Translation Bureau / Bureau de la traduction
Public Works and Government Services - Canada
Travaux publics et Services gouvernementaux - Canada

Reviewed by Françoise Herrmann

Three-hundred and ninety-five US dollars ($395) is the price that one pays for obtaining a copy of TERMIUM®, "the Government of Canada's linguistic data bank, [..] established in 1975 [...] first used by the translators that serve all the departments of the Canadian government" (User Manual, p.2). On a linguistic level, the potential of this tool is worth every cent. It is an exceptionally well-conceived, researched and practical bilingual (French-English / English -French) lexical and syntactic resource for translators in numerous technical domains. Additionally, with its promise to update the linguistic contents on a yearly basis, this project makes fine use of an important aspect of computer technology: its fluidity and modularity. On a computer design level, however, the 1996 version (still the one available in 1998) that I purchased is far from satisfactory. Hence, I recommend, without hesitation, a future version where a major overhaul of the interface design has taken place. And in the interim, still suggest that you will find this resource invaluable, providing that you are willing to put up with minor incompleteness of records and less-than optimal interface design.

As a database, TERMIUM® consists one million records (1 030 168). According to the User's Manual , there are 4 different kinds of records: records for individual lexical items; records for acronyms and proper names, records for translation problems (e.g., proverbs and phrases), and records that document the bibliographic sources for the other records. This makes TERMIUM® a terrific hybrid. It is a compilation of many glossaries in specialized fields of interest, combined with the very best of monolingual and bilingual dictionaries, and a hint of the encyclopedia. From the glossary, TERMIUM® incorporates the precise specification of the lexical domain (i.e., indexing by field such as finance, electricity, chemistry etc..), single-item and multiple-item lexical entries (i.e., words and phrase entries). From the monolingual dictionary, TERMIUM® incorporates such information as origin, synonyms and context of use, including definition, exemplification and observations. From the bilingual dictionary, TERMIUM® incorporates researched translation of terms and phrases. And from the encyclopedia, TERMIUM® incorporates bibliographic source information. This combination alone makes TERMIUM® an invaluable tool for translators. But there is much more...

TERMIUM® could still easily fall short of its practical utility: providing translation of terms, and/or information to help translation of terms. Just as the usefulness of a favorite dictionary or glossary can easily be exhausted when the translation domain is specialized or very recent, how robust is TERMIUM® ?

For quick sets of astronautics abstracts that I worked on (outside of my usual field), TERMIUM® was a blessing on many counts. First, because astronautics, aviation and space technology were fields included in TERMIUM®. Secondly, because I could find the terms I searched for in TERMIUM® and finally because there was sufficient contextual information. The term "charge utile" (payload) is a case in point. Typing in the term "charge utile" invoked 10 records. Scanning the record summary, I could quickly eliminate records by field (i.e.; "Types of concrete, Underwater navigation equipment, Textile industries, Rolling stock - railroads" etc.. none of these matched.) But "Research and development - Astronautics- Spacecrafts - Space Centers" matched perfectly. The record for "charge utile" in the domain of interest looked like this:

OBS*Terme uniformisé par le Comité d'uniformisation de la terminologie spatiale - CUTS*b

DEF*Équipement que transporte un véhicule spatial et qui est destiné à réaliser la mission. Dans RADARSAT, la charge utile se compose essentiellement du RSO et des équipements destinés à sa maintenance.*a

Figure: TERMIUM® record #3 for the term "charge utile".

This "test" bears no real validity across domains, but it is quite consistent with reported experience of translators in fields of medicine, for example. And beyond, the sheer number of terms, compared to standard dictionaries (e.g., Le Petit Robert +50 000 words; Le Robert & Collins Senior 300 000 words), suggests validity (more than three million terms with records per field ranging from 8491 for Chemistry to 100435 for Humanities and Social Sciences). As a case in point, along with specialized and frontier terms such as "phase de sustentation verticale", "tourbillon de sillage", "cellule (d'avion)", "amarrage automatique en orbite" and "antennes à balayage électronique," it made my experience of TERMIUM® a really satisfactory one. Where traditional references failed me, TERMIUM® stepped in with a perfect term, or a wealth of details to narrow down options. Each and every record did not display complete context of use information (i.e., definition, observations and examples), but across the range of records for a searched term, with the specification of fields, and with existing contextual information, the tool generously accomplished its purpose.

On the flip side, comes the design of the interface. I purchased a Macintosh version which, according to the User Manual ("written in general terms for all three environments in which TERMIUM® can be used: DOS, Windows and Macintosh"), displays a single interface for each of the platforms. Whether due to my equipment (Mac PowerBook 3400c/180 with 80 MB RAM) or to the actual CD-ROM software, I experienced repeated frozen-screen crashes when toggling back and forth from TERMIUM® to Word processing. This was a little disheartening because one of the major advantages of a digital translation tool is the ease that toggling provides. (Dictionaries are sometimes quite heavy, when they are not actually located in remote locations at a library. In digital format, access is finger-tips away.)

Beyond this, however, I found the design of querying functions cumbersome. It is not possible to scroll through the initial set of terms that appear on screen so as to select a particular one. The user must type in the searched word or phrase, along with Boolean operators when necessary. Similarly, access to French terms from English, is separate from access to English terms, from French. These are in two separate indices (or "volumes"). Switching from one to the other, from either of the indices, is possible. There is therfore no iconic (WYSIWYG- "What you see is what you get") Macintosh design principle operating for the data bank artifact and its two-way search direction. Where users of CD-ROM dictionaries often complain of not being able to "leaf" through the artifact, baring tactile sensations, there is no reason that such direct access cannot be designed. Direct, forward and backward, click-and-scroll search access to capture "leafing" that comes as second nature to users of print media, and "mouse" driven activity that comes as second nature to Mac and Web users, (possibly even Windows users), without loss of the type-in search mode, or the command-driven (short-cut) mode.

Secondly, I found the navigation system rigid (within records, between indices, or between searches). It calls up startling error sound alerts and messages (e.g. when scrolling is restricted by the single-screen size of a record; when the match and find function for queried items interrupts typing (mid-word) with "no match found"; when all records for a given search have been perused.) Though sound alerts can be turned-off, interruptions remain in the flow of program use. And what is more, there are no cross-referencing options within a record (i.e.; the hypertext user's second nature).This means starting a new typed-in search for any terms that are of interest inside a particular record. There is no cross-referencing and no "book-marking" (i.e; part of the Web user's second nature) to keep track of the search path of terms, and to enable backtracking to previous records without having to re-type the search term.

Finally, stop-watch in hand, one could gripe about the time lost having to switch indices. However, TERMIUM® searches are quasi-instantaneous, which is exactly as it should be.

In sum, on a Mac PowerBook in a Macintosh environment, TERMIUM® did not feel like a principled program for Macintosh: "I could not see, or anticipate seeing, what I was about to get!". Though in the end, I was each time, quite pleasantly surprised with the linguistic results of the search.