European Society for Translation Studies

Terminology: what makes up the distinction between term and word

Marcel Thelen

(Posted on July 30, 2005)

Department of Translation and Interpreting

Maastricht School of International Communication

Zuyd University (Hogeschool Zuyd)


Terminology: what makes up the distinction between term and word


In the process of specialised translation, terms can in some cases clearly and without any problem be distinguished from words, whereas in others this is not so obvious, especially in cases where terms turn out to behave like words as in such disciplines like psychology, sociology, art & art criticism, leisure & tourism, etc.

For the translation of terms, I discern a number of steps of which – in the translation process- term recognition is one of the most important ones. I have a number of research issues in this respect:

▪            What is it that triggers the translator’s decision to translate the item in question as a term or as a word: is it, for example, the item’s morphology or etymology, the item’s meaning description and/or context hints as given in (specialised) dictionaries, indicators in the item’s context, the item’s behaviour in the source text regarded in terms of intertextuality, the explicitness and clarity of the subject area in question, the translator’s experience, etc?

▪            Can these triggers be used as guiding or discovery procedures?

▪            What can the translator do and what aids does he have at his disposal to make the appropriate decision: is this only term extraction tools or is there more?

▪            What is the use of the pre-translation macro-textual and micro-textual analysis?

▪            Are all these issues issues at all in the presence of translation memories and term banks?

▪            How can corpus linguistics help?

▪            Do the above research issues regarding term recognition also play a role in interpreting and if so, is this role the same as in translation; if not, what makes up the difference?

▪            In what way do theory and practice co-operate to help the translator / interpreter?

▪            Is it possible to generalise the findings of this type of research into rules and where will these rules be accommodated best: in theory or in practice?

In particular for students of specialised translation, it is important to know how and if words can be distinguished from terms. If an item is a term, it should be translated by a term (if there is one available – if not, the appropriate translation procedures should be applied), if it is not, the freedom of translation is greater and the student can decide what to do (under the constraints of the translation brief and the constraints of the target language & culture). Also for the teacher of specialised translation, in particular the teacher of terminology, the term-word distinction is important from a didactic point of view: how should he explain the difference between words and terms and provide the student with appropriate aids to solve problematic cases? Also for the professional translator the answers to the above questions can be relevant. Finally, the outcome of this research may also be of relevance to the discipline of terminology (and terminography): do terms and words behave similarly? If so, why have now one discipline instead of two, viz. terminology and lexicology? If there is a difference in behaviour, then what is it and how should it be accounted for?