Many a company sorely underestimates the importance of linguistic consistency in their messaging, their corporate identity, and their product offerings. The underestimation is amplified if the company has, or strives to create, a global presence. As a company ventures outside of its linguistic and cultural comfort zone to lesser-known venues on the global stage, prescient clarity is required. This cannot be achieved from a linguistically spongy foundation.
At its most harmless, linguistic inconsistency results in what could be called the “smirk factor.” Active and prospective customers stumble across conflicting, poorly written, or unintentionally humorous information that undermines the company’s credibility by generating customer confusion. The subliminal message is that the company does not value its customers or their marketplace. While such customer experience may not necessarily be a deal-killer, it can position a company in a defensive stance as it strives to regain customer confidence, often through expensive customer support calls, revised translation, and other outbound communication rework.
Can your company afford communication that skids past its goal or completely misses the mark?
There are five best practice steps that can mitigate linguistic risk while lowering costs for support and damage control, not to mention financial outlay for translation services. We will discuss each of these in the following paragraphs.
Step 1: Begin
For lack of a grand plan, terminology initiatives in organizations frequently do not get off the ground. But a humble beginning is far better than no beginning at all!
One way to begin is to identify a corporate sponsor that will champion the effort. An executive sponsor, once convinced of the long-term benefits to the corporate bottom line, becomes a powerful ally. At the executive level, the sponsor can help to remove roadblocks that inhibit the effort by being a peer spokesperson and influencer among decision-makers. This will trickle down through all areas of the organization.
The employee who is responsible for the execution of the plan should begin by looking at the product’s user interface. The term “user interface” is frequently associated with software, but it applies to all types of products. Even a simple frying pan has an interface with its users, but is that interface a “handle” or a “grip”? Or is the surface of the pan “non-stick” or “easy-clean”? The product-to-human interface is the terminological heart of the product and, through the products, the company’s core focus.
The medium in which the terminology is captured is not of primary importance at this stage. Although Excel should never be considered a linguistic tool, it is frequently misused as a translation environment. At this stage of the effort, however, the organization will most likely not yet be prepared to invest in industry standard terminology management software. For the time being, Excel or a similar spreadsheet will suffice. Spreadsheet applications are ubiquitous, they allow for convenient list-building and sharing, and lists in this format are easily alphabetized, commented, and otherwise manipulated.
Step 2: Harvest
After initial effort is underway and some starting data has been captured, the fledgling terminologist should expand the scope by interviewing numerous stakeholders in the product creation process. These include product managers, development personnel, documentation specialists, marketing managers and, depending on the type of product, perhaps senior executives, legal counsel, and regulatory departments.
There are other sources of terminology, as well. Sometimes a de facto term has come into being among a user community or as a result of market awareness created by either an organization or a competitor. It is wise to review the appropriateness, penetration, and availability of competitors’ terms. Industry publications also serve as an excellent source of terminology, as do online terminology databases and publically available translation memory. Finally, terminology can be harvested from existing product documentation. If the documentation is available in electronic form, software tools can automatically extract term candidates. This process is fast and efficient, but the cost of the software may be prohibitive at this stage of terminology development, so one might want to engage a language service provider who can offer this as a service.
Step 3: Evaluate, Negotiate, Approve
By this time, the terminologist should have a fairly sizable list of term candidates, but will surely have come up against some conflicts and differences in opinion among the stakeholders. Beginning at this juncture, and from now on into the future, it will be necessary to establish a consensus. This is extremely important because terminology profoundly affects the customer experience, corporate identity, and branding. Furthermore, cleverly managed and marketed terminology can provide a company with an opportunity to successfully promote a brand or a concept by becoming the lingua franca for that product category.
But not all terms invented by product development are readily marketable, and not all terms coined by marketers are technically correct. This will become evident as the terminologist harvests the list. Furthermore, the terminologist may discover that their organization uses numerous synonyms or marginally varying phrases to describe the same thing. Harmonization of such usages presents opportunity for creating more focussed messaging while offering the desirable side effect of saving money when messaging is translated.
The terminologist’s consensus-building process should involve all stakeholders. Here again, especially in the event of controversy, the value of having an executive sponsor becomes apparent. An executive sponsor can ensure alignment between term usage and high-level corporate strategies and goals. Conversely, enhanced awareness of existing terminological diffuseness on the part of the executive sponsor can be relayed to corporate strategists so that they can make better decisions about branding and communication.
The terminologist may wish to reach out to friendly customers, or those who are heavily invested in the company’s products. This is one excellent way to get real-world user feedback while also nurturing the supplier-customer relationship. Soliciting input from technical support representatives who garner a unique perspective on the customer experience is also an excellent way of uncovering latent terminology problems.
The output of this step will be a list of both approved terms and terms that are depreciated or forbidden. The terminologist should now establish a distribution process so that all stakeholders have access to the list. This may be as simple as an email with an attached file, or might be a site on the corporate intranet. New employees should also be made aware of the terminology initiative as part of the onboarding process.
Step 4: Translate and Test
Unsophisticated companies may erroneously believe that proactive translation of their terminology is an unnecessary expenditure. There is also often an erroneous belief that in-house staff can be used for this purpose. Mario, the accountant, may be a native speaker of Italian but, unless he is a trained linguist, he is almost surely a poor choice for creating Italian terminology. There is a reason that linguists train for many years to become translators. Proper translation is hard work, requiring in-depth education and constant interaction with the target language to keep up-to-date. Few products today are delivered to speakers of ancient Greek or Latin. Modern living languages are just that: living. This means that they gradually change, grow, and intermingle. Trained linguists, especially those who live in the target-language locale, keep up with the latest turns of phrase plus grammatical and spelling usage paradigms.
For optimum results, companies should invest in translation by in-country, qualified linguists who are domain experts. Most translation service providers offer such terminology management services, but this should be specified in the project definition or service level agreement. Getting the terminology lists translated is only part of the process. The company can harness locale-specific knowledge of in-country resources available through regional sales personnel, user groups, or friendly customers located in the target-language locales. It is always possible that hands-on users of the specific product have developed a lingua franca of their own that supersedes an academically correct version. Or the source language may simply provide a better term, so it gets generally adopted.
Many service providers such as text&form recommend terminology creation as a precursor task at the beginning of a localization project. Some, including text&form, will also manage terminology on an ongoing basis on behalf of their customers.
Step 5: Manage and disseminate
A company may prefer to manage their terminology in-house using their own infrastructure instead of, or often in tandem with, outsourcing it to a language service provider. In this case, the company will need to invest in a terminology management system of their own. There are some excellent products available from translation tool vendors. But there is no point in making this investment unless the company has the in-house linguistic management knowledge, and the will and funding to persevere in the task set.
The best terminology management systems can support a wide variety of user access right plus media such as graphics, pictures, video, sound, and links to reference material. While at first the panoply of available information formats may appear desirable, industry experts are quick to remind terminology system managers that complex, data-rich information structures need to be maintained over time. The more complex a system becomes, the more maintenance work will be required. A degree of pragmatism must balance the wide palette of possibilities against what is really needed by the stakeholders.
The benefits that can be obtained by thorough and structured terminology management are manifold. Corporate identity and branding can be strengthened, customer satisfaction and engagement can be enhanced, support costs can be reduced, and translation services will be rendered more cost-effective. Terminology management can be instituted in five stages of increasing sophistication, whereby the most important stage is the actual beginning. With a strong beginning, the rest will follow along with perseverance, help, and advice. See your language service provider for that advice.
Richard Sikes has been immersed in technical translation and localization for over 25 years. He has managed localization teams at several industry-leading software companies, and he contributes frequently to MultiLingual. Richard holds a BA in fine arts from the University of California, Diplom Betriebswirt (FH) from the Fachhochschule Heidelberg, and an MBA from the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management.