually the most labor-intensive and time-consuming.

Terminology management consists of the collection, processing and classification of terms. Collection can happen before, during or after the translation. Ideally it should happen before the actual translation, so that the translator is provided with a complete and verified termbase that she can use in her work. For this purpose, we can use monolingual terminology extractors. Many CAT tools provide some kind of monolingual terminology extraction feature, providing a list of the terms in the source language from which we can select those that we would like to research.

The reality, however, is a little bit different: most translators do their terminology research ad hoc, that is, as they translate. In this case, CAT tools offer the possibility of adding the terminology to a glossary or termbase assigned to the current project. If the translator is not working with a CAT tool, a good practice is to use an Excel spreadsheet, since this format offers many import and export functionalities for later integration into a termbase or glossary within a CAT tool.

Finally, once the text has been translated, and if the terminology has not been extracted, it is possible to use bilingual terminology extractors. These tools, however, are usually not embedded in CAT tools and require additional licenses. This is probably one of the reasons most translators do not use them. Another reason, as we have mentioned before, is that many translators do their terminology work while translating, so they do not need to do post-translation terminology extraction.

Once the source terminology is identified, our quest to find a target-language equivalent begins. The difficulty, process and methods can vary largely depending on the subject field and language pair, since these two variables determine how many resources are already available—for instance, it can be very easy to find legal glossaries and terminology in English and Spanish, but the situation can get more complex when dealing with English-Spanish in the field of perfumes. If you have to translate an English text about perfumes that contains terms such as “top note,” “heart” or “dry down,” chances are you will not find this very specific terminology in a general dictionary, and glossaries in this subject field might not be readily available.

So the question is: what can I do to find the proper equivalent? In the following section I suggest a methodology for finding equivalents with a high degree of certainty:

  1. Start with lexical, terminological and linguistic resources: if you really have no idea how the term might be translated in your target language, start with lexical resources such as dictionaries, glossaries, termbases, aligned corpora (online translation memories), etc. Use this information to get hints on what the equivalent might be. Be cautious, however, and never trust the contents of these sources 100%, especially if you are dealing with a highly specialized term. The reason is that some of these sources contain either non-specialized, outdated material or material from non-reputable sources (for instance, machine-translated texts in the case of Linguee or Glosbe). Don’t get me wrong, these are all very useful resources, but you should always double-check your findings (see next stage). In this stage, apart from searching your usual resources, you can use the Google custom search engines or the Google search operators (Boolean and restrictive operators such as ext: or site:) to find more lexical or linguistic resources. For instance, if you are searching for an EN-ES jewelry glossary, you can search for glosario joyería inglés ext:pdf site:es.
  2. The second stage is to double-check your results with real texts. You may or may not already have an equivalent. The questions you want to answer are: is this term really used by my target audience? What term would they use to refer to this concept? The best way to check this is to find real, reputable texts written by experts in the target language. To do so, you can once again use the Google search operators, as well as other Google tools such as Google Scholar or Google Books. Let’s take a look at some tricks you can use to find the right equivalent in a text or to confirm its usage:
    1. If you have the term and there is an acronym for it in the source text, one way of finding relevant texts in the target language is to search for the acronym and a generic word related to the subject field in the target language, or the source term with a generic word or a tentative translation related to the field in the target language, or two related terms in the target language. For instance, to find the Spanish equivalent for the term “Protocol Independent Multicast – Sparse Mode”, you can try the following: “PIM-SM” AND “protocolo”; or “Protocol Independent Multicast – Sparse Mode” and “protocolo independiente”; or “protocolo independiente” AND “modo”.
    2. Another trick is to use Google Images when you are dealing with a term that describes a physical object. You need to try to find a “textual match”, that is, information that demonstrates that your candidate equivalent has the same semantic features as your source term, and this might be in the form of actual text or images. Do you get the same or similar images in Google images for “guyline cord adjuster” and “tensor para vientos”?
    3. Always check the sources of your texts, and be suspicious of texts that sound like machine translation or websites of dubious providers.
    4. Try to find parallel texts from reputable sources using the URLs. If you have found the source term in a document from an international company, and the URL of that document contains some type of language code (usually in the form of =en), try to replace it with your target language code. Sometimes you can find hidden treasures from which to extract terminology. Can you try to change the “en” language code of this URL with your target language code? https://www.swatch.com/en/services/user-manuals/chrono-manual.pdf
    5. If you can’t find an equivalent or are still unsure about its reliability, ask the experts. There are forums for almost everything, and chances are you know somebody who knows somebody… Don’t be afraid to ask. People are usually happy to share their knowledge and flattered when asked about their profession or passion by an interested outsider.
  3. In the final stage, after you have gone through all this work, you don’t want to throw it all away. Save your research findings in a terminology database or, if one is not available, create an Excel spreadsheet with different columns, where each column is for one “field” or type of data: source term, target term, context, source, notes, etc.

I hope you found these tricks useful. Do you have other tips and tricks to share? What approaches do you adopt when facing a difficult term? Please let us know! I am attaching the slides from my ATA presentation in San Francisco, which was on this topic. Enjoy!


Gornostay, T. et al. (2010). Bridging the Gap–EuroTermBank Terminology Delivered to Users’ EnvironmentProceedings of the 14th Annual European Association for Machine Translation (EAMT) Conference..

Popiolek, M. (2014). Terminology management within a translation quality assurance process. In H. J. Kockaert & F. Steurs (Eds.), Handbook of terminology 1 (pp. 341-359).

Vargas Sierra, C. (2016), Bilingual Terminology Extraction from TMX. A state-of-the-art overview, Forum Translating in Europe, 2016.


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