Interview with Loïc Depecker

Loïc Depecker, a former student of the École normale supérieure in Paris and a qualified teacher of grammar, currently teaches linguistics at the Sorbonne.
At the cabinet meeting of 20 May 2015 he was given responsibility for all matter relating to the French language and the languages of France.
Between 1980 and 1996 he held a number of senior posts in the Office of the French Prime Minister and in the Ministry for Culture and Communication. In particular, he gave technical advice on neologisms and scientific and technical terminology. He is an expert at AFNOR and President and founder of the French Terminology Society (scholarly society). He has been an ‘Officier des arts et des lettres’ since 2011.
Loïc Depecker


Read our interview with Loïc Depecker in French here.


1) In 2015 you were given responsibility for all matters relating to the French language and the languages of France so that you could set up the French Language Agency. What is your task as a terminologist?

The task the Prime Minister gave me covers a very wide area. In short, my job is to turn French into a language of the modern age, which can evolve and be used to describe modern-day realities. It is also a very old language, dating back over a thousand years – it is an historic language. It is also a modern language which needs to be developed in all areas of knowledge. I have launched major projects in a number of areas: terminology, safeguarding scientific and technological language, French on the web, the relationship between French and the languages of France, the languages of the French-speaking world, the languages of Europe and the languages of the world, in particular the Romance languages. On top of that difficult task, however, the really important thing is that everyone in France – whether in mainland France or in the overseas territories – should have the opportunity to learn French. While the French enjoy very good schooling thanks to the work of the Ministry for Education, many of our compatriots do not speak French well, either because they moved to France only recently, because they have never had the opportunity to learn French, or because they have forgotten it. I started young, in 1970, teaching Algerian workers how to read and write in French. The joy and sense of commitment I felt then have kept me going ever since – the joy of witnessing a person’s happiness at discovering how a series of letters forms their name. Since then, with so many changes in society, the issue of French has definitely become a social one.


2) Do you think an institution like the French Language Agency is a useful tool for linguists and experts or rather a way of raising awareness of the correct use of the language?

The idea behind the French Language Agency that the Prime Minister has asked me to set up is that it should coordinate more effectively the work of the bodies that teach French outside the national education system. There’s a lot to do. We have to help our compatriots in the overseas territories to reach a very high standard in French very quickly, at the same time as they learn their mother tongue(s). After all, in some parts of France French is not everyone’s mother tongue. I think about the issue of the overseas territories a lot. We have to train people’s minds in the right way and try to understand the mechanisms in play when we switch from one language to another. It’s a game everyone enjoys, but you have to learn to play it properly.


3) You define terminology as an ‘outward-looking’ discipline. How does terminology shape the way we perceive and understand the world?

I do indeed see terminology as an ‘outward-looking’ discipline. Naming objects and concepts is something we do all the time – often unconsciously. Using or creating terms always involves a choice. What are we choosing? In my view we are choosing a ‘conception’: each terms carries with it a conception – a way of seeing things and the world. In the context of current migration crisis, in the group of terminology experts in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs we have been talking recently about how to translate the English term ‘hot spot’. We have (for the time being) settled on centre d’accueil (‘reception centre’), which is the term Manuel Valls used in one of his speeches on the subject; if want to be more precise you could use the terms centre d’accueil et d’enregistrement (‘reception and registration centre’) or centre d’accueil et d’orientation (‘reception and guidance centre’). It is clear that each of these terms means something slightly different. In any case, we have fought against the use of centre de tri (‘sorting centre’) or centre de sélection (‘selection centre’) as used in some newspaper articles. We have to consider the human element, a fundamental part of the value system in a country such as ours, when making our choices.


4) You were an adviser at the European Commission for 10 years. What was your role?

I was an adviser at the Commission for several years, but I did not have to deal with many projects. As an expert, I had to analyse linguistic projects submitted to the Commission.


5) Have you been following the development of the IATE database? What do you think of it?

Yes, I have been following the development of IATE, in particular in the context of my linguistic and terminology classes at the Sorbonne. Translation students have a lot of preconceived ideas about the terminology resources they find online. I recommend IATE, of course, which has improved a lot. It has been through several technological revolutions, which is always difficult for administrative organisations and IT systems. I think there’s a lot more that needs to be done before it can be made available for public use. That should be a priority for the EU – to make sure that all the available resources for European languages, including regional languages, are online, in particular their technical, scientific and administrative terminology. That would be a way of safeguarding languages and meeting UNESCO’s objectives for preserving cultural and linguistic identity. We will probably need to develop IT applications which make group working possible and then incorporate the results into IATE. With today’s technology, this would be feasible.


6) In your view, what role does terminology play in multilingual contexts such as that in which the EU institutions operate? What are its limits?

As I have already said, terminology is essential for sharing our way of seeing the world. It is also essential for translation. We have to make sure that terms are at least very similar and harmonised for everyone; context makes complete uniformity impossible. In other words, I think there can be several different terms for a given concept, but that we should make the author and translator of a text aware of this and guide them in their choice of terminology.


7) Should terminology be regarded as a discipline in its own right or as a combination of several different disciplines?

I have learned from the work I have been doing at ISO for nearly 30 years that terminology really is a science: it has methodological theories and principles, its experiments are repeatable, and the approach taken can be validated, in particular by analysing the objects to which certain terms refer and the way in which terminology and objects interact. At the same time – and this is what makes it interesting – terminology does exist at the point where several other disciplines meet: philosophy, epistemology, sociology, the history of science and technology, the history of languages, psychology, psychoanalysis, etc.


8) The introduction of ‘standardisation’ strategies and language planning is a thorny subject and involves all kinds of negotiation strategies. How does terminology come into this?

Terminology has its own principles, methods and ways of clarifying things. It is a guarantee of truth: if you decide to use terms such as maîtrise d’œuvre (project manager) or maîtrise d’ouvrage (client) in the same way throughout a contract, everyone is happy. If you don’t, all hell breaks loose!


9) In your view, what is the future of terminology and how can it be developed in public and private institutions? Do you think terminology will become more and more dependent on IT?

Terminology has a bright future, in particular multilingual terminology. It won’t be IT dependent if the expert system designers know what they want and don’t let themselves be influenced by the machines. IT specialists must play an active role in linguistic engineering by contributing their ideas and transcending the power of machines.


10) The objectives of terminology and translation are to facilitate international exchange and do away with linguistic ambiguity. How can we guarantee that this proliferation of information reflects scientific, cultural and local/regional thinking ?

Terminology work has to be carried out intelligently and pragmatically. In choosing and creating a term, we have to get into another person’s head, feel the spirit of the age and the changes taking place and the trends that cause our languages to evolve day after day. That is what we are trying to do in the 20 or so terminology expert groups that we have just formed in the French ministries. Then there is the language barrier: sometimes untranslatable concepts arise in terminology as well, but terminology is a science of engineers. There is always a solution. You have to build bridges and figure out how resistant the linguistic material is, as you would do with a metal or a joint…


Read our interview with Loïc Depecker in French here.

Interviewed by  Francesca Bisiani

Born in 1986 in Trieste (Italy). Studied in the School for translators and interpreters in the University of Trieste. Post-graduate studies in legal translation in Paris-3 Sorbonne Nouvelle. Teaching fellow in Paris in literary translation in Paris-4 Sorbonne, legal Spanish terminology in the Institut Catholique de Lille and gastronomy and Italian civilization in the Italian Cultural Center of Paris. She taught in SciencesPO and worked in the Italian Cultural Center as a translator, editor and seconding the Director in cultural activities. Internship in the UNESCO in the Creative Cities Network. She speaks Italian, English, French, Spanish and learning Greek.