Logos Multilingual Portal

22 - Terminology

"He pronounced his words with a Viennese accent, that pronunciation put him more decisively into his element"1.

Many units of this course have been devoted to understanding the problems arising from the interpretation of the meaning of words in absolute and not taking them in their contextual terms. Diverging from the tendency to a prescriptive view of language and of translation, I tried to argue for the benefit of a descriptive view, one in which use determines the fundamental reality instrumental in making tactical and strategic decisions as far as expression, interpretation and translation are concerned,

Language as a consequence of the spontaneous interaction of speakers, and writing as process of intellectualization of what has always existed, i.e. oral language, are phenomena characterizing, as we saw in the latest units, many translation techniques that have to do with written reproduction of spoken discourse. If you don't want direct speech, reported in a written text to be stiff according to the canons with which we are taught to write compositions at school, translator and writer must be able to distinguish between written register and oral register, and draw from the latter when they want to give a real (in the case of writing) or realistic (in the case of translation) description of the real-life situation of people speaking.

When you enter technical and scientific sectors, in a way the perspective changes. Here language has nothing spontaneous and has nothing to do with the interaction among speakers. Here all principles are in force that do not exist in live language, the perfect matching, equivalence, total translatability almost without any loss. Here we don't find polysemic words, but monosemic terms. Here is how.

  • Formation of lexicon. In normal, non-sector, language, words spontaneously originate from oral, contingent culture-specific situations, then they come to form a part of the written patrimony. In sector language, terms originate in an artificial way when national or international committees and standard agencies decide the name to give a given object or scientifically describable object in objective terms. Terms are labels attached to objects.
  • Kind of society. From the above follows that societies producing terminology are different from societies producing common language. In a society in which knowledge is passed down from father to son, from professor to student, i.e. it is handed down in a practical way, no terminology is necessary: even words connected to techniques and skills can be non-terms, because their comprehension is verified in the practice. On the other hand, in a society in which knowledge is passed down through education and written culture, terminology is essential for guaranteeing specificity and univocity of information (Crevatin 2002: 3).
  • Relation to the object. In extra-sector language, speakers spontaneously attribute the same word meaning relations that send to more than one object. For example, the word "pen", originally referred to a bird's body part, now predominantly means an object we use for writing. Then if a literary or journalistic prize is created and is called "pen" or "golden pen", and one says "X received the pen in 2002" there is a further semantic shift: here the sentence no longer means simply that someone gave someone else a pen. In sector language, on the other hand, there is a two-way matching of term and object. In ideal terminology, a term is matched by one and only one object, and one object is matched by one and only one term.
  • Time factor. In common language, as we know, time determines the evolution of meaning of words, and there are essays on the history of language, diachronic grammars, disciplines like philology studying the evolution of language in time. Since, as time goes by, even the terms of the sector languages are subject to change, to avoid confusion in reference, in terminology the time factor is not considered. Terminology is synchronic, i.e. it photographs a given terminological reality in the present without a thought for the historical evolution in the background of the terms now in force in a given discipline.
  • Space factor. Common language, as we know, has geographical shifts. The English spoken in South Africa is different from the Australian one, from the British, the American English and so on. And the Italian spoken in Milan is different from the one spoken in Lecce or Sassari. In sector languages, within any homogeneous linguistic area terms do not change. If, for example, they decide that in English a given object is called "screw eye", it will be called "screw eye" everywhere in the world where a variety of English is spoken. And once you get to know that the Italian equivalent is "vite ad anello", such term is valid from Sicily to Canton Ticino, without any local variation.
  • Sector factor. Since, however, terminology is not in an ideal situation, but in a real one, even this discipline must face the question of borrowings and inter-sector exchanges. It happens that the same terms exist in different disciplines, referring to completely different objects. Every time you use a term, the collocutor must know what discipline you are referring to. For example, the term "bullet" has different meanings depending on its presence in the defense/military sector (and has an Italian equivalent "pallottola") in the software sector (and its Italian equivalent is "richiamo") or in the finance sector (and its Italian equivalent is "rimborso in un'unica soluzione alla scadenza".
  • Culture factor. We've seen many times that often words have a culture-specific meaning, which determines the interlingual non-equivalence and the missing absolute synonymy even within the same language. In every culture a word (even of the same language) has a different meaning, owing to the different relations it has to its cultural system. In terminology the problem of culture-specificity is not posed because, as I wrote a few lines above, terms are homogeneous in homogeneous linguistic areas. In the decisions made by committees and standard agencies no room is left to culture-specificity.
  • Connotation factor. In common language we know how important the connotation factor is, the here and now of the speech act. In sector language, terms have only denotative value, and connotation is completely abolished. Sector texts are closed texts, open only to a single interpretation.

From the above it is also clear that translation studies applied to sector terminology cannot be anything but prescriptive rather than descriptive. This is the only field in translation science where translatants can be either right or wrong and in which the translator's and editor's liberty have strong limitations.


Bibliographical references

CANETTI ELIAS Die gerettete Zunge. - Die Fackel im Ohr. - Das Augenspiel, München, Carl Hanser Verlag, 1995, ISBN 3-446-18062-1.

CANETTI ELIAS The Tongue Set Free. Remembrance of a European Childhood, translated by Joachim Neugroschel, in The Memoirs of Elias Canetti, New York, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1999, ISBN 0-374-19950-7, p. 1-286.

CREVATIN FRANCO Terminologia, traduzione, cultura, in Manuale di terminologia. Aspetti teorici, metodologici e applicativi, Milano, Hoepli, 2002, ISBN 88-203-2943-3, p. 1-7.

SOGLIA SUSANNA Origine, sviluppo e tendenze della terminologia moderna, in Manuale di terminologia. Aspetti teorici, metodologici e applicativi, Milano, Hoepli, 2002, ISBN 88-203-2943-3, p. 9-25.

1 Canetti 1999: 213.