Interview with Terminologist Márta Fischer


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Dr. Márta Fischer is a senior lecturer, terminologist and associate professor at the Budapest University of Technology and Economics Centre of Modern Languages, as well as an ECQA Certified Terminology Trainer. She has a deep passion for terminology, and terminology questions related to the European Union’s linguistic reality is undoubtedly her preferred field of focus. Therefore, for her doctoral thesis, she worked on the subject of “The Translator as Terminologist, With Special Regard to the EU Context”. She has also collaborated with TermCoord in the past.


1. What do you find so fascinating about terminology and especially terminology in the EU context?

Well, fascinating is quite the right word to start with. Terminology is not only a bunch of terms, the work behind them or the theory itself; it is also a way of thinking, a strategy that enables us to think in clearer terms about the world around us. Its concept-oriented approach forces us to step onto a more abstract level of understanding and helps us verbalise and describe phenomena. As for the European Union, this organisation provides an excellent context for a deeper examination of the interaction of terminology and translation. Firstly, the immense volume of translation activity is unique. There is no other international organisation dealing with so many languages parallel. Secondly, the EU has developed its own conceptual system with terms describing only EU concepts (i.e. EU legal acts). Consequently, the EU context is characterised by the interaction of a number of conceptual systems and languages where Member State official languages have to fulfil a double role: they not only describe their own conceptual systems, but also that of the EU. This makes the translator’s (terminology) work multidirectional. Translators move between the MS conceptual systems (e.g. while translating MS company forms) and between the EU and MS system (e.g. translating the EU legal acts), as well. Thirdly, there is also an important language planning aspect. After accession, translation and terminology work is transferred to the EU institutions, so Member States can only participate in these processes (i.e. in corpus planning) through their translators. Furthermore, EU translators also have a catalyst role in forming a subject field’s terminology: their solutions can have wide ranging impact, through EU legislation, influential documents and the IATE database. All these aspects make this context not only fascinating but also hugely relevant.


2. In your PhD thesis you said that there was a “lack of an underlying consistent theoretical framework for analysing terminology” on the part of translators. Can you give some concrete examples for that?

Yes, this experience was very interesting for me. My initial idea was to write about the special nature of the EU context based on empirical studies. But the analysis of the literature in a number of languages (Hungarian, English, German, French) soon made it clear that I had to step back and first explore the theoretical framework. The main challenge was that the key terms of terminology theory are not used or even defined consistently. In other words, even the terminology of terminology is not consistent. Let us take the notion of ‘term’ as an example: it has a narrower and a broader approach. The narrower approach may be traced back to the beginnings of terminology theory, where precisely-defined terms were needed to achieve optimal communication. In this approach, the term is considered as the ‘final product’ of a prescriptive, even standardising process, with a precise definition and no synonyms. On the contrary, the broader definition starts from the assumption that any lexical unit may become a term in a given context. It is also called translator-oriented approach as it takes into account the fact that translators not only face well-defined terms, i.e. those complying with the narrow definition. Here, any lexical unit may ‘act’ as a term, i.e. any lexical unit that makes the translator’s freedom limited in choosing a target language equivalent. Which approach you follow has important practical implications. Just think of the dilemma, what to include in your terminology database, and what to consider as a term while translating a text. Similar examples may be mentioned with the notion of equivalence, as well. As a result, I had to provide a clarification of the existing terms, introduce new ones, and also develop a theoretical framework which can help to understand the role of translators as terminologists in the EU context – and may also provide a basis for further research.


3. You described the role of translators as terminologists as still being an “unexplored territory for both translation studies and terminology theory”. Do you see more need for research concerning this matter and why?

As there are a number of studies and research works published since my PhD work, I would not say ‘unexplored’ but, definitely, there is still need for research at the intersection of these two disciplines. Translation studies may learn a lot from the concept-oriented approach of terminology and, in turn, terminology may benefit from translation studies. Let me mention an example: equivalence is a hot topic both in translation studies and terminology. In terminology theory, the notion of equivalence is rather focused on the concept level, that is, on dealing with equivalence between concepts (e.g. full and partial equivalence, lack of equivalence). Quite often, the designation (language) level is not considered worthy of discussion. However, translators face equivalence problems not only at concept level, but also at the level of designations. I vividly remember our EU translators’ dilemma while translating the slogan democracy, dialogue and debate (DDD) into Hungarian. At concept level, they had no difficulties as this was a clearly defined EU concept. At designation level, however, it was impossible to find three equivalent Hungarian terms starting with ‘D’ so as to keep the abbreviation DDD. In other words, it was impossible to establish equivalence at designation level. This shows the importance of both a concept and language oriented approach. While in the first case, difficulties arise from the differences between two conceptual systems, in the second case, translator have to deal with the differences between the two languages. This provides an example for the benefits terminology may have for the experiences of translation, also from a theoretical aspect.


4. As a result of these special skills that are sometimes required from translators, would you say that the fields of terminology and translation are separated too strictly and that terminology has to be considered more during the vocational training of translators?

I would not generalise by saying ‘more’ as there may be great differences between translator training institutions. Terminology is now a separate subject in the curricula of most of the institutions. The question is rather what content and elements are tackled within this subject. If terminology rather focuses on terminology management (i.e. how and what to upload in a terminology database), which is often the case, important skills and theoretical elements may get lost. In other words, the subject terminology should not be restricted to the practical aspects of terminology work and management. There are a number of key skills that can and should be developed within the framework of a terminology subject. These skills include the ability to recognise terms, to identify equivalence, to apply strategies for matching terms (domesticating vs. foreignising) and for filling terminological gaps in the target language. These skills make up what I consider a separate terminology competence because each skill entails both theoretical and practical knowledge. It is rather difficult to develop these skills if they only are covered within other subjects. So, these skills considered as a separate competence justify terminology as a separate subject with a sound theoretical background.


5. Where do you see the main difficulties when a translator has to act as a terminologist?

The difficulties mainly lie in the responsibility and the decisions a translator has to take. There may be several equivalents from various sources but in the end, only one single equivalent has to be inserted into the text. While taking these decisions, the translator has to act as a terminologist. And here the importance of theory comes in as every decision also represents a strategy. More explicitly, the decision is not only about which term to take, it is also about which strategy to choose! At first sight, this may make things rather complicated as you leave the term level and start thinking in strategies with a theory behind them. But at second sight, you will see that, while acting as a terminologist, your decision is not only about picking the right term but the right strategy, which narrows down your choices and actually simplifies the decision process. Let me show it with an example: If your task is to translate GmbH (Gesellschaft mit beschränkter Haftung – a company form in Germany) into English, the usual dilemma is what to choose: LLC, LPC, LTD or even leave it as GmbH?, etc. The problem is that the conceptual (company law) systems are different. There is no way to find one-to-one equivalence between these terms. You may only find similar terms, i.e. terms that describe similar concepts. So here, the main question is whether you want to emphasise the similarity or the difference between the two conceptual systems. In other words: whether you want to follow a domesticating or a foreignising strategy. If you follow the former and take either LLC, LPC or LTD (each being only partial equivalents) than you have to be aware of the fact that your target group may be misled by the national concept they at once attach to this term. Especially legal translations showed that the domesticating strategy most often followed in translations may be dangerous in some cases. So, in some cases, it is better to follow a foreignising strategy (i.e. leave it as GmbH). A further problem is that dictionaries often list these terms as synonyms implying that each of them may be taken, which is not true.


6. Regarding the translator’s role as a terminologist, could you observe any trends over the few last years? If so, what are they and what has changed?

Yes, definitely; a number of positive trends at various levels. At educational level, a positive development is that terminology has become a subject or at least an important part/element in most training programmes. At scientific level, more and more studies deal with terminology in translation or translation in terminology. Both terminology and translation studies show great interest in each other’s research and work. Contrary to previous decades, where terminology theory was not concerned with translation issues, and translation studies did not show any interest in terminology issues, the intersection of these two disciplines is quite evident for now. These two developments also lead to a third one, namely, the practical level. For professional translators terminology is, for now, a well-known topic, something they must know about and deal with. There are a number of training opportunities, not only within formal education but also as separate courses so that professional translators may catch up with these new developments.


7. Do you have any recommendations for translators who don’t have much experience with terminology?

Experience comes, of course, with practice – more and more practice. However, terminology is not only about practice. So, what I would recommend first, is to connect practice with theory and strategical thinking. My main point is that terminology is not only about translating terms and then recording them in a database. Terminology is also a strategic tool that helps the translator to make the right decisions. Even if not involved in research, a professional translator may also benefit a lot from reading scientific papers or participating at conferences. In my courses, I am often asked by translators to ‘stick to practice’. And I do – after we established a solid basis for that. In the beginning, they are rather suspicious, but they most often end up having the ‘vow’ feeling.


8. Are there major differences between the Hungarian approach to terminology and the ones from other countries, for example Germany or France?

Not necessarily differences but the impact of different approaches, I think, are more connected to researchers, people and less to countries. However, it is also true that language skills play an important role here. As I pointed out in my dissertation, terminology theory is not only characterised by multiple approaches, but also a multilingual literature. While reading for my research in both English, German, French and Hungarian, I was struck by the differences depending on which language the paper was written in. In other words, certain approaches were and are connected to languages, that is, to the author and then the language the author’s papers are written in. Hungarian literature is also affected by that. You can guess what literature in which language the researcher is relying on based on the approach taken in a Hungarian scientific article. So, the real challenge is to make scientific results published in different languages available and thus create the traversability also between languages in our multilingual literature. And of course, it would be useful to analyse in more detail how the language-relatedness of literature affect terminology research in Hungary and in other countries.


9. For your PhD thesis you conducted interviews with terminologists from the three EU institutions. What would you say are the main differences between the terminology work of these institutions?

Speaking of differences, you may differentiate between two aspects: the procedures (how terminology work is organised) and the content (what elements are included in this work). As for the procedures, there has been a great development at EU level in the last decades. Think back to the time when separate databases were used by the EU institutions. For now, there is a close cooperation between the institutions and also the public is involved in this process. Furthermore, there are separate job profiles for terminologists with regular training activities. As for the content, the differences are mainly connected to the decision-making procedures of the EU itself. In this respect, the most interesting question in my work was whether there are any differences in the creation of terms. The interviews showed that it is the European Commission that is most involved in creating new terms (in denoting new EU concepts such as inclusive growth or flexicurity), mainly because it is the European Commission with its right to initiate legislation where the whole decision-making process starts. The European Parliament rather takes over already established terms. Here, term creation is rather limited to institution-specific, internal terms (such as rapporteur). Finally, the Council also establishes terms as this institution represents the political, intergovernmental level, where new concepts or even new designations may come up. There are, of course, other players involved in this process but looking at the institutional triangle, these are the main findings.


10. As a conclusion of your dissertation, you said that “translators do not make any difference between EU terms and non-EU terms” and that “a significant part of terminological problems result from the difficulty of recognising EU terms”. What, in your view, is the reason for this and do you hope for a more distinguished EU terminology?

Due to the European integration process a number of new concepts are born, related either to EU legislation or to the everyday functioning of the EU. These EU terms (that denote EU concepts) make up a well-distinguishable EU conceptual system. The distinction between these EU terms and non-EU terms is crucial as they require different types of terminology work in translation. While the translation of non-EU terms is carried out between different conceptual systems, the translation of EU terms is carried out within one (the EU) conceptual system. If it is about an established EU term (e.g. EU legal acts), translators only have to find the official equivalent in the target language. At concept level, no difficult task, as a single concept is described in 24 languages. If it is about a new EU concept, the task is more difficult. Then, the translator needs to check constantly whether the proposed term for the new EU concept is already ‘taken’, i.e. designates another, national concept at home. This is what I called vertical comparative terminology work. However, EU texts may also contain non-EU terms, i.e. terms relating to the conceptual system of the Member States (e.g. company forms, national institutions). In this case, it is necessary to compare the conceptual systems of the source language and the target language. This is what I call horizontal comparative terminology work in the EU context. An interesting finding in my work was that EU terminologists know the importance of this distinction but could not describe this phenomenon. They often referred to ‘EU-coloured’ terms and ‘EU constructions” and what they spoke about were terms describing an EU concept, i.e. EU-terms.


Elke steinhauserWritten by Elke Steinhauser – Former Study visitor at the Terminology Coordination Unit and Master student at the University of Luxembourg. Elke has a Bachelor’s degree in German-French studies, she is now enrolled in the trilingual Master in ‘Learning and Communication in Multilingual and Multicultural Contexts’ and works as a free-lanced teacher for German as a foreign language. Her interests lie in Intercultural and Multilingual Communication and associated training methods.