Yesterday, I was talking to a literature professor from Japan at San Francisco airport. He was raving about the beauty of language: how one word in a text can have so many meanings and in how many different ways we can say the same thing. In my world, the world of corporate communications, these phenomena are called polysemy and synonymy, and they are just the opposite of what we want.
Here is a case in point: At J.D. Edwards—a software company in the enterprise resource planning business that no longer exists in this form—software was made up of system codes, reporting codes, modules, application codes, etc. Sales folks would sell by ‘system codes’. Trainers would work with clients on ‘modules’ that corresponded to the systems. Developers created new functionality in applications and their ‘application codes’. And finally the clients paid by ‘reporting codes’.
So, was the thing that was developed, sold, paid for and trained on, the same thing? Were these terms synonyms? At least they were used synonymously most of the time. But not always. Uhoh.
The above example had an impact on JDE’s or the client’s bottom line. That is easy to see. But often it is the many smaller things that make it worthwhile managing a company’s terminology in a terminology management system. Here are three examples.
The initial name for the new UI design of Windows 8 was Metro UI. Microsoft used it during product development and it was documented in the terminology management system. Terminological entries for the over 100 Windows languages had also been established. All the while the legal department was working hard to make sure that no other company around the world was using this name.
Well, German retailer Metro AG was, and according to this source Microsoft was “threatened with legal action for infringing on “Metro” trademarks.” That caused Microsoft to drop the name. But it had already been used many times in English and in translations which were nearly finished. All instances had to be eliminated virtually overnight. The process was very disruptive and time-consuming. But it was far smoother because the legal department did due diligence and the decisions had been documented in a centralized terminology database which everyone involved in writing or translating could access.
Horror stories were abound in the 90s when translators who worked on software strings for the first time turned ‘servers’ into ‘waiters’ or ‘Windows’ into the French ‘Fenêtres’. Obvious mistakes like these are no longer a big issue. But here is what still is: Software development is constant innovation. Along with new concepts comes new terminology. How would a translator know what, say, a ribbon, a charm bar, or a jump list is, if nobody gave them an explanation? A terminology management system is an extremely efficient way to communicate meaning to many people.
According to a Canadian study, it takes product contributors an average of 20 min to find information about a concept or term. It takes about the same time set up an entry in a database. So, if only one other person looks up the entry in the database, the 20-min investment has paid off.
Writers and editors, like translators, acquire a certain expertise or specialize in a subject field. But with the rate of innovation going on in product development, it is critical that expert knowledge be shared in a centralized location so that product contributors can look up and learn about the latest concepts. Imagine the savings for a product translated into 30 languages even if only one translator per language team looks it up? And even better, if you add target-language equivalents to the source entry, now they can look up the meaning and insert the target-language term right into their translation.
So, not only did we save the content author the 20 min it takes to research a term on average in the above scenario. We have also enabled consistency across translation teams, eliminated spelling errors from a human typing the term in each time. The later might not be a big deal to you. But if you are a translator having to type ‘Organisationseinheit,’ ‘icône d’utilisateur’ or ‘hnappur fyrir upphafsskjá’ 50 times, it matters.
Cutting down a second here and there seems trivial when you look at one person. But if we consider that today hundreds, if not thousands of people on virtual teams with different types of expertise contribute to the same product, it pays to shave off minutes of research, translation or editing time. Storing that combined conceptual and linguistic knowledge in a database and then even carrying out certain processes in a semi-automated fashion—just think of controlled authoring or automated terminology checking—allows companies to bring complex products to not just one market, but to hundreds of markets almost simultaneously.
When things are beautiful, such as the texts my literary travel companion was gushing about yesterday, we are happy. In corporate communication, it takes more than that one genius author to come up with that beauty. Processes, such as terminology management, can assist us with things that we as a group of humans would never remember, wouldn’t know for lack of expertise, and wouldn’t be able to find fast enough. It is a small investment that helps us create if not the flashing beauty of a literary text, but an attractive and functional product for our customers.
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Image: Eduardo Damasceno