Interview with Frieda Steurs

Prof. Frieda SteursProf. Frieda Steurs is the dean of the Subfaculty of Language and Communication at Lessius/KU Leuven. She is a full professor in terminology and language technology and a member of the research group ‘Quantitative Lexicology and Variation Linguistics’ (KU Leuven). Her research includes projects with industrial partners and public institutions. Prof. Frieda Steurs is the founder and former president of NL-TERM, the Dutch terminology association for both the Netherlands and Flanders. Since 2005, she has been the president of TermNet, the International Network for Terminology. Prof. Frieda Steurs is the head of the ISO TC/37 standardisation committee for Flanders and the Netherlands and a member of Coterm, the Commission for Terminology in the Dutch Language Union. She is also a guest professor at ‘L’Université Catholique de l’Ouest’ (UCO), France, and a research fellow at the University of the Freestate, Bloemfontein, South Africa.

1) Maria Gancheva: ‘Terminology in Everyday Life’, a collection of papers on the impact of terminology, co-edited by you and Marcel Thelen, has come out recently. Why is terminology so important?

Prof. Frieda Steurs: Terminology is essential in all aspects of communication. It was long considered as being on a side-track of the language and linguistics spectrum, and pertaining to purely technical issues (highly specialised and very technical material), but it is now considered to be crucial in almost every form of communication. The collection of terms used in a language is a subset of the overall vocabulary of that language, but it penetrates every subdomain relevant in our modern society. We use a lot of terms relating to telecommunication, banking, medical and legal topics etc., even in non-specialist communication, but apart from this, terminology is very important for companies and domain specialists. As we are confronted here with the transmission of knowledge, there is a definitely a need for clear terminology in order to facilitate specialised communication. This applies both in a monolingual setting in order to define and delineate concepts, but also in a multilingual setting where translation and localisation are involved.

Together with my colleague Dr Hendrik Kockaert, I am preparing a new book ‘Terminology and Terminology Management: Challenges in the Information Society’, that will be published by the end of 2013.

2) Maria Gancheva: You are involved in numerous projects on legal translation. Could you tell me about them? What have been the major advances in the area and what remains to be done in the future?

Prof. Frieda Steurs: From my own professional perspective, being responsible for a large translation and interpreting department in a multilingual country, legal translation and interpreting has always been quite important, and we have a long tradition of offering translation courses focussing on the legal domain. Students are clearly interested in this field. A recent market study for the translation market in Belgium pointed out that 25% of the workload relates to legal and administrative documents. The relevance of the field for our master students is obvious. Gradually, we developed research relating to this field. It first started with the insights into community interpreting and court interpreting developed by one of our professors with an international reputation: Erik Hertog. We got EU funding for many projects relating to this field and published a lot (cf. AGIS, GROTIUS, etc.). Over the years we developed excellent cooperation with DG Translation, DG Multilingualism and DG Justice at the European Commission. We then, under the impulse of the EMT network, applied for funding under the DG Justice framework for a large-scale project on ‘Quality in Legal Translation’ (QUALETRA). This project was approved and started officially in November 2012 (and will run till November 2014). The aim is very specific: to help the EU Member States in the implementation of Directive 2010/64/EU on the right of each European citizen to interpretation and translation in criminal proceedings.

Over the years, the EU has recorded significant figures on criminal proceedings involving a non-national (± 10%) and the cost factors of legal translation. According to estimates made by DG Justice in the Impact Assessment document for the Proposal for a Framework Decision on the right to interpretation and to translation in criminal proceedings, the need for legal translation will increase significantly for two reasons: the ever-growing mobility of EU citizens and globalisation; and the implementation of Directive 2010/64/EU on the right to interpretation and translation in criminal proceedings. This has serious consequences for the EU Member States, legal practitioners and translators and training institutions.

One of the work packages in this project involves the creation of a terminology database for the legal domain relating to specific documents necessary in criminal proceedings.

More information can be found on

A second project we are working on is TermWise, a major project funded by the industrial research fund of KU Leuven, dealing with legal terminology and phraseology for the Belgian public services, e.g. the translation office of the Ministry of Justice.

TermWise aims at developing an advanced tool that includes expert knowledge in the algorithms that extract specialised language from textual data (legal documents). The outcome is a knowledge database including Dutch/French equivalents for legal concepts, enriched with the phraseology related to the terms under discussion. The project will be concluded at the end of 2013 and will be presented to the larger public. Spin-offs for other languages and other subdomains will follow.

3) Maria Gancheva: You are also actively working on terminology management. Could you tell us more about it? What are the current trends, the best practices, the challenges?

Prof. Frieda Steurs: Terminology management is more and more considered to be knowledge management relating to the most crucial workflows in a company. Research into the attitude of companies and professional partners involved in terminology work reveals a lot of positive effects for terminology management. I refer just a couple: fewer errors in communication, cost reductions and time savings, better communication (availability of reference points, fewer debates and misunderstandings, better definitions), higher quality in authoring of the source text, fewer queries, improved quality, positive effects on translation, easier classification and better workflow in documentation procedures (retrievability and reusability). Both source language and target language terminology management prove to be beneficial to overall communication in a professional context.

Terminology management involves not only the good management of both source and target languages, but also a lot of knowledge about workflow management, software tools, etc. A cost-benefit analysis and a clear calculation of the ROI of good terminology work can convince companies and services to invest in this type of work.

4) Maria Gancheva: There are various approaches to the assessment of translation quality. Which one do you consider most feasible nowadays?

Prof. Frieda Steurs: Translation quality and how to measure it is a hot issue these days. Due to the enormous increase in multilingual communication and the nature of many documents that contain critical information, the quality of translation has to be assessed carefully. There is an emerging awareness, both in the translator training institutes and in the professional translation world, that we need evidence and quality tests to measure translations. I am not an expert in this field myself, but some of my colleagues in our faculty are, and the issue is also under discussion by the standards bodies: we have a European standard for translation service providers, and ISO TC/37 is also working on standards in this area. In any case, insights and methods from the field of educational methodology have to be combined with insights in the field of language testing and these will have to be applied to translations. One of the work packages in the Qualetra project is devoted to this issue, and the aim is to develop a system for the assessment of translations that can be used by the official bodies of the Member States to evaluate translations in criminal proceedings.

5) Maria Gancheva: How can academia, industry and government interact (and cooperate) on terminology? Should the European Union institutions also be a factor in this interaction?

Prof. Frieda Steurs: The trend in research projects is that more and more projects tend to be interdisciplinary, including several types of expertise, and that funding can be found in consortia where academia, industry and government interact. For us, the applied nature of the research we are working on is crucial. We like to work with the professional field, and try to find solutions to the problems companies and public services are confronted with. In my faculty, the domains of expertise are not only translation and interpreting, but there is also considerable expertise in discourse studies. From a methodological point of view, we have experts in corpus linguistics and try to combine useful new insights in linguistics and translation studies in specific applications. I believe the research funding for this type of project can still be improved, and the EU definitely has an important role to play. Stimulating networking between experts from industry, public services and academia is definitely a task for the EU institutions. We can use the example of the EMT network, where the Commission DGT took the initiative of creating a network of top-level translator institutes and, alongside discussions and improvements in the curricula of these masters courses, stimuli are also given to joint research projects.

6) Maria Gancheva: The Terminology Coordination Unit of the European Parliament has recently launched a project on academic cooperation with universities in the EU Member States aimed at giving students the opportunity to do terminology research and contribute to IATE, the European Union terminology database. What do you think of this initiative? What else can be done to enhance collaboration between the EU institutions and academia?

Prof. Frieda Steurs: I think the IATE project and the cooperation with universities is a great idea. We are involved in this project, and we are very much looking forward to the possibility for our best masters students in translation and language technology to work with IATE. This is a very good example of how we can train our students by first providing them with the academic background, and then offering them a privileged ‘hands-on’ training.

More EU institutions could try this type of cooperation, through shared expertise for masters students, or by offering internships, or by promoting joint research for this type of project. Looking at the importance of IATE, and the creation of multilingual resources, I would strongly promote the creation of budgets for the ‘new’ EU languages, as this would facilitate the expansion of language resources. A recent research report, presented by MetaNet, also warned of the problems that will arise from the lack of language resources for the smaller languages.

7) Maria Gancheva: Neologisms come into existence constantly. What, in your opinion, is the best standardisation policy to be applied to them?

Prof. Frieda Steurs: I think standardisation is very difficult in this respect; neologisms are typically terms and words that come into existence because of the pure dynamic nature of society and language. New concepts are created or come into existence, and linguistic designations are needed. ISO 704 establishes the basic principles and methods for preparing and compiling terminologies, and Annex B of this document is devoted to term formation methods. It also notes the importance of language diversity: obviously the methods for term creation obey different mechanisms and differ from one language to the other. Creative principles already widely used in semantics are expansion (extending the meaning of a term by giving it a new meaning), metaphor (giving a new meaning by analogy to that of an established term), metonymy (taking the part for the whole or the whole for the part), eponymy (widening the use of a proper name as a common noun), conversion (shift in the grammatical category) and borrowing from another subject field.

8) Maria Gancheva: What advice would you give to young people who would like to pursue a career in terminology? What qualifications and skills do they need in order to be successful?

Prof. Frieda Steurs: Different tracks can be used to pursue a career in terminology. From a multilingual point of view, starting with a Master’s in translation and specialising in translation technology and advanced human language technology is definitely a good choice. However, terminology can be approached from different angles (it is definitely interdisciplinary), and academics with a background in other sciences can definitely also work in terminology research. In any case, anyone working with terminology and trying to build terminology collections needs good language skills, and especially a keen interest in new trends in society, with an open mind on new workflow procedures.

mariagancheva2Interviewer: Maria Gancheva

Maria Gancheva graduated from Sofia University “St Kliment Ohridski” with a degree in British and American Studies and a specialization in Linguistics. Her passion for modern languages and translation took her in 2012 to the European Parliament, where she did a traineeship first in the Bulgarian Translation Unit and then, in the Terminology Coordination Unit.