Interview with Terminologist Sergio Portelli



Sergio Portelli is Associate Professor at the Department of Translation, Terminology & Interpreting Studies in the Faculty of Arts of the University of Malta. He obtained a PhD in Italian from the University of Malta and taught the language at all levels. After a stint as a translator at the European Parliament, he began teaching Translation Studies in 2006. He designed the Terminology course at postgraduate level in 2013 and continues to teach prospective Maltese terminologists with the hope of seeing the discipline firmly established on the islands.

1. How did your interest in terminology begin?

Ever since 2006, when I began teaching at the University of Malta’s Department of Translation and Interpreting Studies (as it was then called), I have been supervising dissertations related to Terminology. However, the department did not offer a specific study unit on the discipline until 2013. Students simply followed a template to collect sets of terms related to specific domains and formed neoterms with little regard to established terminological practice. After I joined the department full-time in 2010, it occurred to me that the students were doing terminological work they were not trained to do. For this reason, in 2012 I suggested that a specific study unit on Terminology and Translation be included in our postgraduate course. My suggestion was accepted and I designed a study unit which I began to teach in 2013. Terminology became an integral part of the department’s area of competence, so there was a decision to rename the department as Department of Translation, Terminology and Interpreting Studies. Since then, Translation students receive formal training in Terminology every year and I have become very involved in this area of study.

Sergio Portelli

2. You also worked as a translator at the European Parliament before returning to your academic teaching career. How do you feel this has helped you in your subsequent academic career in translation and terminology?

My experience as a translator at the European Parliament was essential for my academic career in the field. Before joining the European Parliament in 2004, I had taught Italian and worked as a freelance translator. However, working in Luxembourg allowed me to experience translation at a highly professional level. I also learnt how to use translation technology and even some basic project management, as there was a very limited number of Maltese translators working at the European Parliament and no support staff at the time. It is thanks to my experience at the European Parliament that I can explain to my students what institutional translation entails and what level of competence and professionalism is expected of them in the workplace.

3. Do you think terminology is given enough importance in translation training, especially in Malta?

Currently, our students receive 28 hours of training in Terminology and are required to carry out Terminology work for their assessment. Their assignment is given in collaboration with the Maltese terminologists of the European Commission, who send me a list of concepts which are then subdivided according to the number of students. The latter are required to complete the missing terminological data, which is then assessed by me and validated by the EC terminologists who decide on its inclusion in IATE. This collaboration is mutually beneficial because students do real Terminology work after receiving formal training, to which the EC terminologists also contribute by giving a yearly seminar, through a video conferences or in person. On their part, the terminologists obtain terminological data they can include in IATE. Our course structure does not allow more time for Terminology training, but it is enough to attract students to the discipline. Every year, a number of them choose Terminology for their MA dissertation project.

4. Given your background in both translation and literature, how significant do you think the role played by terminology is in literary translation?

Terminology pertains to the field of technical translation and I do not see it playing a significant role in literary translation generally. Of course, it becomes important in specific genres or sub-genres like science fiction and courtroom fiction, where the use of correct technical terms is necessary. It can be quite challenging for the literary translator to find corresponding terms, especially in languages like Maltese that are still gathering and building terminology in many domains.

5. How important do you feel Malta’s accession to the EU was for the progression of the Maltese language?

 I think that EU accession was a watershed moment for the Maltese language. Becoming an official language of the EU made it necessary for Maltese to cover a much wider array of domains than before. The necessity to translate EU documents into Maltese gave rise to new registers (technical, bureaucratic, etc.) and terminology that had been inconceivable before 2004, when almost all technical texts in Malta were written in English. As far as terminology is concerned, Maltese is rapidly recovering lost ground with respect to more established and widely-used European languages, and in the medium term I expect it to be very well equipped to cover many domains. EU accession widened the scope for the use of Maltese and raised the status of the language even among its speakers, who feel more confident in using the language in formal situations where, until recently, the use of English would have been taken for granted. Moreover, since Maltese became an official EU language we have seen a remarkable increase in foreign interest in the language. Foreign linguists, scholars and language learners have been attracted to this unique language of Semitic origin, written in the Roman alphabet, and spoken by a relatively small community of EU citizens. In recent years, for example, a renowned Chinese university has been offering Maltese as an academic subject because of the latter’s status as an official EU language. EU accession has definitely had a positive impact on the language.

6. What future would you have predicted had Maltese not become one of the 24 official languages of the EU?

Maltese would have probably remained confined to the fields it previously covered. I do not think it would have gone into a dramatic decline, since it is the spoken language of almost all the Maltese population. It was already a written language with its own literature, widely used in mass media and taught in all the schools of the islands. It would possibly have lost some ground to English in official and public use, especially in the written medium. What is certain is that Maltese would not have had the opportunity to develop at such a fast pace in various domains and its status would not have increased as much as it did.

7. How would you describe the field of terminology in Malta? What is your outlook for its future?

In Malta, Terminology as a discipline is still in its initial stages. It is usually confused with Lexicography or considered a branch of Sociolinguistics, and it is difficult to get it accepted as a distinct area of research. I am trying to free the discipline from the misconceptions that still shackle its development locally. As a member of the National Council for the Maltese Language, I recently held a brief presentation to introduce the discipline to my fellow members in order to make them aware of the importance of terminological research and the role the Council has in promoting a correct approach towards the discipline. We must find a systematic way to create awareness about the importance of structured and sound terminological research for Maltese, since we cannot afford to leave such work at the whim of untrained individuals. This is especially true in the case of the creation of neoterms, which risks being haphazard and arbitrary. We have already had instances of neoterms being created according to arbitrary criteria, and it is very difficult to correct shortcomings once the terms are officially adopted. One big problem we have in Malta is the lack of financial, material and human resources, especially in the Humanities. My dream would be to set up a Terminology research group within the Faculty of Arts, consisting of trained terminologists who could search for project funds and carry out extensive research projects. For the moment, we are still forming potential terminologists, but I am optimistic that Terminology will eventually find its proper place in Malta too.

8. How useful do you find tools such as IATE? What do you think should be improved?

IATE is a fundamental tool because it is the most comprehensive terminological resource available to us. It is also the only professional terminological data collection we have for Maltese, and it is constantly being improved by the Maltese terminologists at the EU institutions. I must also mention the work being done by our students who, through their Terminology assignments and dissertations, provide material that is then vetted and used by the EU terminologists for inclusion in IATE. As I mentioned earlier, it has only been recently that Maltese began to require terminology in most domains, so there is a lot of catching up to do. This also applies to IATE, but lots of work is being done to make up for lost time. I think that particular attention must be given to validation, since some Maltese terms inserted in IATE just after 2004 are not very reliable. This process takes time, and ideally more terminologists should be working on it, but I understand the constraints in terms of time and resources.

9. You spent some time as a visiting scholar at the Beijing Foreign Studies University. What can you tell us about this experience? How did it help you in your career, especially in terminology-related work?

My experience at Beijing Foreign Studies University was immensely enriching from many aspects. Apart from teaching in their Italian programme, I also had the opportunity of furthering my studies in Chinese and of revising translations of marketing material produced by the university. This experience led me to reflect on the role of the translator as a cultural mediator, the responsibilities involved and the importance of adopting appropriate strategies to bridge the cultural divide. It also led me to broaden the horizons of my courses by making them less Eurocentric and by taking more into account non-Western developments and perspectives. From a terminological aspect, I was particularly intrigued by the way the Chinese form neologisms, given the differences in phonology, script and language history from English and Western languages.

10. You recently co-edited the book, ‘Traduttori come mediatori culturali’. Can you tell us more about this project and how it can be used in the translation and terminology fields?

The book is a collection of papers by scholars of Italian literature from eight different countries. It  compiles studies on how literary translators from different cultures relate to their source texts, their attitude towards the literary works they translate and the strategies they adopt to translate both meaning and effect into the target language. The book appeals to literary translators especially, who can reflect on their approach and compare their experience to that of the translators discussed in the different chapters within their own bicultural context. I am happy to say that the book was received very well and is currently being reprinted.

 11. Do you have any studies or research papers in the pipeline?

I have various research projects going on at the moment. They vary from translation related to comparative literature to adaptation and appropriation processes, but I am also currently doing research on cultural competence in translator training. With regards to Terminology, I try to identify domains where terminology work is particularly needed in order to entice students to choose these fields for their MA dissertation. This also requires looking out for contacts in the specialist fields who could contribute to such research. Such a task is not an easy accomplishment in Malta, due to the limited human resources. However, it is precisely the eclectic nature of my research interests that keeps me engaged and active in different fields.

Interviewed by Veronica-Lynn Mizzi – Communications Trainee at the Terminology Coordination Unit of the European Parliament

Veronica is from Siggiewi in Malta and was born in 1992. She has a Bachelor’s Degree in Maltese and a Master’s Degree in Translation and Terminology Studies from the University of Malta. She focused her MA dissertation on the translation of children’s literature. Worked as a journalist, sub-editor and content writer with a Maltese newspaper and online portal for 3 years before commencing her EU experience. She knows Maltese, English, Italian and some French and Spanish. She currently works as a Communications Officer.