A common language for NATO and its partners

  • 19 Nov. 2015 - 20 Nov. 2015
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  • Last updated: 27 Nov. 2015 10:50

To be effective when deployed together in operations and exercises, the forces of NATO member countries and their partners need to speak the same language and use the same technical standards.

“Imagine a multinational military operation where fuel for all vehicles is different, ammunition is of various calibrations with totally different safety and storage requirements, and radios are communicating on different frequencies,” said Maj Gen Edvardas Mažeikis, Director of the NATO Standardization Office (NSO), addressing an international conference on terminology management hosted at NATO Headquarters on 19 and 20 November 2015.

Without standards, interoperability between NATO members and partner countries would not be possible and they would not be able to carry out operations together effectively. To define a standard, it is first of all important to create a terminology to be able to speak the same language.

“One hates to think of all the things that could go wrong if NATO nations and partner countries did not understand each other,” added Mažeikis.

Organised by the NSO to mark International Standards Day, the event brought together 160 experts in the fields of linguistics, terminology, translation and standards development. They exchanged ideas and best practices on how large national and international institutions coordinate, standardize and otherwise manage their terminology.

Participants included representatives of major international organisations like the United Nations, the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO), the European Union, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, Oxfam and Interpol, as well as academia representing 30 countries from as far afield as China.

Chinese whispers

“If language is not correct, then what is said is not what is meant; if what is said is not what is meant, then what must be done remains undone; if this remains undone, morals and art will deteriorate; if justice goes astray, the people will stand about in helpless confusion. Hence there must be no arbitrariness in what is said. This matters above everything,” said Bihua Qiu, quoting Confucius, the influential Chinese philosopher and scholar.

Qiu is Senior Editor at the China National Committee for Terms in Sciences and Technologies, which manages a database of 300,000 Chinese terms on an international level with English equivalents. “In a world of 1.3 billion people, Chinese terms will be needed sooner or later,” she added. 

Patently important

Terminology is particularly important in the area of intellectual property explained Cristina Valentini, Head of the Terminology Unit at the Patent Cooperation Treaty Translation Service, WIPO: “It is important for businesses, research centres, organisations as well as private individuals to be able to search patents in different languages to find out if the invention they want to protect has been patented or not.”

Working with relevant subject-matter experts is essential. “The scope of the terminology activities at NATO is very important and wide, it covers different application fields and NATO has a wide network of subject-matter experts. Similarly, we are interested to work with subject-matter experts to validate the terminology we have in our database ‘WIPO Pearl’,” added Valentini.

NATO is the only international organisation where, once terminology is defined and approved by the North Atlantic Council, its use becomes mandatory throughout the organisation and its structures.

“NATO terminology is stored and managed by a database called NATOTerm, which contains more than 10,000 definitions of NATO terms, helping to promote common understanding, and which is directly available on our website,” explained Folkert Zijlstra, Head of the NSO NATO Terminology Office.