Terminology Talk with the Pros: Sérgio Barros, Linguist/Terminologist

A few years ago I was visiting a friend in Geneva and every time I walked passed WIPO’s headquarters I felt a particular attraction. I don’t know if it was that beautiful building, or if it’s just a coincidence that a few years later I am interviewing a terminology expert who worked at WIPO. It is a great honor to talk to Sérgio Barros, a Portuguese linguist and terminologist and author of several articles on terminology (See publications and presentations in his website). Thank you for this unique opportunity to peek inside your terminology world.

sergio barros


  1. I have always worked for international organizations and I know that you have to deal with many languages at the same time and with people with different cultural backgrounds. What has been your experience as a fellow terminologist in that multicultural and multilingual environment?


Working as a Fellow in the patent translation department at WIPO was an invaluable experience. Not only did the fellowship allow me to improve my skills in terminology, but it also further instilled in me a passionate interest in languages. It motivated me to improve the languages that I speak and it sparked my interest in learning one or two more, maybe Arabic or German… I think that’s because I’ve met interesting people, many of them incredible polyglots.

Many of the people that I’ve met have a special interest in the Spanish language and culture. Chinese and Japanese are particularly relevant in the world of intellectual property, judging by the number of patent applications submitted by their countries. Portuguese may not be regarded as an important language to learn but I believe that it will gain more importance in the future as a strategic factor in business and economy-related environments.

Working in an environment with such richness of languages gave me access to cultural believes and traditions from countries near Portugal such as Spain, France and Switzerland, and as distant as Lebanon, Russia, China, Japan, Korea, or the USA. In the end it became the perfect context to promote my own country.

The period that I’ve spent in Geneva also allowed me to engage in a sporting life with Team WIPO, a group of fellows and colleagues who usually run along the shore of Lac Léman or in the woodsy scenery of Chambésy, just for fun or in competitions. In a nutshell, I can say that I’ve lived the “WIPO experience” to its fullest, fruitfully combining work and leisure.


  1. How is terminology managed at WIPO? Do you have a guide or are there any established procedures to manage terminology?


One of the main goals of the Terminology Unit at the WIPO is to provide terminology support to the PCT Translation Service that is responsible for patent translation at WIPO. One example is a termbase that is now publicly available on the WIPO website. WIPO Pearl contains terminology extracted from a large corpus of patent documents that is searchable in PATENTSCOPE, also on the WIPO website. Since the termbase covers ten languages (Arabic, German, English, Spanish, French, Japanese, Korean, Portuguese, Russian, and Chinese) it is essential that all contributors follow a common set of guidelines, that they create terminological records in different languages following the same theoretical and methodological principles. The guidelines are accommodated to the needs of the potential users of the termbase – not only translators but also terminologists, domain experts, patent drafters, etc. – who will have access to information such as head terms, synonyms, and defining contexts taken from reliable sources about concepts newly created by inventors and also well-established ones.


  1. Intellectual Property is a relevant issue in terminology. Can you give us any insights about your work in that area?


I had never worked in the area of intellectual property before the fellowship at WIPO, so it’s an area that is relatively new for me. Apart from the initial period of getting familiarized with the terms and concepts related to the whole process of patenting an invention it soon became very clear that terminology is important not just for translators of patents but – I dare say – for almost every stakeholder in that area.

Based on my experience at WIPO, I noticed that there is a contrast between the different working languages at WIPO in terms of the quantity and quality of sources from where it is possible to obtain terminological information. Many of the concepts that one finds in patent documents don’t have a designation in Portuguese, either because they were recently created and/or because there’s no industry in the country for that particular type of technology or innovation. In many subject fields, specialist authors borrow terms from other languages, usually English. The number of patent applications originally drafted in Portuguese is low when compared to other languages such as English or Chinese. There’s also a limited availability of academic works and specialized journals on certain concepts and subject fields.

Many of the tasks carried out posed new challenges for me, e.g. identifying a newly-created concept related to an invention, researching its designation, judging its stability in a given field, relating it with other concepts in the same subject field or in a different one.

When I look at these findings and think about the kind of work that terminologists do with patent documents, I see the value of terminology work much beyond the need to increase the number of resources for language professionals, translators in particular. It becomes evident to me that terminology serves a more general purpose, that of promoting a country’s scientific and technological development.


  1. Based on your experience in concept analysis, how is the lexico-semantic analysis done and what terminology extraction tool do you use?


When I analyze a concept, which usually implies identifying its characteristics, the relations with other concepts in a conceptual structure, among other things, my goal is to acquire knowledge about that concept, so I research information about it. Lexico-semantic analysis enables me to obtain some sort of information from a text or collection of texts about the concept that I’m investigating. The sort of information that I’m able to obtain refers to the meanings of words and the relationships between the meanings of words, which implies understanding the mechanisms and rules of a linguistic system, in particular its semantic structure.

The lexico-semantic analysis is performed with the help of tools or systems such as concordancers (AntConc, Sketch Engine, WordSmith) and term extractors (TermoStat, GaleXtract, Sketch Engine, lately I’ve been experimenting TaaS). It would be difficult for me to name a preferred tool… I like to experiment different tools and compare results. Also, I think it is very important to try their features, which vary from tool to tool, and see whether they are suited to the needs of my research. For example, while some tools only give you a raw list of extracted linguistic forms, others provide more information, such as statistical information, orthographic variants, structuring sketches, clouds, etc. In a previous interview here in your blog, Barbara Inge Karsch went to the heart of the issue when she talked about “usability improvements” and “selection criteria” when talking about term extractors. Nowadays, there are sophisticated tools and systems available out there but above all terminologists must always be aware that these tools are merely… tools. What matters the most are the theoretical principles and the criteria with which you perform the extraction and/or select the term candidates. Otherwise, one could question the importance of terminologists…


  1. Tell us a little bit about the Cognitive-Semantics in Collaborative Networks (CogniNET) project. How did it start and what was the outcome?


That project stemmed from the initiative of a research team of engineers at INESC TEC in Portugal that were seeking researchers in the field of linguistics with a terminological perspective. Therefore, collaboration was put in place with CLUNL, the linguistics research unit of Universidade Nova de Lisboa. That collaboration in itself is already a big achievement. Putting engineers and linguists, who have different backgrounds and often diverging ways of approaching the same topic, to work together and collaborate is a stimulating challenge and we communicated and exchanged points of view from engineering and linguistics/terminology with great success.

The CogniNET project sought to address problems raised by information and knowledge sharing in the context of short life-cycle collaborative networks, such as the need to (re)create, (re)use, edit and synthesize conceptual representations according to very specific needs. The main achievement of the project was the development of a fully functional platform called conceptME, whose function is to assist experts in the process of reaching a shared conceptualization of their domain in the form of a conceptual structure. The conceptualization framework, supported by terminology and knowledge representation, allows users to create and manage collaborative spaces, upload and organize a textual corpus, obtain lists of terms and their contexts, and also use a set of templates to relate domain-specific concepts.


  1. You have a degree in linguistics and a Master’s in linguistics, lexicology and lexicography? How did you go from that to pursuing a PhD in terminology? What about terminology attracted you to follow that path?


The areas of lexicology and lexicography are closely related to terminology. In fact, there has been some debate around what differentiates lexicology from terminology. The people who taught me lexicology and terminology during my undergraduate program in linguistics at Universidade Nova de Lisboa are aware of theoretical issues such as these. That is a major component in their curricula. I guess that they first sparked my interest in learning the theory of terminology, then in applying it. Before I enrolled in the Master’s program I was already interested in terminology and I remember now having worked on the subject of collocations in the specialized language of football based on transcriptions of four different matches, two broadcast on the radio and two other on TV. What a monumental task it was! That was my first transcription work. In my Master’s dissertation I was already fascinated with concept relations, so I began studying lexico-semantic relations and their use in terminology structuring. In short, lexicology, lexicography and also terminology were constantly present in my academic studies. In the end, it was quite natural to pursue a PhD in terminology, where these areas can be viewed as interfacing, overlapping, coinciding, diverging…


  1. Finally, my blog is targeted to beginners in terminology and I have talked about some basic concepts like the semiotic triangle, designations, etc. Some people might think that you don’t really need to know this to be a terminologist. How is theory applied to practice, in your experience?


Those are essential concepts to any terminologist. That’s precisely what shapes practice. I almost dare to suggest that you could’ve asked “How theory guides practice?” instead. My experience tells me that applying theory to practice is challenging, either because of time constraints or lack of resources, depending on the tasks at hand and whether it’s an ad hoc or a systematic research. Quite often, terminologists need to find alternative solutions to specific needs. That’s one important soft skill of their profile. Back to your question, for example, theory says that domain experts are usually the most reliable sources of information that terminologists can consult and work with in order to define concepts, identify synonyms, draft or check definitions, build a concept system, etc. But when they’re not around, terminologists rely on specialized documentation upon which some sort of lexico-semantic analysis is carried out. Some might argue that such an approach focuses more on lexical units and meaning rather than on terms and concepts. That could make a case for arguing that theory doesn’t apply to practice. However, in my experience, especially when I participated in the construction of a collaborative platform, it became a prime requisite to recognize different semiotic systems, adopt methods more akin to lexicography and work according to a terminological theoretical framework. Dealing with lexical units and meanings doesn’t erase basic concepts such as semiotic triangle, concept, designation, object, etc. They may be blurred or masked in the outcome of your work but the set of principles behind it mark the difference. After all, the theory is almost always “hidden” behind the application.


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