His name was Eugen Wüster, he was Austrian, and he lived from 1898 to 1977.
He became interested in his teens in overcoming barriers to international communication. That was one of the driving motives in his career. In that spirit he learnt Esperanto and wrote an Esperanto-German dictionary. However, he wrote his dictionaries to spread his ideas and not to make money.
The other main inspiration was his observation that multilingual technical terminology, starting with that of his own speciality, electrical engineering, was constantly hindered by imprecision. There were too many synonyms, or near synonyms, for the same referent, and terms were translated by terms in other languages whose referents were not exactly the same. Wüster's answer for electrical engineering was to seek international agreement on the standardisation of terms. As a result, the Committee for Terminology Standardisation of the International Standards Organisation (now ISO/TC 37) was established in 1936. But how to ensure that the terms thus standardised would have exactly the same meaning?
Wüster's answer can be stated simply as: Start with the concept. First define or describe the concept precisely, and then look for the word form or forms that express it; not vice versa. From that follows the principle: no term to be presented without its concept. It's a procedure that can be applied far more widely than to standardised terms; because even if a word in Language A doesn't have exactly the same meaning as a word substituted for it in Language B, explicitation of their concepts enables us to see and make allowance for the differences. He made other contributions to a new 'science' of terminology as practised by a new profession, that of terminologist, but this was the most important.
His ideas came at the right time, because of important changes in the 'ecology' of technical vocabulary.
- The 1950s saw the first wave of what was called 'the documentation explosion': an enormous increase in the volume of technical documents in circulation. Sustaining it was an explosion in the technologies themselves. New terms were required for the novelties. Typically they appeared first in English and then equivalents had to be devised in other languages.
- The advent of computers increased the amount of information that could be stored and presented about a term far beyond what was practicable and affordable in paper dictionaries. Furthermore, computers provided new tools for finding concepts without having to know the signifier form.
Last week I was translating the degrees of a Spanish doctor who's going to Canada. The Canadian medical authorities are very fussy about such translations. The doctor has a degree as especialista en aparato digestivo. Aparato digestivo is usually translated as digestive system, digestive organs or sometimes digestive tract. So on the face of it, i.e. according to the signifiers, I might have translated this as "specialist in the digestive organs," and people would have understood. However, it didn't seem right, because other branches of medicine have Greek and Latin based terms for them that are the ones used professionally , e.g. ophthalmology for the medicine of the eyes and vision. A doctor's degree diploma in that field wouldn't be inscribed specialist in vision and the optic system. What was the professional term in this case? I had no idea. So I tried the Wüsterian approach. I needed a term that expressed the following complex of concepts:
- A branch of medicine
- Treatment of disorders of the digestive organs. (Note that the concepts of treatment and disorders are missing from the Spanish wording, according to which the referent might well have been a branch of anatomy.)
- Eugen Wüster. Wikipedia, 2013.
- Eugen Wüster. Enciklopedia Vortaro Esperanta-Germana [Esperanto-German Dictionary]. 4 vols. Leipzig: Hirt, 1923-1929. Considered a classic, but hard to find.
- Eugen Wüster. Introduction to the General Theory of Terminology and Terminological Lexicography. Vienna: Springer, 1979. English translation of his Einführung in die allgemeine Terminologielehre und terminologische Lexikographie. There are also French, Japanese and Spanish translations.
- Eugen Wüster. The Machine Tool: An Interlingual [English, French, German] Dictionary of Basic Concepts , comprising An Alphabetical Dictionary and a Classified Vocabulary. London: Technical Press, under the auspices of the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe, 1968. An application of his principles in a paper format. Second-hand copies on offer from Amazon UK.
Source: Österreichische Nationalbibliothek