Interview with Marc Drapeau

By Kara Warburton

Dans les mots deMarie-Claude L’Homme (click here to read her interview) gave us a glimpse into the world of terminology in academia. But what about working as a terminologist for a company or a government? We will talk to terminologists working in those sectors to get their views. The first is Marc Drapeau, a terminologist at IBM based in Montreal, who kindly agreed to being interviewed for AILIA.


First, tell me about your background as a terminologist, your education and the positions you have held.

Marc: I obtained a BA in Translation and an MA in Terminology from Université Laval. I was hired by IBM Canada right after graduating. For about ten years, I worked as a terminologist. Then I worked for another period of ten years as Project Manager for Web translation projects; in this role I was still doing some terminology management. In 2010 I was promoted to World-Wide Lead Terminologist.


Tell me about what you actually do. What does your job entail?

Marc: Currently as World-Wide Lead Terminologist, I have two main responsibilities. First, I oversee the operations of a team of IBM terminologists who work around the world as part of IBM’s World Wide Translation Organization. Second, I manage the process for harmonizing the terminology that comes through IBM acquisitions. 


Harmonizing terminology… what’s that?

Marc: When IBM acquires another company and integrates its products into the IBM portfolio of products, we need to ensure that the terminology is consistent with our own terminology. There are two levels of harmonization. The first level is on the English terms, and this is done by English terminologists in Toronto. The second level is on the target language terms – that is the part that I manage.


How does harmonization work?

Marc: It works like this. The first step is to extract English terms from the acquisition’s product; terms are extracted based on their frequency as we want to concentrate on key terms. A terminologist for each target language then checks these terms in the acquisition’s translation memories, extracts the corresponding translations, and compares those translations with what we have in our in-house terminology database. When the translations are different, the terminologist proposes a term change, which needs to be approved by  subject-matter experts. If the change request is approved, the terminologist makes the necessary corrections directly in the translation memories, before these memories are used to translate the next version of the product. When this is done, all the terms we worked on in an acquisition project are added to our central database with a specific identifier that relates to the acquisition.


It sounds like a lot of work!

Marc: It is, but tools and routines were developed over time and they greatly help us achieving the highest possible efficiency. This way, terminologists can focus on their linguistic expertise to make decisions.


Why did you choose a career in the private sector, rather than working for government or becoming a university professor of terminology?

Marc: I knew that I wasn’t made to be a professor. When I graduated back in the eighties, jobs for terminologists were rare but a job became available at IBM and I went for it, and I’ve been here ever since, over 20 years now.


How well did your academic training back in the 80’s prepare you for your career as a terminologist in IBM? Were there things you learned that just didn't apply?

Marc: I think the MA program at Laval was really cutting-edge for its time. A solid academic foundation is important for any terminologist, and I certainly got that. But I also participated in research projects which were more practical in nature and I even had a 3 month internship at Dictionnaires Robert in Paris. On top of that I can say I had a great mentor in Jean-Claude Boulanger. 

Once I started actually working, though, I realized that you can't research terms for hours. Time is shorter in a company, you don’t have as much time to analyze data and make decisions as you do in an academic setting. Also, when I started, the domain of computing was new so I had to learn and develop domain-specific terminology on-the-job.


How important is terminology management in the language industry? Is it getting the recognition it deserves?

Marc: Well I can only really answer from IBM’s perspective. At IBM, terminology management is taken very seriously. We manage terminology both for the source language (English) and all target languages. We have several terminologists dedicated exclusively to English. They work with members of the product development teams to create new terms, review terms and prepare definitions. They even create glossaries for products. They manage the English content of our central termbase and disseminate the terminology across the company for optimal consistency.

We also extract the key terms in a translation project and provide the translations to our translators prior to project start. Those terms are also imported into our central termbase for future use. The English and target language terminologists work together in this end-to-end process.

We even have an IBM standard for developing and managing terminology.

But IBM isn’t the only company that manages its terminology! Many other companies maintain a terminology database for translators, to ensure consistency. I would say that terminology management is a pretty basic concept to “global” companies nowadays.


Where is terminology as a discipline going in the future? In what directions should we expect the most innovation, the most change?

Marc: Terminology is here to stay. CAT tools, machine translation, and other technologies use high-quality terminology data extensively. The more that language technologies develop, the more we will need structured terminology resources. It goes without saying that the use of technology will continue to grow. New technologies will emerge that will help terminologists work better and more efficiently. Terminologists will be able to analyze greater volumes of data and to extract higher quality information, with less effort.


How would you describe the job of a terminologist, today, and in the future?

Marc: Terminologists are by nature extremely versatile people, some kind of “homme orchestre” as we say in French. They  need to be very good in many areas without necessarily being an expert in any. They also need good analytical skills, to make decisions based on a set of information in order to solve a particular communication problem or challenge. People come to a terminologist when they can’t solve a particular terminology problem themselves, so usually its difficult.  Of course, today terminologists have to be very skilled with technology, and also in dealing with large sets of data.  Terminologists of the future will have to be “tools champions”. Having said that, the omnipresence of technology makes it even more important to master the basics of terminology theory, so that we maintain sound principles.


What kind of person is well suited to becoming a terminologist? What kind of aptitudes and skills are important?

Marc: More than a passion for words, a terminologist has to have a passion for the exact words and possess acute language skills. In that respect, in their quest for precision they need to be meticulous, hard-working, and detail-oriented. Curiosity and eagerness to learn are important qualities, as terminologists often have to venture outside of  their “comfort zone”.


Do you have any advice to give to future aspiring terminologists?

Marc: Terminology is a great and very rewarding profession. Be prepared to work hard and meet challenges on a continuous basis and learn every day.

Education, skills, training and gained experience are part of the toolset that will contribute to helping the terminologist make the best of every situation.


One thing that emerges from this interview is that terminologists at IBM are using a lot of technology, various “natural language processing” (NLP) tools. IBM is known for having an advanced terminology management program (as shown at various conferences and fora), and clearly technology plays an important part in this success.


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