Ethnography at Termcoord: The Migration Crisis through the lens of Terminology


Three years ago, while training as a press officer at the European Parliament, I remember my astonished look when I was told that one of my primary tasks would be to translate press releases from English into Italian. Translate? I loved languages and I still do – this is actually my current job too – but I would certainly lie if I didn’t admit that at first, I felt I was given too much of a responsibility. “I am a journalist, not a translator” – I recurringly thought – and this is how it all started.Ethnography at Termcoord: The Migration Crisis through the lens of Terminology - Building with the European Union flags

“Migration in Translation: the role of terminology and transediting on tackling the crisis in the EU” is an ethnographic PhD Project that embraces the whole intercourse of the Migration Crisis from a linguistic point of view. Comments on the linguistic results, translation processes and constraints identified in the project are provided by the Terminology Coordination Unit in Luxembourg and the European Parliament Press Unit in Brussels, with whom I have initiated an invaluable collaboration for the project.

“Migration in Translation” focuses on the terminology and the translation processes used by the European Parliament to communicate migration policies to EU media and citizens. Starting from the implementation of the Schengen Acquis in 1985, the study analyses both texts and people involved in the communication process: this means that the corpus-based analysis of selected legislative texts and press releases – conducted with the software Sketch Engine – is intertwined with the voice of EU professionals, whose work is relevant in the communication process.

Here is where Ethnography intervenes with all its methodological potential; affectionate translation readers might wonder what it is and how useful it can be in corpus-based translation studies. As stated by British anthropologist Simon Coleman, ”Ethnography is the recording and analysis of a culture or society, usually based on participant-observation and resulting in a written account of a people, place or institution”. The roots of ethnography therefore reside in anthropology; is it possible to study working units in institutions, as well as Aboriginal tribes? Dear reader, the answer is YES.

 “Translating Institutions: An ethnographic Study of EU Translation” by Prof. Kaisa Koskinen (2008) is one of the most valuable examples of employing ethnographic methodologies to investigate EU translation. Formerly a Finnish translator at the European Commission, Prof. Koskinen has conducted a study on her translation unit and showed “how an ethnographic study of translation practices in political institutions can help researchers to find out if there are correlations between the textual profiles and the institutional policies and practices” (SchĂ€ffner, 2014: 151).

My ethnographic work at Termcoord started ahead of the Translating Europe Forum at the European Commission in 2015, where I presented my project plan and research questions. In this occasion, I met Maria Pia Montoro, a terminologist and IT specialist working at the European Parliament, who passionately told me about the importance of terminology work in European Institutions. I therefore decided to make a step backward in reconstructing the translated information flow of the European Parliament, starting from terminology. Who is responsible for coining and negotiating terms in EU institutions? How do these terms influence the way information is distributed by the European Parliament?

One aspect that the project emphasizes is that EP Press Officers have to deal with different types of lexicon everyday: the legal language of translated documents, the language of MEPs and the language most appealing for the media. This makes their work extremely challenging and diversified, half-way between communication and translation.

In May 2016 I paid a one-month Study Visit at Termcoord, who welcomed me with all its team of professionals and stagiares. Besides collecting useful research material at their unit and conduct interviews with employees, I had the opportunity of being an active part of the team and dive into terminology work at the European Parliament. This has offered me precious hints for my research and an invaluable experience.

During both my internship at the Press Unit and my study visit at Termcoord, I learned that translation is an embedded process in institutional communication, especially in the multilingual setting of the EU. “We do communication when translating” as my mentor in Brussels used to say, and this is what makes the case of the EU so unique and challenging. However, being translation the language of Europe (Eco’s quote), a unanimous conception of translation, whether translation is the final aim or the medium, and a solid awareness of terminology work, would ease and improve the communication process of institutions with EU citizens.

“Migration in Translation” has now reached its final stage; and if you are curious about it, you can consult with further data on this link. To conclude, I would like to share a simple thought about the noble task of research; research sheds light on hidden problems to offer possible solutions; it narrates aspects that would not be discovered otherwise. Research is also innovation and growth; its destiny should not be necessarily to be confined in university libraries or data-bases. Let’s be curious, share and care!


Brems, E.,  Meylaerts, R., Van Doorslaer, L. (2014). The Known Unknows of Translation Studies. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Koskinen, K. (2008). Translating Institutions: an ethnographic study of EU Translation. Manchester: St. Jerome Publishing.

Jessica Mariani

Written by Jessica Mariani, PhD candidate in English Language and Translation at the University of Verona, where she works as an assistant of English Language and History of the English Language. She is a Journalism Post-graduate and has worked as a journalist both in Dublin and Brussels, where she trained as a press officer at the European Parliament Press Unit. The multilingual setting of the European Union inspired her to set up an interdisciplinary and ethnographic research project entitled Building a European Perspective in News Translation, in official partnership with the EP Press Unit, where she investigates the role of the news translator and analyses translation processes and practices involved in the information flow from European Institutions to the news media, and the EP Terminology Coordination Unit in Luxembourg, where she has conducted ethnographic research about the role of terminology in institutional settings and journalism. She also works as a language coach, translator, interpreter and content editor.

Prepared by Pedro Ramos. Translator, Social Media and Content Manager, Communication Trainee at the Terminology Coordination Unit of the European Parliament (Luxembourg).