Who is Who in Terminology: John Edwin Holmstrom (1898-19-)

Technical terms are to language what the contents of a builder’s yard are to architecture”, said John Edwin Holmstrom in 1959. An English engineer and translator, he worked in close collaboration with Eugen Wüster. Actually, according to Wüster, he was one of the “four dynamic and forward-looking men” of Terminology. He worked for UNESCO from 1949 to 1958 and was, among others, Program Specialist for Scientific Terminology and worked at the Department of Natural Sciences.

This is confirmed by Dr. M. Shcherbakova in “Los orígenes de la ciencia terminológica” who indicated that, according to M.T. Cabré, when Infoterm was created in 1975, it was Wüster himself who said that the intellectual paternity of the theory of terminology belonged to four scientists, among them J.E. Holmstrom, who promoted the international dissemination of terminology and actually was the first to propose that an international organization be created to promote it. So, it was Holmstrom who insisted on the idea of an International Terminological Bureau with the main objective of avoiding duplication of efforts.

According to Angela Campo, Holmstrom oversaw UNESCO’s Universal System for Information in Science and Technology (UNISIST) for the dissemination of scientific information and worked on promoting and disseminating the methods, norms and standards used for handling information. He always insisted on the importance of improving terminology and, to him, terminology was essential for accomplishing his goal.

In his article The Translating Machine he stated that “The ultimate remedy is standardization of the meanings of technical terms on the basis of definitions agreed upon by the specialists concerned in each language.” “…the policy which UNESCO is pursuing is that of helping and encouraging the international organizations concerned with each field of science and technology to produce dictionaries… of terms and definitions which are fully standardized terms recommended by those organizations, and terms including regional variations [that] are liable to occur in the technical literature.”

He pointed to the lack of scientific and technical publications, so he created and published several multilingual scientific and technical dictionaries and many technical papers (see below). He also proposed the principles and procedures for technical translation. Again, Angela Campo gives us a great insight about his views on technical translation and terminology. Here are some interesting quotes by Holmstrom:

  • “Unesco ought to give a lead to the world in the promotion of measures for the overcoming of language barriers, especially as regards technical terminology” (1959)
  • “The first principle of good technical translating is to translate ideas and not words. When a competent translator sees the word ‘Punktschweissmaschine’ it should serve to evoke before his mind’s eye an image of welding machine, but he should not merely equate these terms in the two languages without visualizing what they represent.
  • language barriers could be reduced “by making translations, by increasing the proportions of scientists able to read about their own subjects in foreign languages, and by encouraging the publication of scientific literature”
  • “the meaning and scope of every technical term ought to be clearly associated in the minds of every writer and every reader with one exactly defined concept and one only”.

Publications by Holmstrom

The Translating Machine, Helping to solve some of the language problems of science. An article by Holmstrom published in Unesco’s newsletter “Courier”. N° 1 in 1954.

Bibliography of monolingual scientific and technical glossaries. [Paris] UNESCO [1955-1959]. Wüster is mentioned as the main author, Angela Campo (p.88) indicates that this was compilated by Holmstrom under contract with Wüster in the 1950s.

Interlingual scientific and technical dictionaries. (A report). (UNESCO/NS/SL/1, 65 p). Paris: UNESCO.

Trilingual dictionary for materials and structures. Pergamon Press, 1971

Multilingual terminology of information processing (incomplete provisional draft) Provisional International Computation Centre, 1959

Report on interlingual scientific and technical dictionaries. UNESCO, 1951

Records and Research in Engineering and Industrial Science: A Guide to the Sources, Processing and Storekeeping of Technical Knowledge. Chapman & Hall, 1947

Principles and working procedure in technical translating. Paris: UNESCO.

Proposals for UNESCO to sponsor the production of special dictionaries. Paris: UNESCO. by J.E. Holmstrom, Program Specialist for Scientific Terminology

Progress to date in the UNESCO programme for scientific terminology and dictionaries. Paris: UNESCO. by J.E. Holmstrom, Department of Natural Sciences

The planning of UNESCO policy regarding terminology and translating. Paris: UNESCO.

A search at UNESCO for his publications returned this list.

Sources and further reading:

Albritton, Claude C. The Fabric of Geology. Geologic Communication. Interlingual Dictionaries. 1963

Campo, Angela. The Reception of Eugen Wüster’s Work and the Development of Terminology. October 2012.

de Jesus , Carla Maria. Terminologia e representação do conhecimento do domínio específico da geodinâmica interna uma abordagem ao subdomínio da actividade tectónica. Faculdade de letras da Universidade de Porto. 2005.

The translating Machine, An article by Holmstrom published in Unesco’s newsletter “Courier”. N° 1 in 1954.

Shcherbakova, M. “Los orígenes de la ciencia terminológica”.

Note: After an extensive research effort, I could not confirm the date of birth nor find the date of death of J.E. Holmstrom. If you have this information or any additional information about Holmstrom  please contact me. Read more biographies here.


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