Terminology Talk with the Pros: Barbara Inge Karsch


Barbara Inge Karsch is the owner of BIK Terminology, a terminology consultancy and training company. As consultant and trainer, Barbara works with companies and organizations on terminology training, terminology development and implementation of terminology management systems (TMS). She draws on her 14-year experience with J.D. Edwards (now Oracle) and Microsoft.

As US delegate to ISO TC 37, Barbara is leading the revision of ISO 12616 (Translation-Oriented Terminography). She is the chair of ATA’s Terminology Committee.

Barbara holds a lectureship at New York University and KU Leuven at Antwerp. She completed both a BA and MA in translation and interpretation and has done PhD-level research in terminology management.

I recently interviewed Rodolfo Maslias, Head of the Terminology Coordination Unit of the European Parliament, and he mentioned that translators should see terminology as an opportunity to differentiate themselves in an increasingly competitive market. I have been promoting my blog on Twitter where I have made contact with a lot of translators but only a few terminologists. Having trained so many people, are terminologists mostly translators or could anyone be a terminologist? (A software specialist, a project manager, maybe?). Is there a preferred background to become a good terminologist?

I fully agree with Rodolfo that translators could take the opportunity, and some certainly do. It is tough, though, to do it on an on-and-off basis. In other words, if a translator acts as terminologist, possibly even without training they won’t be fast enough, if they don’t do it often enough. So, the key is to get started and then specialize in it, so that you keep your skills up.

Many people do terminology work. Here are a few examples: Subject matter experts (SME) define the concepts of their field, branding and marketing people name concepts; translators research equivalents in their languages; project managers distribute terminologies to users. All of this is part of the vast field called terminology management. So, many people carry out one task here and there. But who might be in the best position to focus on it? Terminology literature distinguishes two main models: the SME-terminologists who are experts in their fields and then become more and more involved in doing terminology work; and terminologist-generalists whose specialty is terminology work and who develop expertise in a particular subject field that they choose to focus on.

That said, when I look at who I have trained and who became really good at it, I’d say it was the people who were willing to study the theory, read the literature, and also give it some time. It is a misconception that anyone doing terminology work could become a terminologist. It is a specialization and you either focus on it or you won’t be fast enough or produce the quality needed. So, in my observations it is often the personal traits that matter most.

  1. Many courses refer to the need for terminologists to develop soft skills, such as negotiation and communication skills to deal with conflict during terminology projects. In your experience, is this a necessary skill for a terminologist? Have you yourself faced situations of conflict that required major intervention? I am thinking, for example, of cross-product, cross-functional groups, with so many stakeholders involved, like the ones you have worked with.

Personal traits, soft skills, communication skills…yes, they are important.

I’d say I have not been part of a major conflict, but I have seen things go wrong because best practices were not followed. For example, one team left it to a high-ranking manager to make the call for new feature names. But this person wasn’t really that much in touch with linguistic aspects of the product. If you get called in at that point, you explain why particular names are not ideal and why the process isn’t serving the organization well. But that is all you can do in this case. In another scenario, higher-ranking employees overruled the well-researched decision by the terminologist. She implemented the new suggestion reluctantly. A bit later, another yet higher-ranking employee had another idea and the terminology was changed again. That, too, is not a good approach.

When, as terminologists, we do our research, line out options and their pros and cons for the stakeholders, then drive for consensus, we have a good chance of avoiding conflict. We might still need to understand the motivations of the stakeholders and work with them to meet their needs. But that is part of the process.

I’d say most conflict arises because either the preparatory work wasn’t done or the team doesn’t understand what the ultimate goal of terminology work is for the organization. If we focus on doing the research and the educational work, we have won more than half the battle.

  1. You have ample experience with ISO as a US delegate of the Technical Committee 37 and you are the leader for the revision of ISO 12616 (Translation-Oriented Terminography). That must be a very challenging job. You implemented terminology-related ISO standards at J.D. Edwards (now Oracle). When you come back from an ISO meeting with a new terminology standard, how does the process of implementing it in a large company such as Oracle start and end?

Let me explain a bit about ISO standards and the process. It’s not like they are new inventions that will turn your work in a company upside down. Just the opposite: Our terminology standards grow out of the real world. For example, for ISO 12616 we checked what the current standard has to offer; now we are looking at what is currently going on in industry and analyze the need; and then we will be closing that gap. That means that future users will get a document that assists them in setting up their processes correctly rather than figuring out everything on an ad-hoc basis.

  1. I have a list of 15 terminology extraction tools in my blog and also I provide a link to WordLo’s terminology blog which lists a few more. I am impressed that developers have been so productive in just a few years. What would be, in your opinion, the ideal terminology extraction tool for the future? Or is there a dream tool that is already in the works?

I don’t know that I can draw a dream tool.  I think many developers are focused on improving statistical and rules-based extraction mechanisms, so there is lots of focus there. I would like to see usability improvements, such as the fewest number of clicks or key strokes to get from the term candidate in my list to an entry in my database. I’d also not accept a tool that doesn’t at least tell me the frequency of the term in my source document and give me a decent piece of context.

What I find more fascinating than the tool itself is how we work with the list of term candidates. Everyone who has never tackled a large-scale extraction project spends a lot of time trying to figure out how to not miss a good candidate, but drop the bad ones quickly. Each candidate is different and you might include it for a different reason. So, here, too, you’d have to be pretty specialized and very quick in applying a set of selection criteria.

  1. Lastly, could you comment briefly on your article “Terminology work and crowdsourcing” in the forthcoming John Benjamins’ Handbook of Terminology?

There is a clear need for more practical guidance. Many people do terminology work, but they miss practical guidance. At least my article on crowdsourcing terminology work tries to tie in the theoretical foundation of our field with the practical aspects. My goal is to help those in charge of terminology projects and who are to include the crowd in a terminology project avoid mistakes and benefit from the technological advances that crowdsourcing has brought us.

Barbara Inge Karsch has an impressive resume which you can read in detail in her LinkedIn Profile, if you have an account. If not, you will also find it at her blog. Her blog, BIK terminology, has lots of useful information on terminology and it’s a great learning place to where I always keep going back. TermCoord also interviewed her earlier this year, and you can read the full interview here.

One Comment on “Terminology Talk with the Pros: Barbara Inge Karsch

  1. Pingback: Terminologia etc. » » Il terminologo part-time

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