Interview with Adrian Wymann

Interview with Adrian Wymann

Interview with Adrian Wymann, Head of the Swiss Chancellery’s Terminology Section

Adrian WymannAdrian Wymann (born 1964) studied General Linguistics, Sociology and Korean Studies at the Universities of Bern and Zurich and wrote his PhD about „The Expression of Modality in Korean“(1996). After several years as a research assistant for projects at the University of Berne (inter alia text optimization in the public administration and the evaluation of the language questions of the Swiss census of 1990) and as a research associate for various Swiss federal offices, he first became vice-director of the section Workforce and Immigration for the Federal Office for Migration in 2005. Later he became Director of the department Work and Integration in the same office, until he switched to the Federal Chancellery in 2011. Since then he holds the function of the Head of the Terminology section. He has significantly contributed to development of the Swiss terminology database TERMDAT. From 2013 to 2014 he served as president of the Conference of Translation Services of European States (COTSOES) and helped to strengthen the cooperation and networking between translators and terminologists across all of Europe.

As a linguist, you could choose many different kinds of job: how did you end up in terminology and what do you find most interesting about your work?

I came to terminology indirectly. My previous work, for almost 15 years, was in the field of migration – and, in fact, that had been something of a professional diversion for me. So when I became Head of the Terminology Section at the Swiss Chancellery I was really returning to my vocational roots.

What I find fascinating about the actual work I do is its variety. On the one hand, terminology in the Swiss Federal Administration plays a core role in facilitating multilingualism, and we therefore have five working languages (German, French, Italian, Romansh and English), all of which are spoken within my team – so it is an ideal working environment for language enthusiasts. On the other hand, our work spans all the subject areas dealt with by a modern government, so the diversity in terms of content is almost unlimited: drones, VAT, flood defences, research and innovation, social security e‑voting, sport – you name it, we cover it. And that means we are in active contact with specialists in those fields, which is another thing that makes our job particularly interesting. Frequently, too, our work touches on all sorts of actual linguistic issues, for example when we are dealing with neologisms.

What exactly does the Swiss Chancellery’s Terminology Section do, and what does your job, as Head of it, entail? Have your duties changed much in recent years?

The tasks that the Terminology Section of the Swiss Chancellery performs are set out very succinctly in Article 15 of the Regulation of 14 November 2012 on Federal Administration Language Services: it organises and coordinates terminology work for the Federal Administration, manages the TERMDAT central terminology database and, working with the various Departments (i.e. Ministries), implements terminology projects.

As Section Head, I have to ensure, most importantly, that all the pre-requisites are in place for delivering a high-quality service, and I have to pursue and promote interaction with the language services and sector-specific services of the various government departments. Another ongoing part of my job is awareness-raising among decision makers about the implications and the importance of systematic terminology work. It goes without saying that these tasks are expanding – while our resources are shrinking – and the only way to stay more or less on top of it all is by relying on IT tools. We keep a very close eye on developments on that front, and that is also where we have seen the greatest change in the way we work.

What is special about terminology work in Switzerland? Are there specific difficulties you face, or specific advantages you have? And have these changed down the years?

Multilingualism is a defining characteristic of Switzerland, the country is enriched by it and it contributes to our identity – but it is not something that ‘just happens’ and it cannot be taken for granted. Multilingual communication about specialist subject matter, which is what goes on in, and is generated by, the Swiss Federal Administration, relies crucially on congruent multilingual terminology. So we see our work – always in four and sometimes in five languages – as contributing significantly to multilingualism both at official level and among individuals.

Something I would describe not as a difficulty but certainly as a challenge is the decentralised way in which Switzerland, as a federation, is administered – and that is why we also cooperate closely with the four multilingual cantons of Bern, Fribourg, Valais and Graubünden. This ongoing interaction at various levels is, in turn, an advantage because it means that very specific terminology needs (in relation to a current referendum, for example) are regularly flagged up. Other basic requirements are for the proper coordination of terminology work and rapid access to relevant information – and we try to deliver on both those fronts on a daily basis. The biggest change has been in the speed with which new terminology needs arise and develop.

About TERMDAT, the Swiss terminology database: how important is it nationally and internationally and who uses it?

TERMDAT, the Swiss Federal Administration’s terminology database, contains approximately 400 000 multilingual entries in Switzerland’s four official languages (German, French, Italian and Romansh) as well as English. While there is a certain emphasis on terms from Swiss Federal law, the full range of subject matter that the Federal Administration covers is reflected there. TERMDAT’s importance lies, without a doubt, in its ability to supply equivalent terms, which frequently form the basis for multilingual communication on sector-specific topics in the official languages (and English). TERMDAT can tell you, for example, how to say ‘spending brake’ in French, or ‘net migration’ in Italian, or ‘plea of nullity’ in Romansh, or ‘majority of cantons’ in German.

TERMDAT has been accessible online ( since 2013, there are no restrictions on using it and it is free – and we have all been amazed by the level of demand for it. Of the more than 10 million searches performed in the database by users worldwide in 2015, approximately three-quarters were by users in Switzerland. Most of the non-Swiss users are in our neighbouring countries but it is fair to say that people all over the world consult TERMDAT regularly.

Why are English and other non-Swiss languages included in TERMDAT?

English is not one of Switzerland’s official languages but it plays an important role in the country. This is particularly true in the private sector, notably in the export and services sectors and in tourism. In the public sector, while there is no rule that documents have to be published in English, an English version of important statutory texts is available (although it is not deemed authentic for legal purposes). As a European country, Switzerland has close ties with the European Union and, for that reason (even post Brexit), the Federal Chancellery follows the conventions of UK English, except in the case of documents intended specifically for a US readership. Equivalent entries in TERMDAT in other languages come mainly from multilateral projects – and it is worth pointing out here that TERMDAT is designed to be able to display terms in an unlimited number of languages, reproducing all their different alphabets and special characters.

There is a link from the Terminology Section website to the European terminology database IATE. What is IATE’s role in relation to what you do, and do you personally work with it?

IATE plays an important role. Looking back, systematic terminology work in the Swiss Federal Administration began in the 1980s in the days of Eurodicautom, so we were in contact for many years, with two-way data exchanges. Several years ago, however, we decided to discontinue these data transfers because the current standard of networking makes them unnecessary. Basically, anyone looking for Swiss terminology will find it in TERMDAT, while for anything else we recommend, and indeed we use, IATE. It is possible that a meta-search engine could, in future, link user access to the two databases as necessary. At the moment, however, our approaches are not entirely identical, for example on issues like copyright (where we have a very open stance).

How, in your view, does IATE relate to TERMDAT and vice versa?

We no longer maintain collections of terms imported from one another but there is ongoing contact and exchange, mostly about methodology and workflow issues. For our part, we appreciate being able to discuss these matters openly with colleagues – and we also meet up at least once a year in the Terminology Working Group of the Conference of Translation Services of European States (COTSOES).

Have you come into contact with the European Parliament’s Terminology Coordination Unit and, if so, are there areas of mutual interest between your Service and it?

The fact that our resources are limited restricts us in terms of contact with foreign and international terminology bodies. To date, we have focused mainly on COTSOES, IATE, the German-language Terminology Council RaDT, the Italian Terminology Association Ass.I.Term and the French General Commission for Terminology. Specific questions frequently lead to new contacts so we might well be in touch with the EP Terminology Coordination Unit in the future.

  • Read the interview in German here.

About the interviewer

img_20160831_2213102Martina Christen, study visitor at TermCoord. Born in Zurich (Switzerland) in 1991. After her Bachelor Studies in Sociology and Social Sciences at the University of Basel she wanted a taste of working abroad and decided to accept an internship at the Swiss Embassy in Luxembourg. Convinced by the Luxembourgish lifestyle, she stayed and is now doing a Master Degree in Learning and Communication in Multilingual and Multicultural Contexts at the University of Luxembourg. Her focus lies on topics of migration, integration, intercultural communication, social inequality and multilingualism. As a mediaphile, she volunteers as a Facebook manager for a Red Cross vintage store and has several ongoing public Facebook and Instagram projects.