Interview with Barbara Inge Karsch



Barbara Inge Karsch is the owner of BIK Terminology, a terminology consultancy and terminology training company. As consultant and trainer, Barbara works with companies and organizations on terminology training, terminology development and implementations of terminology management system (TMS). She draws heavily on her 14-year experience as in-house terminologist (English and German) for J.D. Edwards and Microsoft.

 Barbara completed both a BA and MA in translation and interpretation and has done PhD-level research in terminology management. She holds a lectureship at New York University and KU Leuven in Antwerp and teaches regularly at the University of Washington.

 As US delegate to ISO TC 37, Barbara is leading the revision of ISO 12616 (Translation-Oriented Terminography). She is also the incoming chair of ATA’s Terminology Committee. Barbara has dual citizenship from Germany and the United States and has moved back and forth between her home countries several times.

1. How was your passion for terminology born?

 When I got my bachelor’s degree at Sprachen- und Dolmetscher-Institut (SDI) in Munich, I was one of three students who took the elective “Terminology management.” Needless to say we were given a great opportunity and learned a lot. During my Master’s I created a glossary of EU terminology in three languages; it was a lot of fun to comb through newspapers in my three languages and identify equivalents; interpretation students used the glossary for years in the booth. And when my colleagues at J.D. Edwards suggested I become the team terminologist, I decided we better do this well. Essentially, I became a terminologist at J.D. Edwards.

Terminology work was the aspect of translation work that I most enjoyed. So, initially it was the thrill that goes along with confirming your hunches through research. My passion wasn’t so much focused on the linguistic aspects of “what should we call this thing in our native language.” It was the understanding of the concepts and their relationships; and then how do we most easily make that knowledge accessible to others. And beyond the entries, how do you set up a system to optimize it for your users; what inputs do you need to achieve the right outputs for an environment. So right away at J.D. Edwards and later at Microsoft, as we designed those systems, there was much beyond the linguistic work.

As my interest and research evolved, colleagues kept asking questions or asked for help. I felt it was even more rewarding to share the knowledge with others. And there was the teaching. Terminology development, consulting and training are complimentary aspects and they have yet to get boring.

2. Today European Union legislation is drafted in 24 official languages, with each language version considered authentic. IATE (InterActive Terminology for Europe) is the interinstitutional database used by the European Institutions containing 8 to 9 million terms across a great variety of domains in the official EU languages and even some non-EU languages. The database’s main aim is to support the multilingual drafting of EU texts. Have you ever heard about IATE database? Do you think this type of tool may be useful for a terminologist?

Ah, this is taking me down memory lane: I still remember when one of our instructors at SDI established a modem connection to the IATE predecessor, Eurodicatom. He was set up in the hallway and demoed it to the students who came by. The connection was spotty, but the value of the database was not lost on us. In my eyes that was monumental.

Today, there are a variety of similar projects, and they are absolutely useful to terminologists and more so to translators.

But a word of caution: Most terminology databases are secondary sources, meaning that the terminologist researched in original resources or talked to experts to establish an entry. Since every human can make a mistake, a certain percentage of entries in a TMS are not perfect. Sometimes I hear translators excuse their translation errors with “but I found it in XYZ database.” Either they had hit a flawed entry or they simply didn’t know how to work with a terminology database. With this little warning, I think resources, such as IATE, are fantastic for multilingual communication processes in the EU and beyond.

3. Based on your experience is there a high demand requesting specialist services of consultancy and training in terminology?

 For the last two years, I have been so busy that I would gladly hand off work to others. So, I can only encourage readers who are interested in the field to pursue it. The key, in my experience, is to have the right combination of skills. For example, I am often looking for someone to work on Microsoft material. That requires not just the foundation in terminology management; it requires some background in IT concepts; it requires highly developed communication skills; and often it also requires quick response times, i.e. residence in or close to Pacific Standard time zone. So, location still matters in my virtual world. If you don’t mind my using this opportunity: anyone who thinks that they are qualified, please get in touch with me.

 4.  You have worked for Intel, Google, Microsoft and Facebook. You also won the Microsoft Gold Star award 2005. Can you tell us about your work in these big companies? How much is terminology important for them?

 As you might imagine, for a terminologist, terminology issues could always receive more attention. While I say this tongue-in-cheek, what is often overlooked in IT companies is that clear concepts and terms lead to higher-quality products. Clearly defined concepts reflect a clear and systematic product design process.

The rate of change in this industry is tremendous. That gives us the excuse to not worry about “language” because it will change anyway. And yet terms and names are the reflection of what is “underneath.” So, mediocre terms and definitions often are indicative of the product quality.

Against that background, a terminology database—and all these companies either have a database or are in the process of establishing one—shows a certain level of awareness. Beyond that, there are always aspects in regards to tools, processes and skill level of the people involved that can be improved.

5. Can you tell us about your experience as a US delegate to ISO TC 37?

 When we created our terminology management system at J.D. Edwards in 1998, I became intimately familiar with the ISO standard of data categories (12620). Besides the shock when my boss dropped the voluminous document on my desk, I loved the fact that we didn’t have to reinvent the wheel.

When Microsoft was asked to send a terminologist to represent the real world, as it were, I was glad to take that on. And that is my role today: Bring to the ISO meetings the real issues that I see day-to-day and then devise solutions with my ISO colleagues.

I just took on the project leadership for the revision of the standards called “Translation-Oriented Terminography” (ISO 12616). Lots has happened since the standard was first created, and I would love for the new incarnation of ISO 12616 to close the gap between what translators need from a terminology database or entry and how we terminologists get there.

6.  You are a terminology lecturer that offers lectures at different universities, both in US and in Europe. Would you please tell us about your experience as a terminology lecturer? Do you use different ways of teaching in the different universities, where perhaps you find a different cultural background?

 Great question! Cultural differences don’t only play a role in my teaching; they also matter with my corporate clients. My first task is always to understand the corporate culture as best as possible.

My teaching scenarios outside of the corporate world are quite diverse: One focus is the course “Terminology Theory and Practice” in the online Master’s program at New York University. Since I come from the real world, I tend to be more praxis-focused. But I also believe that if you don’t know the underlying theories, your work (e.g. your terminological entries) will not be solid enough to last long. And ideally, an entry is set up once and so well that you never have to touch it again. While I might not be theory-focused by my European colleagues’ standard, I know that I am asking a lot from my NYU students.

In my corporate teaching, I try to “shroud” the theory in fun material so that the participants don’t even notice that they just learned, say, the semantic triangle. Sometimes these techniques work quite well at NYU, too. So, fun and practical examples or exercises are key in the US.

At KU Leuven in Antwerp, I come in twice a year to focus almost exclusively on practical aspects anyway. But I would say that my European students have more tolerance for theory as well as a longer attention span.

It is a two-way street, though: My students are holding up the mirror for me. If they have trouble with a concept, I know I didn’t do a good enough job.

 7. You work as a terminologist in Germany and United States. How does your terminology work change in Germany and US to adapt to the national language?

 For actual terminology development, research methodologies are roughly the same with maybe one exception: I am generalizing vastly, but in my experience terminology questions with European experts are resolved faster because multilingualism, classification methods, etc. are part of the culture. So, my communication style might be more direct, technical and focused with a European and a bit more explanatory or providing options with a US colleague.

But I have to be careful here because the culture of an industry, a company or even a product team, often cancels out any “country-culture” aspects. For example, the German culture might be known as precision-oriented. But if, say, speed of delivery has a higher priority than precision for a product or a company, you have to adapt to that appropriately. Conversely, if a US company wants to implement a terminology management strategy, for example, to save money on the translation process, terminology precision might be exactly what helps them achieve that.

8.  How important is machine translation and how important is the human factor?

 I would say my focus, maybe even a little specialization, is the work with humans. On the one hand, there are the experts at the company who need to understand and be part of the terminology process. I will work with them and explain as much as they can handle. And then there are target terminologists; for example, companies may find a well-trained terminologist for German, French or Spanish. But very likely they will not find one for languages of minor diffusion, such as Urdu, Luxembourgish or Cherokee. Good linguists might only need an initial training webinar followed with some feedback on their work, and they are in business. They can then make much better terminological contributions to a large-scale translation project, such as for the Windows operating system.

More and more, though, I am involved in projects where terminology is driving automated processes. For example, at one client we have just implemented a QA tool for the authoring process that indicates if an author has used obsolete terminology among other things. I believe that automated processes, be it MT or QA processes, will play a much bigger role in the future. And that is a good thing.

 9.   English has already invaded many languages such as for instance French, Spanish, or Swedish, creating the so called “Franglais”, “Spanglish”, “Swenglish”. How and why does this happen? What will happen to languages different from English in the coming few years? Will this lead to the progressive extinction of a few words, replaced by English equivalents?

 This is a tough one because for the last few years I have worked almost exclusively with American English and in the IT industry. In my experience, American companies, such as Microsoft, are trying to find out which terminology users prefer by asking for feedback in specific terminology forums. If given the choice between a good native-language term and a poor loanword, the users’ choice is usually clear. Of course, often the loan is the better choice for a variety of reasons.

For my native German, I believe that the trend of being “hip” by using Americanisms has been fading over the last decade. Today, we also have many national terminology databases (e.g. for Irish, Serbian, Welsh) that indicate the pride of a people in their language. Microsoft has jumped on that notion: Parts of Windows have been translated into minority languages, such as Quechua or Cherokee, for many years. These projects will not prevent the loss of certain terms from a language, but they will help strengthen minority languages.

Don’t you think, though, that as language professionals we have an opportunity, if not a duty here? The lazy journalist, for example, goes with the Americanism in her German radio broadcast. The diligent translator researches the options and decides which target term best represents the concept to his French target audience. The general public will use what serves their purpose. If we give them transparent terminology, when possible in the native language, they will go for it.

10.  What are the events or situations that lead to new terms to be born?

 You could play a little game and check the loanwords in your native language and figure out their etymology. There are a variety of French words in the German language that were introduced during the Franco-German war, e.g. Trottoir. The term Athlet was introduced as a synonym for the perfectly good German term, Sportler, during the Olympic Games in Munich 1972. So, world events lead to new terms or at least new loanwords in a language.

If we are strictly focused on monolingual terminology, innovation is at the root of the birth of new terms. Innovation means the creation of new concepts. And new concepts don’t have a(n explicitly stated) designation yet. Take cloud computing or social media—there was lots of innovation in these areas in the last decade and we had a slew of new terms in English and consequently in other languages. Whether these are good terms is also partly up to us language professionals.

Interviewer: Annalisa Galeone

 Annalisa Galeone photo (2)

Annalisa is Italian and she was born in The Netherlands in 1990. She graduated in Linguistic Sciences in September 2013 with the final mark 110 cum laude /110 with a thesis on a Marketing subject: the customer experience of an important international artisan EXPO of Milan, “L’Artigiano in Fiera”, and its e-commerce platform named “Make Hand Buy”.

In the period January to March 2013 Annalisa carried out a 3 months traineeship at the European Parliament, in Luxembourg, supporting the outreach services of the Terminology Coordination Unit. In addition to her Italian mother tongue, she can speak English, French, German, and Spanish. After achieving her graduation, she enrolled in a Media Relations and Communication MSc.

During her free time Annalisa loves drawing, painting, reading books and writing stories or articles; in addition she is very fond of musicals, operas, and theatre.

Quoting Charlemagne, her motto is “To learn another language is to possess a second soul”.