Process optimization

We speak to terminology expert Franz Steiner: “Despite all the challenges, terminology management is (mostly) lots of fun!”

Portrait image of Franz Steiner

Part of Franz Steiner’s role as Senior Coordinator for Software Localization in product and system documentation at AVL List in Graz, a world leader in mobility technology, includes responsibility for terminology management. He talks to us about his experiences establishing a successful terminology management system.

Tell us a little a bit about yourself and your role at AVL.

I’m the Senior Coordinator for Software Localization at AVL List GmbH in Graz – that’s what my business card says. I discovered my passion for language at my grammar school, which had a focus on modern languages (I studied English for 8 years, Latin for 6 and French for 4). Then, after getting a degree in electrical engineering from the Graz University of Technology, I joined AVL in 1987 as a Technical Editor, which at the time was an area I wasn’t really familiar with. Over the years I established a Documentation department, which I also ran for a long time, before I took on the role of Senior Coordinator for Software Localization. In this role I share responsibility with Klaus Baumgartner (Head of the Product and System Documentation department) for terminology management at the company.

When did you discover your passion for terminology management, and do you have relevant training in this area?

I was passionate about it – without realizing – at a very early stage, probably back when was at school. I then became aware of how much I’m interested in it about 20 years ago at AVL. I don’t have any specific training, i.e. I haven’t taken any courses on it or studied it at all, but I’ve attended a number of talks and workshops on terminology management, I’ve read up about it from various sources to broaden my knowledge, and I’ve run my own seminars and workshops on the subject. A very important part of that for me has always been exchanging ideas with like-minded people, for example at symposia and conferences or online.

What was the terminology situation at AVL when you started? Was the company aware of terminology management back then?

AVL was definitely aware of the importance of terminology management, but there wasn’t any joined-up thinking in terms of solutions: individual departments had their own Excel lists, some of which were better maintained than others, and there was no (central) coordination like there is now. So there was room for improvement.

How did you introduce terminology management at AVL?

Very early on the company had a terminology tool in TermStar (part of the Transit translation memory tool from STAR), but it wasn’t used. Things really got started in 2004 with a thesis on evaluating terminology extraction processes and an analysis of the potential of terminology management. Two more theses followed in 2009 and 2010, but it wasn’t until 2014 that we began using the [i]-match tool as part of a reorganization of the Technical Documentation department. It’s fair to say that by then things had got so stressful for our staff that we were forced to take the subject of terminology management seriously and tackle it head on. We had laid the groundwork, but I think the challenge was to turn the talk into action – as a rule, it’s hard to make the case for new or additional projects like terminology management in front of business managers. But as terminology management was happening anyway (albeit mostly without us realizing it, without any coordination and above all without any system behind it), we began factoring a certain amount of terminology management into our projects. By taking a systematic approach, and creating a prototype, we were soon able to demonstrate that professional terminology management is a sensible and productive thing to do.

What lessons can you learn from it? Is there anything you would do differently now, or do you think you got everything right?

With hindsight, I think we should have started making the case for the benefits and value of professional terminology management earlier and more forcefully, and we should have taken more care when choosing which tool to use. If we were introducing it now, then as a terminologist I would only go to a provider who I can talk to as equals.

How does the terminology management process at AVL work? What tools do you use?

About a year ago we began using QTerm. Specifically, we Administrators manage terminology in QTerm itself – and the translators can use the term base in memoQ while they work. We use the lookup tool as well, so that everyone at the company has access to the terminology. Users can also give feedback and submit terms for approval.

At AVL we have two terminology teams: an “inner” team consisting of Klaus Baumgartner and myself, and an “outer” team. Klaus and I meet up at least twice a month, for several hours at a time, and we produce lists of potential terms and/or work through lists of candidates, including terms from other departments. We then enter the terms in QTerm. The English and German terms go into our term base at the same time, which produces a synergy. Wherever necessary or useful, we add a definition and/or an image to go with the term. For practical reasons, our definitions are only given in English and are at term level.

The “outer” terminology team is bigger, covering various departments at the company, and holds an hour-long meeting once every four weeks. The meetings are an opportunity to explain terminology (with experts in particular areas sometimes called in) and to train staff.

How does your role as Senior Coordinator for Software Localization come into it?

I’m right at the heart of the process. For me, terminology management has to begin where the terminology itself comes from. There are so many things that happen before documentation is produced for the users, and that includes use of the terminology – the later you start trying to update terminology or make it consistent, the harder it is to “clean it up” and ensure the right terms are used at all times. For software localization I have access to the source code, and I can make changes there, including changes to terminology. Once a week I take a look at what has changed in the UI texts to make sure the rules have been followed, and I make any necessary changes. The term base is always open, and I use it as a reference and add new suggested terms if needed. The result is that the English and German terms are as they should be before the Documentation team even begins to produce the documents for the users.

What are the benefits of effective terminology management?

The benefits are clear:

  • (more) unified language thanks to consistent terminology (think Corporate Language)
  • lower translation costs (more 100% matches, fewer questions from the agency)
  • less research required
  • less confusion for users, which relieves pressure on the hotline/helpline
  • better usability, producing a better user experience

Who benefits the most from successful terminology management?

I’d say basically everyone at the company, though of course the Documentation, Translation and Software Localization department, the product developers and the product managers benefit in particular. And it really helps customers too: they might not think, “Ah, AVL are really good at terminology management”, but they will probably be glad that the user interfaces of the various software products and the accompanying user documentation match up properly. Hopefully they’ll be so happy with it that they’ll buy from us again.

What’s your advice for technical documentation staff who are looking to introduce successful a terminology management system? What do you start with, where can you go for advice, and who can help you?

My advice is to brush up on the theory first and create a prototype term base, which is easy to do with evaluation licences. From my experience in terminology management, you won’t get it right first time: the first tool gives you valuable experience, and when you use the second tool you’ll know what you need and how to make it work. Bearing that in mind will keep your frustration to a minimum. And I think it’s best not to buy the tool until you know it’s the right tool for you. I’d also recommend creating a team who can work together on the project. As I said earlier, Klaus Baumgartner and I are jointly responsible for terminology management at AVL, and if either of us had worked alone we wouldn’t have got this far – plus it’s more fun to work as a team. Of course, it’s no bad thing to have business managers on your side as well. And finally, try to contact people who have experience introducing terminology management, as their help can be invaluable.

Where can people find out about the latest developments in terminology management?

For German speakers, I strongly recommend the German terminology forum (DTT), which provides dossiers, runs symposiums and seminars for beginner and advanced terminologists, and publishes the “edition” magazine. There’s also the tekom journal "technische kommunikation", which offers talks and workshops. Terminologie³ and Termcafé are also good sources of information on the latest practices in terminology.

Speaking of tekom and sources of information, you’re the president and delegate of tekom Austria – what questions from technical editors can tekom answer, and what services and support do you offer?

We have experts on a wide range of subjects (see here), including terminology management, of course. And if there’s a question we can’t answer, we’ll definitely know someone who can.

Ultimately, the content produced by companies (UI texts, operating instructions, etc.) usually needs to be translated – with that in mind, what do you need to take into account for terminology management?

If texts are going to be translated, I think the source texts need to be “perfect”. The term base itself should be structured so that any term which might be unclear has a definition, plus an image and a subject field if necessary. Terminology should be translated by native speakers with technical expertise.

What role does a translation partner play in multilingual terminology management? How much do systems like CAT tools and databases (e.g. QTerm) help?

Translation service providers can be a big help, because they usually have more experience in this area and are familiar with the problems and what needs to be done. In my opinion, a professional terminology tool is crucial in order to successfully implement terminology management – I would advise against “homemade” systems and Wikis.

Are there any other important issues we haven’t discussed here? It would be great if you could give us a few dos and don’ts.

With a twinkle in my eye, I’d just like to say that despite all the challenges, terminology management is (mostly) lots of fun! Having a sponsor at senior management level is a big advantage, and I’d recommend doing your own PR – there’s not much point doing all this good work if no one knows about it!

And last but not least:

My view is that a term base should include all terms used by your business which could be misinterpreted or lead to misunderstandings.

Thank you for talking to us!


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