Technical terminology plays a large part in global business communications.
Product manuals, training materials, documentation, and many other types of content all incorporate technical terms to better explain your products or services.
But, do your international markets receive a consistent treatment of technical terms?
What will happen if some people in your business use a technical term differently from others?
Is there any way that you can ensure that the terminology used across all your international markets is consistent?
The problem with inconsistent technical terminology
Let’s imagine you’re a software company and you want to use the term “back end” (to mean the part of the software not accessed by the user). One of your markets is Brazil where they speak Brazilian Portuguese.
Your translators could translate the term “back end” into Portuguese as “processo interno” (literally “internal process”), “sistema de retaguarda” (literally “rear system”), or perhaps even keep the English term “back end” as is sometimes done. Similarly, an inexperienced, non-technical translator might take the words at face value and translate them as something like “extremidade traseira” (literally “rear extremity”) and miss the technical meaning of the word completely (which would be a bad translation).
Which option is the right one?
In some cases, using different terms won’t have a huge effect. In other cases, the effect could cause significant problems.
6 potential impacts of inconsistent terminology usage
The specific impacts of inconsistent technical terminology will depend on how you use terminology in your business and the level of inconsistency.
Some examples of potential impacts include:
- Lack of clear, accurate understanding of your products by clients or customers.
- Poor understanding of important information by international employees.
- Decreased search engine results when words don’t match search terms.
- An inconsistent perception of your company and brand internationally.
- Confusion within the business as to what key terms mean.
- Reduced sales due to unclear and inconsistent technical documentation.
- Increased customer service events to handle customers’ lack of understanding.
Clearly, it’s worth putting in the effort to ensure that your technical terminology is consistent!
Can technical terminology be consistent between languages?
People working in highly technical fields sometimes assume that inconsistent terminology is just a necessary feature of translation. After all, when your terminology is translated into another language, a different word will be used anyway, right?
But, technical terminology is just as important in other languages as it is in your native language. If it is important for your terms to be used consistently in your source language, it’s equally important to achieve that consistency in your translations.
The concerned question that many people ask is: Will a translator even understand my terminology?
If you are dubious about whether translators will understand your specialist terminology, you are not alone. There is even debate within the linguistic research community about whether translators should be experts in the technical field themselves to translate content effectively.
This uncertainty can lead companies to feel like they have little or no control over the translations. As a result, they often neglect terminology management.
Thankfully, there is a lot that you can do to take control of your technical terminology and ensure it’s consistent across all your international markets. Whether or not your content needs expert translators, terminology management will help to improve the consistency of all your content.
Why terminology management must be a company-wide policy
When you think about it, the reason that technical terminology is used inconsistently is fairly obvious — terminology is treated inconsistently within the business.
In our experience, many global businesses work in silos.
Departments don’t communicate well with each other and technical content is often produced with little inter-departmental input. This problem becomes even more pronounced when the company has various international markets. The markets don’t communicate well with each other and technical content suffers as a result.
In our experience, the best way to achieve consistent terminology in your global business is to manage terminology centrally. That way, you can be sure that the terms used by your translators and your content creators are all coming from the same central “source of truth.”
Centralized terminology management requires that you have a central tool and database to house all the technical terms that you use in your global business. This database should also contain accepted translations for each term as well as any usage notes and other relevant information.
The simplest form of this is to use a spreadsheet that contains all the accepted terms. However, it is more efficient and more scalable to use a dedicated system for terminology management. Often, a terminology management tool is included in translation management tools.
How to maintain consistent technical terminology
The first step to maintaining consistent technical terminology in your business is to do an audit on your existing terms. This is a service that we often perform for clients when they are starting with translation or they are switching suppliers.
Here are some steps in the process to creating consistent technical terminology:
- Look at your existing terminology lists in your source language first (for example the terms you use in English). These may be spread across your company with departments and markets using different lists, so it can be quite an involved job.
- Combine the lists into a single terminology management database and decide on the accepted term whenever different terms are used for the same concept.
- Create accepted translations for each term in the database for each of your languages. It’s important to include your markets in this step.
- Commit to regularly maintaining and updating the terminology database.
- Promote centralization throughout your markets and set processes in place that will ensure people use those systems.
Maintaining a database of agreed technical terminology can seem like a lot of work upfront. However, after the initial project, it can actually save a lot of time and effort for both your teams and your translation provider.
You can read more about how to improve your terminology management in our articles: