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We use standards every day, in all aspects of our lives. Some standards have been around for hundreds or
even thousands of years. Think, for example, of weights and measures and how their differences and
similarities affect us all.
Standards provide a shared reference framework that ensures safety, reliability, interoperability, and
transparency, with partners having common expectations on each other’s performances and products.
In an ideal market there would be no need for standards, but the more a real market grows in complexity
the more they become important, and proliferate, and eventually become plethoric.
In fact, standards organizations operating in large economies are increasingly extending their scope, and
authoritativeness becomes an issue when standards are released covering niche areas, without being
Battling on and through standards
Today’s logarithmic pace of technological evolution and the sluggish operating model of standards
organizations are jeopardizing the relevance of any new standards, most of which are doomed from
inception. In fact, in addition to the delay in releasing de iure (formally ratified) standards, their adoption is
generally voluntary, and this is an incentive for de facto (market-driven) standards to prevail through
widespread use. The ratification of de facto standards often comes after they have achieved a dominant
position, thus strengthening it.
The last three decades have seen the rising of process standards, often following a regulatory approach. On
one hand, certification is frequently wanted mostly to indulge customer expectations, enhance perception,
and increase reputation. On the other hand, due to their regulatory intention, process standards are
perceived as constricting, inflated and unhelpful.
The huge assortment of standards nowadays promotes the belief that there is no real intent to join forces
and maximize efforts. On the contrary, this plethora of standards appears to be the result of faction fights.
Translation and terminology standards
For example, the existing translation and terminology standards are mostly detached from reality and seem
the product of pure academic exercises in reiterating century-old practices that look rather unfashionable
Standards look as a way for the whole translation community to recover from the failure of having the
relevance and importance of translation acknowledged and unchallenged, but this topic is more and more
restricted to narrow and narrow circles, frantically and feebly claiming for recognition.
Terminology is exemplary in this respect.
In 1991, during the 3rd TermNet Summer School in Vienna, Christian Galinski predicted that, before the
turn of the millennium, the importance of terminology would eventually be universally acknowledged. Mr.
Galinski also predicted that terminology would be reserved its own place among C-level executives.
A quarter of a century later, terminology is still an ancillary discipline for a belittled profession, with a lot of
specialized literature considering terminology as an indisputable subject. In sacred circles, though,
discussions are still around data categories, semantic interoperability, data modelling — obviously
according to unsung standards — and term formation in association with standards.
As futurist Raymond Kurzweil illustrated with a brilliantly devised imagery, we are in the second half of the
chessboard, and no standard effort, however smart, can keep the pace with technology evolution.
Terminology plays a crucial role in accessing and managing information, especially today, but it is still a
knowledge-intensive labor-demanding human task, with users being more and more often unaware of —
and possibly uninterested in — its principles and methods, and the many terminological standards available
becoming obsolete as soon as they are published because of the slowness of the process and the verticality
of topics and efforts.
Every year, TermNet, the Vienna-headquartered International Network for Terminology organizes an online
training with final exam that requires the presentation of an application scenario. The course is sponsored
by the European Certification and Qualification Association, a non-profit association whose aim is to
provide a world-wide unified certification schema for numerous professions. Sessions are held by
academics and experts tackling the main aspects of terminology management, with participants being given
useful information and examples, but almost no practical exercises on term extraction, stop-word list
building, term data handling, and generally real life scenarios, while much time is devoted to data
categories, data modelling, semantic interoperability, and even on team management theory.
How much time can translators — be they freelance or in-house linguists — really spend on terminology, if
we consider the productivity level and the strict deadlines that are imposed by the various parties involved
in a translation project?
From experience we know that translators have hardly the time to quickly click on the concordance option
in a CAT tool to browse through the translation memory they were given and add terms with a second click
to a given term base. We also know that the exchange of term bases from one CAT tool to another will
bring loss of metadata, import problems, waste of time and, in general, a strong headache.
A lesson from lexicography
In 2007 Erin McKean, a lexicographer and editor for the Oxford American English Dictionary, gave an
enthusiastic TED Talk on the joys of lexicography. Her objective was clear even for a layman: the creation of
an online dictionary collecting not only all the traditionally accepted words and definitions, but also new
words and new uses for old words. The talk became a huge success.
Anno 2015 Ms. McKean heads Wordnik.com, the world’s biggest online English dictionary by number of
words. Example sentences are pulled from major news media (one example for all, Wall Street Journal) and
from books available in the public domain (Project Gutenberg and the Internet Archive), as well as from
other sources across the web, including less conventional ones, like blogs. The website also offers all sorts
of information on each word: synonyms, hypernyms, hyponyms, words used in the same context, a reverse
dictionary, and tags.
Of course, there are differences between lexicography and terminology. One might suffice for all: while the
former is descriptive, the latter tends to be more normalizing — if not prescriptive. But Wordnik.com is
pointing us in the right direction: Collaborative, cloud-based translation environments that allow the
sharing of linguistic data — in the form of translation memories and term bases — coming from all the
parties involved in a translation project are the best way forward.
A role for Europe
If it is true that terminology plays a crucial role in accessing and managing information, not much effort has
been made so far to promote terminology and translation knowledge, as well as acknowledge their
importance and value.
The Old Continent is where standardization was born and is still homeland for translation studies, for
research, staffing, and resource organizations. And yet, most efforts have been focusing on updating
terminology and translation standards and issuing new ones, without giving evidence of their actual impact,
if any, on the evolution of society.
Like translation, terminology is such a complex, time-demanding, knowledge-intensive task, and it is hard to
show its cost effectiveness and have as many people as possible be interested in it, see, exploit, and
acknowledge the benefits of it.
Maybe, potential users could benefit from the definition and actual spreading of basic criteria and
requirements for using terminology and profit from it. Hardly could they be interested in theory, even
when relating to methods and applications.
While we are writing, a controversy is raging over the insolvency of four Italian regional banks. Many
unknowing customers of these banks were pushed to buy subordinated bonds, and eventually lost their
IATE has three entries for ‘obbligazione subordinata,’ all marked as reliable, whose definitions are mostly
overlapping and inconsistent with ‘standard’ methodology.
The only entry available in Wikipedia, in English, is for ‘subordinated debt,’ with the equivalent, in Italian, of
‘debito non garantito’ (junior debt,) containing a reference to an obscure ‘credito chirografario’ (unsecured
debt, in English, in IATE.)
This is solid evidence of the importance of terminology and of terminological resources: But how many
non-linguists — and maybe even linguists — know of the existence of IATE?
And yet, this is not an isolated case. Fifteen years ago, at Linate Airport in Milan, Italy, a SAS airliner
carrying 110 people collided on take-off with a business jet carrying four people bound. All 114 people on
both aircrafts were killed, as well as four ground personnel. Investigations identified a number of
deficiencies in airport procedures, including violations of ICAO regulations on the part of air traffic
controllers, ranging from uncorrected incorrect read-backs to the usage of non-standard phraseology in
communications, with a specific irrelevant term — extension — leading to a fatal misunderstanding.
All this calls into question the weight and trustworthiness of terminology standards. We also need to
mention that ISO nor the other standard-setting bodies provide for any public term base whatsoever.
In a 2001 report for the now long-defunct LISA titled Terminology Management in the Localization Industry,
author Kara Warburton somberly noticed that, “Globally active organizations whose core business is not
communications-related (translation, localization, information management, etc.) are generally unaware of
the benefits of performing terminology management.” More recently, a Common Sense Advisory survey
revealed that only 41 percent of localization-mature organizations have some terminology management
policy in place, almost solely translation-oriented.
Things do not seem to have changed much since then.
Ten years ago, in an article in volume 13 issue 3 of KMWorld titled The high cost of not finding information,
Susan Feldman reported that, in 2001, IDC began to gather data on the costs an organization has to face
when it doesn’t find the information needed. IDC’s study showed that knowledge workers spent 15% to
35% of their time searching for information, that searches were successfully completed 50% of the time or
less, and that only 21% of workers found the information they needed 85% to 100% of the time. The time
spent looking for information and not finding it cost an organization a total of $6 million a year, not
including opportunity costs or the costs of reworking the existing information that could not be located.
The cost of reworking the information that was not found cost that organization a further $12 million a year
(15% of time spent in duplicating existing information). The opportunity cost of not locating and retrieving
information amounted to more than $15 million per year.
Also, in a study for the EU-funded MULTIDOC project in 2010, Jörg Schütz and Rita Nübel claimed that
terminology has a cost multiplier of 10 for localization and of 20 for maintenance.
Terminology management can be extremely costly in the short term, especially for a localization-negligent
organization. According to a JD Edwards study presented at the TAMA conference in Antwerp in February
2001, one terminological entry cost $ 150.00.
Again, this data could generally be considered valid today.
Actually, terminology is a (rare) commodity, useful, but expensive, because it requires considerable
resources, and it should be easily understandable that terminology work and management must be
sustainable and, therefore, this requires the ability to estimate revenues.
Google research showed that Google saves an average of fifteen minutes per query (once you are in
library). Using the average hourly wage of Americans ($22), thus saving 3.75 minutes per day, this works
out to about $500 per adult worker per year.
Consider now the IBM estimates saying that it would take a doctor 160 hours of reading each and every
week just to keep up with relevant new literature, and how this task can be made easier with proper
Many potential terminology users could really be not very interested in standards, but in the associate
terminology. Of the hundreds of standards available at ISO and regional standards bodies, more than half
contains terminology. This could then be harmonized, structured, and made publicly and freely available.
And yet, no speaker at the most prominent event on terminology, in Europe, the TOTh Workshop, hosted
this year by the Terminology Coordination Unit of the European Parliament, dealt with the issue of having
terminology become a popular topic and discipline, let alone its cost.
In November, the European Association for Terminology (EAFT) will celebrate its 20th anniversary in the
historical first hemicycle of the European Parliament with a flashback on the activity in terminology in the
past 20 years. During the event, a prize will be awarded to the best thesis on terminology. Rather than
financing mammoth DGT-oriented educational programs with the typical EU regulatory aim (have you ever
heard of the bendy banana law?), the DGT could fund a program for the consolidation of the many dust-
collecting terminological archives scattered all along the Old Continent in its innumerable universities. This
program could be entrusted to a pool of outstanding graduates from the universities feeding the ranks of
underpaid DGT interns.
On the other hand, the DGT has been doping the European language industry for decades, and academic
institutions have vied to flatten out on its needs, thus breeding flocks of mostly inadequate would-be
translation professionals, and fed them with the illusion of brilliant careers and well-paid jobs.
DGT is the largest translation service in the world, which overpays and pampers its employees while
underpaying freelancers, sometimes even vexing them with absurd claims and heavy remarks and, at the
same time, offering a rare chance to draw unlikely academic paths to unashamed academics that stay away
from market reality.
DGT’s quota is 1% of the overall EU budget, an amount of money that is usually enough to cover important
expenses in almost all EU member states and in many advanced economies.
The average productivity of a DGT translator is approximately less than 800 words per day (by dividing the
in-house total volume of words produced by the DGT by the number of translators). It is roughly less than a
third of the average productivity of an experienced freelance professional. At a cost that is at least ten
Recent estimates give the outsourced quota of translation production around 26%, corresponding to a
roughly amount of 150 million words, thus significantly impacting the EU translation market, especially for
Not by translation alone
Basic strategic planning involves estimating the market size, the growth rate of both the market and the
business, as well as the investments required to win the business goals (market share, revenues, position,
This indulgence towards EU institutions allowed the European translation community to elude any strategic
planning, in the vain belief that EU institutions would run all the necessary research that could then allow
buyers and providers to succeed even beyond local boundaries.
Any research effort should consider the market at large, spot and analyze unmet demand, identify any signs
of changes. Actually, this is a job for the many industry organizations based and operating mostly in
Western Europe. But even umbrella organizations are almost inactive in this respect, though, while
pulverization of representation reflects the intrinsic weakness of the industry.
Pulverization is also at the origin of the lack of innovation in the translation business, together with a
disinclination to collaboration, and a highly conservative nature of players. Even the regular mergers and
acquisitions have never reduced pulverization nor produced any real innovation. They aim at
complementing customers, offerings, and extend market penetration, very seldom at acquiring greater
financial strength to fund innovation. Innovation is viewed as an inescapable evil, yet it is necessary, not
sufficient. Europe, especially Western Europe, has been lagging behind on this front.
As Mariana Mazzucato brilliantly explained in The Entrepreneurial State, real innovation cannot exist
without public involvement. And yet, for years, the DGT has been striving to justify its expenditures — and
existence — rather than to illustrate its goals and merits, while most EU-funded projects often remains
unknown, ignored, and/or without producing any fallouts.
The last real innovation in translation were translation memories, a quarter of a century ago. And yet,
think, they were born in Europe. Even TMS are a very peculiar abridged application of project management
software, afar from workflow management systems, which remain extraneous to the translation business,
although they could be a leap forward. And, again, they were born in Europe too. The same goes for Moses,
the open-source SMT engine.
Why? Make an educated guess.
Today, the translation community in Europe is still at a navel-gazing stage, especially in the academic field,
but not only. Quality is a perfect example. It is a most debated topic and yet it is still at the I-know-it-when-
I-see-it and error-catching stage, affected by an incurable red-pen syndrome. In the best case, the best
minds are working on yet another quality standard, some other metrics, and some fashionable application
to count errors.
The future is past
In the last two decades, the ability of effectively using and integrating a wide range of software tools
forming the typical translator’s toolbox has become pivotal. Today, translating is less and less a question of
language knowledge and more and more one of knowing how to use it and the right tools to exploit it. The
integration of machine translation into the now widespread, comprehensive, and increasingly mundane
translation tools is making machine translation and post-editing part of a translator’s daily job.
The last year marked the final statement for data as the lifeline of our online existence. With hardware
increasingly being commoditized and software simply a click away, data is gold. Machine learning
technologies are revolutionizing everything, from image recognition to voice transcription to machine
translation. These technologies require massive amounts of training data.
Translators will have to be able to build parallel corpora, produce, access and use (big) data, process
unstructured dataset to mine, produce and manage rich terminology data, but formal translation education
still does not consider linguistic data and its manipulation in an innovative perspective.
Terabytes of translation data are produced in Europe every year. But, as Andrew Joscelyne and Anna
Samiotou explained in the TAUS Translation Data Landscape Report, data sources are heterogeneous and
unbalanced as of language coverage, and private owners can be reluctant to give their translation data for
free or even to open source it. Traditional public sources of translation data are no longer enough already.
Incentives are necessary for a translation open data project preventing any conflicts of interests.
Futurists, visionaries and wishful thinkers
The translation community remains rather close and definitely conservative. Business models and
production processes remain unchanged, together with the diffidence towards innovation. Anyway, many
business scholars argue that innovation is not coming up with something big and new, but instead
recombining things that already exist.
Maybe, when advocating innovation in the translation industry, most insiders are just indulging in some
wishful thinking. Still too often, translation is depicted as a highly technical and dynamic process requiring
both human and technological involvement, complicated to the point that no step can be definitely
removed or absolutely needed. Now, technology is already playing a growing role in every area of everyday
(working) life, and translation technologies will certainly replace a certain way of applying knowledge.
Despite any autosuggestion effort, translation is still scarcely recognized perhaps because demand is
prompted by factors other than those traditionally proposed by industry players; more than quality,
customers seem to be increasingly interested in accessibility, convenience, price, and speed. These last two
factors seem to be most decisive, while most customers are seemingly disoriented by the absence of a fair
balance of efficiency, ease of integration, convenience, and return on investment.