Terminology work 'the Finnish way' – visitor's impressions

Marta Małachowicz

My interest in terminology developed while I was a student at the Department of Applied Linguistics at Warsaw University, Poland. After discovering that there are places called national terminology centres in the Nordic Countries, I wished to visit such a centre one day to get acquainted with its activities, projects and certain aspects of in-house work. My wish came true last year when I had the possibility to visit the Swedish Centre for Terminology (TNC) in Stockholm. This visit broadened my perspective on terminology work in many aspects, especially in practical dimension. I considered it a very valuable experience and wanted to continue discovering the principles of practical terminology work in the Nordic Countries, this time in Finland – the country that has a different language situation than Sweden because it has two official languages. I was very happy to get a positive answer from Katri Seppälä, the director of the Finnish Terminology Centre (TSK), to my request for a study visit. During one-week stay in Helsinki (May 2012) I visited not only the Terminology Centre, but also three other institutions engaged in terminology projects, that is the Government Terminology Service at the Prime Minister’s Office, the Language and Terminology Unit at Nokia Corporation and the Finnish Language Unit at Helsinki University.

Different institutions, similar methods

The opportunity to visit several places and discuss terminology matters with different experts made it possible to look at practical terminology work from different angles. The first part of my stay in Helsinki was a two-day visit to the Terminology Centre. Introduction to different projects of the Finnish Terminology Centre made it clear that there is a certain method of terminology project management – a procedure that ensures the effectiveness of results and meeting of deadlines. After presentations on broadband vocabulary, IT terminology, bank and finance terminology, geoinformatics ontology and many other projects, I was confirmed in my belief that a terminology project is always team work and only the cooperation of different specialists (language experts, subject-field experts and IT experts) ensures that terminology work results in a modern, high quality terminological product. Another valuable experience and at the same time a practical recommendation was learning how concept diagrams help to discover and present the most important relations between the key concepts of a certain field. Concept diagrams as a tool for a terminologist and a receiver of a terminological product are widely used in terminology work in Finland.

The third day I went to Espoo to visit Nokia Corporation’s Language and Terminology Unit. It was very interesting to learn how the principle “Language should be so natural that you do not notice it” is applied to mobile products and their user guides ‘transferred’ (translated) from English (which is the language of communication in Nokia) into about 100 languages (cultures)! Work in such an environment revolves around three key concepts, i.e. copywriting, localization and validation. English copywriting is done mostly in-house, whereas localization work is subcontracted. Linguistic validation is based on a special quality assurance network – a group of people around the globe who help to “make sure that Nokia speaks your language” (this is another Language and Terminology Unit’s standard). In this multilingual and multicultural perspective terminology work is translation-oriented and has some unique features, for example the stages of new term implementation like creating terminological definition, looking for a term equivalent in a different language etc. are done under considerable time pressure.

The next meeting was focused on a project based mostly on Finnish terminology. I visited the Finnish Language Unit at the University of Helsinki, which is the coordinator of the Bank of Finnish Terminology in Arts and Sciences (BFT). It is a project of a terminological database for all fields of research in Finland led by professor Tiina Onikki-Rantajääskö. The process of creating a freely available term bank has just started with three pilot projects covering the fields of botany, jurisprudence and linguistics. The term bank was opened to the public in January 2012 and is connected to a new Finnish language policy programme which aims to protect the status of Finnish in academic discourse and in professional activity. Working methods applied to the project should be similar to procedures I got acquainted with in the Terminology Centre and I believe that this project will help to raise terminological awareness within the academic community.

The final part of my stay was a two-day visit to the Government Terminology Service at the Prime Minister’s Office, whose terminology projects are mainly translation-oriented. The service’s scope of activities includes creating, collecting, harmonising and distributing foreign equivalents of state administration terms. There are certain challenges when working with this kind of culture-specific, ‘country-bound’ terminology. In general, there is always the question how to find equivalents for local concepts, which can be vague or simply do not have corresponding concepts in other cultures (for example job titles, court terms, higher education structures etc.). Another difficulty arises due to the specific language situation in Finland. ‘Transferring’ culture-specific terminology always poses a great challenge for a translator. In the case of Finnish state administration terminology in Swedish, there is a problem that some terms in Swedish spoken in Finland and Swedish spoken in Sweden may differ, which seems to be similar to the situation of English used in different English-speaking countries. This example confirms that the dilemmas of translators are universal regardless of the country they are based in.


Looking at terminology work from visitor’s perspective I came to the conclusion that the crucial factor of terminology work is ‘the human factor’. Right people working as a team are essential for a successful terminology project. Basically, there are three different categories of specialists involved in terminology projects, i.e. terminologists (language experts), subject-field experts and IT experts. The first group, language experts, are, as a rule, graduates from linguistic departments who are trained in foreign language translation and interpreting. Deep knowledge of terminology is either the result of self-study or professional experience. Terminology courses are still not widely implemented into higher education curriculum. Nevertheless, my impression is that in comparison to Poland the status of a terminologist is better recognized in the Nordic Countries. The fact that national terminology centres operate in most Nordic Countries seems to confirm that opinion. The second group are the subject-field experts. There is no doubt that specialists from certain fields are very well aware of the need of systematic work with the terminology of their domain. They sometimes act as terminologists. Thirdly, there are IT experts. Terminology work cannot be done effectively without software and technical solutions for storing, managing and retrieving data. Software is yet a tool that needs to be tailored by a skilled IT specialist for terminologists’ needs. Network-oriented cooperation of these different groups of experts is indispensable for terminology work. It is well understood in every place I have visited during my stay.

I came to Helsinki with some theoretical knowledge on terminology and academic background in teaching languages for specific purposes (and unfortunately without the slightest knowledge of Finnish). The main purpose of my stay was to learn more about practical terminology work. This aim was completely achieved. In addition, apart from valuable insight into diverse terminology projects I got to know many experienced terminologists whose commitment to this challenging profession and their interest in term and language matters were rewarding and inspiring. I would like to thank the staff of every institution I have been to for very warm welcome and willingness to share their experience with me.

About the author:
Marta Małachowicz, Ph.D., is an academic teacher and a researcher at the Department of Applied Linguistics at Warsaw University, Poland. She teaches translation and practical language skills in Russian. Her research interests in linguistics include text linguistics and terminology. Currently she is working on the project of applying the results of terminology work in teaching languages for specific purposes (LSP) and specialist text translation.