Interview with Folkert Zijlstra

Folkert Zijlstra studied English and International Relations at the universities of Utrecht (the Netherlands), Birmingham and Sussex (the United Kingdom). After his studies, he started his career in the travel industry, where he specialised in IATA (International Air Transport Association) fare construction and special fares. In 1989 he joined the Netherlands Ministry of Defence as an English translator and rapidly became head of its translation service. In 1995 he started participating in the NATO Terminology Programme as a delegate for the Netherlands and joined NATO in 2005 as a terminologist, subsequently becoming Senior Terminologist and Head of the NATO Terminology Office, part of the NATO Standardisation Office.

Folkert Zijlstra1.    ‘Why is terminology your passion?’ is the title of our collection of interviews with prominent terminologists. I would like to start this interview by asking you how you would reply to this question?
In a way you could say that terminology is ‘applied philosophy’, in the sense that it forces you to think about the nature of a concept, that is: to think about the essence of something, about what it really is. This is an exercise I enjoy.

2.    What feeds your passion for terminology, and what was your journey to become Head of the Terminology Service of the NATO Standardisation Office?

As I said, I like the reflective nature of the work and the fact that it leads to something concrete and useful. In the NATO Terminology Office, in our role as ‘coordinators’ of a terminology process involving many different parts, actors and bodies in the Alliance, we interact with and meet many different people, which is also a great bonus!

In the early 1990s, when I had just become head of the Translation Service of the Netherlands Ministry of Defence, they asked me whether I was interested in becoming a member of the Netherlands delegation to one of NATO’s major terminology fora. One meeting led to another, since I took great pleasure in the discussions that we had at these meetings and in meeting colleagues from other member nations.

At the beginning of the millennium, NATO decided that its terminology should be developed and approved according to the same rules and standards and that they would hire a professional terminologist to support the effort. Since I had certain ideas about what should ideally be done by ‘Brussels’, I decided to try my luck and simply filled out an application form.

Less than a year after I was finally hired, the then head of the office, a Canadian lieutenant colonel, was assigned to another function by his authorities in Ottawa and left the office without being replaced. I offered to try to fill the gap. After that it took several years to get this previously military position ‘civilianised’, and my appointment as head was only recently formalised.

3.    What is the role of terminology in NATO?

The main function of NATO terminology is to facilitate communication – between different member nations and with NATO’s partner nations. So, in that sense, terminology in NATO is no different from that in other organisations, whether national or international, private or public. I am told that sometimes NATO’s terminology even helps create clarity in the jargon used in different services of the armed forces of the same country – especially the English-speaking member nations.

What makes the role of terminology in NATO different, however, is that NATO has gone one step further, by recognising that terminology is a crucial enabler of what is referred to as ‘interoperability’ between the member and partner nations, i.e. the ability to cooperate in pursuit of common objectives. If you need to work together to achieve the same goals, you must be sure that you are talking about the same things – otherwise you are talking at cross-purposes. As a result of this, NATO has adopted a formal process for the development and approval of terminology, called the NATO Terminology Programme, and when the terminology is officially approved, ‘NATO Agreed’, it must be used in the documents that NATO produces.

4.    In 2015 NATOTerm was introduced as a migration from the NATO Terminology Management System (NTMS). What makes NATOTerm an improvement on the former NTMS?

NATOTermIn June 2015 we launched OTANTérmino (TermOTAN in French) as the successor system to the NATO Terminology Management System (NTMS), which had been developed internally in NATO. The NTMS was only accessible via the internal networks and the protected site of the NATO Standardisation Office. By contrast, NATOTerm is accessible to the public. This change was required because of an official policy objective.

More important for the NATO Terminology Office, as managers of NATO’s terminology, is that OTANTérmino is a uninotional, or concept-based, database, which the NTMS was not. This is a huge relief, of course. I think that OTANTérmino is also an improvement for the users, because, irrespective of the designation of a concept they use to search OTANTérmino, the system will take them to the record for the concept, where they will see all the data and metadata at a glance.

5.    The status of the terminology in OTANTérmino is either ‘NATO Agreed’, ‘Not NATO Agreed’ or ‘Cancelled’. What is the validation procedure for a term to be labelled ‘NATO Agreed’?
I have already mentioned the NATO Terminology Programme. Under this programme, authors of NATO documents must use NATO-Agreed terminology if available, and if necessary submit proposals to add their new terminology, to modify existing NATO-Agreed terminology or even to cancel existing NATO-Agreed terminology for the key concepts they use in their documents. So the terminology is developed by the experts themselves. When the NATO Terminology Office receives the proposals, they are checked for consistency with our internal standard for writing terminology, which is based on the ISO standards for terminology work, as well as for consistency with existing NATO-Agreed terminology, consistency between the English and French, etc. The NATO Terminology Office also proposes changes and improvements if necessary – in dialogue with the experts, of course. When they are happy with the substance, and the NATO Terminology Office with the form, we submit the proposal to the relevant senior committee of the North Atlantic Council, NATO’s highest decision-making body, for approval by the member nations.
In addition to this work, i.e. the ‘regular’ work in our office, the NATO Terminology Office is working on importing the legacy terminology. Almost from NATO’s establishment in 1949, its specialist communities have felt the need to lay down their terminology in all manner of ‘glossaries’, ‘lexicons’, ‘definition lists’, ‘dictionaries’, etc. We have approximately two dozen of them. Since the NATO Terminology Programme, with its more formal and prescriptive approach to terminology, was only established at the beginning of the millennium, there is an enormous amount of terminology that has been used for decades but is not, strictly speaking, ‘NATO Agreed’.
We have therefore established a calendar to import this legacy terminology into OTANTérmino by 2019. The preparation of the import files is going to take up a lot of our time in the next few years – even without the quality assurance that we apply to ‘regular’ terminology proposals. This terminology will have a different status in the database. The idea is that this terminology, once it is in OTANTérmino, will be processed for ‘NATO Agreement’ as the need arises over the years ahead.
6.    How would you compare and/or differentiate between our interinstitutional termbase IATE and the NATOTerm database?
Like NATOTerm, IATE is a very user-friendly database, which we use from time to time. Of course, IATE has many more languages than NATOTerm, which requires the user to indicate his or her preferences for the search results. In NATOTerm, the user only needs to indicate the language preference for the interface and the source language. Like NATOTerm, IATE uses a taxonomy. In NATOTerm we still have a great many entries without taxons, but we are working on that. NATOTerm also allows users to filter terminology by almost any field in the record. This is important for our specialist communities, who wish to be able to ‘recreate’ their specialist ‘glossaries’, ‘lexicons’, etc. by extracting the data from NATOTerm.
7.    How do you envisage the future of OTANTérmino? What plans do you have for its future development that you can share with us?    

Well, I have just mentioned the importing of legacy terminology. Another, similar, project is the importing of terminology from other major standard-developing organisations, such as ISO, ICAO, IEC, CEN-CENELEC or IEEE, contained in NATO ‘glossaries’, ‘lexicons’, etc. That is to say: terminology that is used by NATO, but that has not been developed by NATO itself. By the way, this is in line with the general principle in NATO terminology of using civilian terminology as much as possible – just as NATO uses other appropriate civilian standards whenever possible. This civilian terminology will also be imported into OTANTérmino ‘as is’ and its status will be ‘NATO Adopted’. Yet another status!

In 2017 we will also enhance OTANTérmino with an ‘export facility’, which allows users to print off a terminology collection that they have filtered. We could perhaps also see the addition of more languages to NATOTerm. Technically, this not a problem, because the system can handle any alphabet, as well as collections in different databases. However, this data would then have to be added as non-official data, in the sense that NATO will not take responsibility for it. So, who knows, one day…? This should keep us busy for a while!

8.    Recently, in October 2016, you visited our Terminology Coordination Unit. What did you take from this meeting? Do you have insights from NATO that could benefit terminologists globally?

What I took away from this meeting was that the work done by the Terminology Coordination Unit enables terminology units throughout the EU institutions to do their work, by creating what is in fact the necessary infrastructure and conditions for them. It would be great if we had a separate service for this at NATO Headquarters, but then, of course, we are much smaller and we only have two official languages.
On the other hand, we also enjoy doing some of the kind of work done by the Terminology Coordination Unit ourselves, managing NATOTerm, giving terminology workshops to the specialist communities in NATO, etc. In fact, there is quite a lot on the plus side, as it brings a lot of variety – but we need to keep it manageable, of course.
When you ask if there is anything terminologists around the world can learn in particular from NATO, I think that it is the regime of prescriptive terminology. By introducing new rules for terminology at the beginning of this millennium, NATO has set a very high standard of accountability and transparency as a public organisation. To be fair though, I have to add that there are still parts of NATO where we need ‘to spread the gospel’!

Furthermore, it is also quite a labour-intensive process, which we are trying to streamline. What I can say, though, is that most other terminologists that I have met would probably agree with me that terminology work, like translation, gives a great deal of satisfaction. I count myself lucky to be doing it!


Giulia Mattoni

Born in Ancona, Italy, Giulia holds a BA in Modern and Contemporary Literature from the University of Macerata and an MSc in Translation Technology from Dublin City University. She also studied at the University of Alicante in Spain, as part of the Erasmus Study Programme. She gained experience in machine translation through her Master’s thesis, which was conducted in collaboration with two industrial partners, Keywords Studios and KantanMT, and consisted in evaluating the feasibility of integrating statistical machine translation and post-editing into the game localisation industry.