Interview with Franco Bertaccini

Franco BertacciniFranco Bertaccini is a professor at the SSLIMIT (Scuola Superiore di Lingue Moderne per Interpreti e Traduttori) of the Università di Bologna in Forlì. He taught literary translation from French into Italian until 1993 when – thanks to Guy Aston – he began to work on computational linguistics, dealing first with the quantitative and statistical analysis of the texts, moving later to the technical translation and the terminological research. In 1996 he started the “Languages ​​and productive activities” project, in which he participates as the coordinator of the companies-universities relationships. The “research laboratory” terminology website of SSLMIT animated by Professor Franco Bertaccini is now a major online resource for interpreters, translators and terminologists.

1. When did you discover that Terminology was your passion, and how did it become the focus for your academic activity?

The path from literary translator to technical translator was long, but once I had made the transition, my attraction to terminology was instant. During the 1990s the first processes of globalisation and internationalisation forced companies to translate the user and maintenance manuals of anything they wanted to export. The EU had already made it necessary to translate the documents accompanying the products into the language of the country in which these products were going to be sold. All this brought about a boom in technical translations on the translation market. Technical translations and specialised translations require harmonised terminology, or standardised terminology when it exists. When there is no standardised terminology or rules to follow, the translator becomes his own terminologist, and this is what I have always tried to teach my students when they approach specialised translation. In time, this became the focus of my academic work, conference interests and research activity.

2. You are the Head of the Terminology Department of the University of Bologna-Forlì. What are the main characteristics of your methodology?

From the very beginning of my work, with the applied research project, ‘Languages ​​and productive activities’, there was an attempt to bring together the world of production and the academic world, and in particular a faculty like ours which is usually considered as being part of the humanities disciplines. For us it was a way of opening the doors of these companies to our students. Doing an internship in a company gave our students a chance to experience real communicative situations and see a range of text typologies in a real-life context. As part of its role in the project, the faculty immediately set about creating a Terminology Laboratory with computers and software designed to create reference corpora and to be used for statistical analysis. The Terminology Laboratory now has ample space in the new university campus, equipped laboratories and computers with the most advanced software for terminological and terminographical research and assisted and machine translation. The students always come to the laboratory to make use of the equipment.

3. You are also the coordinator of a really interesting and practical project, ‘Languages and Productive Activities’, which enables students to get in contact with the professional world. What is the aim of this project and why is it so important?

The project, which includes the possibility of doing internships in a company, is important for both teachers and students! Although teachers don’t have to focus their teaching exclusively on preparing graduates for professional work, they do still have to consider the knowledge and skills required by the labour market and adapt their teaching accordingly.

For the students, an internship in a company allows them to take informed decisions after graduation, when it comes to deciding whether to remain in the world of terminology or not. They make their choices according to their expectations of life and work.

4 . You deal with computational linguistics. What does it bring to the discipline of terminology?

One can carry out terminology and terminographical research perfectly well without using computing tools or software that analyse qualitative or quantitative texts, as was the norm until the early 70s. Later, however, the use of computational linguistics tools for research and the careful use of the internet for creating and analysing ‘corpora developed for special purposes’ focused primarily on specialist languages, for example, made ​​it possible to obtain good results quickly.

The added value that computational linguistics brings to the discipline is the following: often the automatic consultation of specialized voluminous corpora does not present us with a conclusion but rather with a set of synonyms to denote a single concept/object. This terminological wealth emerging from corpora papers or corpora of small dimensions, that is questioned by traditional systems, should not be considered as an uncontrollable situation but rather as an opportunity to analyse the terminology of a domain of investigation at diatopic, diamesic, diaphasic, diastatic, etc. level and in conclusion to choose the linguistic form of the concept that is best suited to denote it in the particular communicative situation.

5. I know that you worked as a terminologist for the EU. How would you describe this experience?

My collaboration as a consultant and terminologist with the EU, and that of my students, dates back to the time when the various Directorates-General of the then EC pooled their terminological resources together and Eurodicatom, IATE’s predecessor, was created. It was an interesting experience involving institutional work and interpersonal relationships that still exist today. At the time, however, the problems were different from those encountered today. At that time, the aim was mainly to eliminate duplicate terms and maybe with different proposals of interlingual equivalence. At present, in my opinion, the challenges involve comparing the terminology available in IATE with the actual terminology used in everyday Italian, and also realizing that language and terminology is evolving and always has done; these differences mean that methodologies must be reviewed.

6. IATE is the EU’s Interinstitutional Terminology Database with entries in 27 languages. What does such an important resource mean for the terminology world?

IATE’s range of languages and combinations, its ease of access and usability, and above all the richness of the domains that the terms belong to, make it such an important resource. I was surprised to see it being used in manufacturing companies, while most people believe that it is only consulted in a legal context! I’ve seen it being used successfully by my specialized translation students and with equal success by people with limited technological and linguistic skills. This wealth of terminology, ease of access and usability are in my opinion the reason why IATE has been so successful all over the world. It could be defined as a democratic resource.

7. How do you think that EU terminology work can be connected with the impressive evolution of this science worldwide?

The evolution of research in the field of terminology, from the time of the theories of Wuster up to today, was quick and produced some positive results. In recent years I had the impression that most terminological research has been carried out by lexicographers, and that these lexicographers have applied lexicographic research methods and principles to terminology without experimenting or creating new ones. The result is that theoretical research is stagnant, while terminology research applied to assisted translation, machine translation, the construction of ontologies and terminology is booming. In fact terminological research and terminology used in traditional translation is not the same as the terminology that a machine can use. Nowadays IATE use is restricted for human reference. The next version will probably need to be prepared in such a way that it can connect directly to assisted translation or machine translation systems or to language engineering systems. In order for this to be possible, the current principles of interlinguistic equivalence would also probably have to be changed.

8. Your contribution to Terminology constitutes is of major importance to translators, interpreters and terminologists, as the website of your department shows. What will your next project be?

We are currently working on two applied terminological research projects: one on “sight translation”, in collaboration with students on the specialised translation course, and one on ‘the use of the tablet in the interpreting booth’, in collaboration with students on the interpreting course. For both projects thorough terminological research, leaning towards the cognitive level will be the secret for success.

For the first project translating the contents of the source text into the target language with sight translation, demands a great ability to identify the concepts expressed and recognize the terms in the source language that have to be restructured and translated into the target language. A translator perceives the concepts on a cognitive level in the source language and immediately reformulates them on a cognitive level in the target language before expressing them verbally.

Although the second project, ‘the use of the tablet in the interpreting booth’, which is being developed by interpreting students, seems more focused on the use of advanced technology in the interpreting booth, it is also based on a cognitive approach to terminology. Assigning a category to the concepts, systematizing them in a flowchart and relating them in an ontology means creating a graphic representation of the language being investigated, which can then be compared with the target language, thereby enabling the user, in this case the interpreter, to propose the exact linguistic equivalent, calque, loan word or functional equivalent.


meInterviewed by Federica Cacciaglia

Born in Italy in 1989. She developed her passion for languages during Classical High School, translating Latin and ancient Greek. She graduated in Languages and Information Technology in March 2012 at the University of Rome Tor Vergata. Later, she worked as a Junior Functional Analyst for an IT Company concerning the ERP systems. Italian, English and Spanish speaker, she started to learn French and wants to learn Croatian as well. She is also interested in Communication, Media and International Affairs. After the traineeship at the Terminology Coordination Unit she will start a Master in International Relations.

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