Many companies underestimate the importance of linguistic consistency in their messaging, their corporate identity, and their product offerings. The underestimation is amplified if the company strives to create or maintain a global presence. As a company ventures outside of its linguistic and cultural comfort zone to lesser-known venues on the global stage, proactive clarity is required. A linguistically weak foundation is inadequate to support clarity in cross-cultural, customer-facing communications.

At its most harmless, linguistic inconsistency results in what could be called the “grimace factor.” Active and prospective customers stumble across conflicting, poorly written, or unintentionally humorous information that undermines the company’s credibility by generating customer confusion. The subliminal message is that the company does not value its customers or their marketplace. While such customer experience may not necessarily be a deal-killer, it can position a company in a defensive stance as it strives to regain customer confidence, often through expensive customer support calls, revised translation, and other outbound communication rework.

Can your company afford communication that skids past its goal or completely misses the mark?

There are five best practice steps that you can take to mitigate linguistic risk, while lowering costs for support and damage control. These best practices also help to keep the cost of translation lower.

Step 1: Find a Way to Begin


Lack of a grand plan is not a good reason for a terminology initiative to fail. Although planning is good, and grand planning can be better, a humble beginning is far better than no beginning at all!

One way to begin is to identify a corporate sponsor who will champion the effort. An executive sponsor, once convinced of the long-term benefits to the corporate bottom line, becomes a powerful ally. At the executive level, the sponsor can help remove roadblocks that inhibit the effort by being a peer spokesperson and influencer among decision-makers. This support will trickle down through all areas of the organization.

Then roll up your sleeves and start looking at the product’s user interface. The term “user interface” is frequently associated with software, but it applies to all types of products. Even a simple frying pan has an interface with its users, but is that interface a “handle” or a “grip?” Or is the surface of the pan “non-stick” or “easy-clean?” The product-to-human interface is the product’s terminological heart and, through the product’s presentation, should be an expression of the company’s core focus.

At this beginning stage, it doesn’t matter what tools you use. In fact, you might consider using something that you already have, such as Microsoft Excel. Excel should never be considered a linguistic tool. And, it should definitely not be misused as a translation environment. At this stage of the effort, however, the organization will likely not be prepared to invest in industry standard terminology management software. For the time being, Excel or a similar spreadsheet will suffice. Spreadsheet applications are ubiquitous. They allow for convenient list-building and sharing. Lists in this format are easily alphabetized, commented, and otherwise manipulated.

Step 2: Harvest Terminology


After initial effort is underway and some starting data has been captured, you should expand the scope by interviewing numerous stakeholders in the product creation process. These include product managers, development personnel, documentation specialists, marketing managers and, depending on the type of product, senior executives, legal counsel, and regulatory departments.

There are other sources of terminology, as well. Sometimes a de facto term has come into being among a user community or as a result of market awareness created by either an organization or a competitor. It is wise to review the appropriateness, penetration, and availability of competitors’ terms. Industry publications also serve as an excellent source of terminology, as do online terminology databases and publicly available translation memory. Finally, terminology can be harvested from existing product documentation. If the documentation is available in electronic form, software tools can automatically extract term candidates. This process is fast and efficient, but the cost of the software may be prohibitive at this stage of terminology development. If this is the case, you might want to engage a service provider who can offer term harvesting as a service.

Step 3: Evaluate, Negotiate, Approve


By this time, you should have a fairly sizable list of term candidates, but you will surely have come up against some conflicts and differences in opinion among the stakeholders. Beginning at this juncture, and from now on into the future, it will be necessary to establish a consensus. This is extremely important because terminology profoundly affects customer experience, corporate identity, and branding. Cleverly managed and marketed terminology can provide a company with an opportunity to successfully promote a brand or a concept by becoming the lingua franca for that product category.

But not all terms invented by product development are readily marketable and not all terms coined by marketers are technically correct. This will become evident as you refine the list. You may discover that your organization uses many synonyms or marginally varying phrases to describe the same thing. Usage harmonization presents opportunity for creating more focused messaging, while offering the desirable side effect of saving money when messaging is translated.

Your consensus-building process should involve all stakeholders. Here again, especially in the event of controversy, there is value in having an executive sponsor. An executive sponsor can ensure alignment between term usage and high-level corporate strategies and goals. Conversely, if your executive sponsor understands how words are currently being used, they can relay this information to corporate strategists. In turn, those strategists can make better decisions about branding and communication.

You may consider contacting friendly customers, or customers who are heavily invested in your company’s products. This is an excellent way to get real-world user feedback, while also nurturing the supplier-customer relationship. Soliciting input from technical support representatives is another excellent way of uncovering latent terminology problems. The technical support perspective is often more in touch with real-world sentiment than that of ivory-tower product planners.

The result of your conversations will be a list of approved terms. The list should also include terms that are deprecated or forbidden. You can now establish a distribution process so that all stakeholders have access to the list. This may be as simple as an email with an attached file, or might be a site on the corporate intranet. New employees should also be made aware of the terminology initiative as part of the onboarding process. This initial distribution should be considered to be an awareness-raising effort. Global companies still have quite a ways to go to achieve sophisticated terminology management.

Step 4: Translate and Test


Unsophisticated companies view translation of terminology prior to translation of large-scale content as a redundant and superfluous expenditure. There is also an oft-held belief that cost savings can be achieved by using in-house staff for this purpose. This belief is short-sighted and erroneous. Mario, the accountant, may be a native speaker of Italian but, unless he is a trained linguist, he is a poor choice for creating Italian terminology. There is a reason why linguists train for many years to become translators. Accurate, contemporary translation is hard work, requiring in-depth education and constant interaction with the target language to keep up-to-date. Few products today are delivered to speakers of ancient Greek or Latin. Modern living languages are just that: living. This means that they gradually change, grow, and intermingle. Trained linguists, especially those who live in target-language locales, keep up with the latest turns of phrase plus grammatical and spelling usage paradigms.

For optimum results, invest in terminology translation by in-country, qualified linguists who are domain experts. Most translation service providers offer such terminology management services, but this should be specified in the project definition or service level agreement. Getting the terminology lists translated is only part of the process. For review and approval, harness locale-specific knowledge. The opinions of your in-country resources can be very valuable to your overall translation success. Consider reaching to regional sales personnel, user groups, or friendly customers located in the target-language locales. It is always possible that hands-on users of the specific product have developed a lingua franca of their own that supersedes an academically correct version. Or the source language may simply provide a better term, so it gets adopted as-is instead of being translated.

Regardless of what process or people develop the translated terminology, obtaining buy-in from in-country stakeholders is vital. Proactive buy-in prevents after-the-fact backlash, recrimination, and the necessity for expensive rework. Mature language service providers recommend terminology creation as a precursor task at the beginning of a localization project. Some will also manage terminology on an ongoing basis on behalf of their customers. These services are valuable.

Step 5: Manage and disseminate


There are multiple ways to manage your terminology. You may decide to develop an in-house process using your own infrastructure. Or, you may consider outsourcing terminology management to a language service provider. You might consider doing both. If you decide to manage terminology in-house, you will need to invest in a terminology management system. (Remember, Excel is not a terminology management system!) There are some excellent products available from translation tool vendors. Keep in mind that there is no point in making this investment unless your company has the in-house linguistic management knowledge, plus the will and funding to persevere in the task set.

The best terminology management systems support a wide variety of user access rights, plus rich media such as graphics, pictures, video, sound, and links to reference material. However, don’t be lured by the sheer number of available information formats. These complex, data-rich information structures need to be maintained over time. The more complex a system becomes, the more maintenance work will be required. Be mindful of how pragmatic your solution is when compared to the wide palette of possibilities.

In Conclusion

There are many benefits that you glean by structuring and managing your terminology. Corporate identity and branding are strengthened, customer satisfaction and engagement are enhanced, support costs are reduced, and translation services are rendered more cost-effective. Terminology management can be instituted in five stages of increasing sophistication. The most important stage is the actual beginning. With a strong beginning, the rest will follow along when supported by perseverance, help, and advice.

If you need advice with your global content strategy or with automated terminology harvesting, Content Rules is here to help. Just drop us a line.

Note: This article first appeared on the text&form blog. For information about text&form, go to

Richard Sikes