MET workshops

Corpus-guided decision-making for editors and translators

Corpus analysis for understanding how specialized languages work has moved beyond academic language-learning settings and is now used by translators, translation revisers, manuscript editors and many other wordface workers looking for guidance on usage. After all, many of us are learners of specialized languages too. For some, our regular manuscript work spans several disciplines or subspecialties, and even those who work in the general area of their academic training rarely receive texts that match their own expertise precisely. Outside the academic disciplines, corpora can be used to guide usage in many publication areas, from cooking to business letters and financial statements.

However, many potential users express well-founded reservations about the wisdom of relying on guidance from a corpus — especially readily available online ones. After all, just because some author or even several authors somewhere have expressed an idea in a certain way in some publications doesn’t mean we must follow along uncritically. So is this approach is any better than simply googling up terms and phrases?

This new MET corpus workshop focuses on choosing corpora, posing the type of query a corpus can answer, and interpreting a “concordance” — the main output of aligned examples that corpus analysis software produces. The workshop will involve problem-based hands-on tasks with several corpora, some online and some on our desktops. We will dip into several specialties and also show how information that resolves many of our doubts, even in specialist texts, can be found in general language corpora.

Developer and facilitator: Mary Ellen Kerans, building on work done with Stephen Waller and Ailish Maher*

Purposes: 1) Our main aim is to learn the types of questions a corpus answers best and what to consider when interpreting a concordance; other aims are 2) to learn about the merits and drawbacks of some of the online corpora now available, and 3) to learn some of the wildcards that can be used to fine-tune searches.

An instinct for when to go first to a corpus (and which one) and how to pose the question. Familiarity with both specialized and general English corpora available online. A sense of the merits of a cleaned custom-built corpus and when one might be worth compiling.

Who should attend:
Both newly specializing and experienced wordface workers. Anyone concerned about the effect language attrition might have on our feel for our native language. Those who collaborate with others on texts — authors’ editors, teams sharing large projects, translation revisers, publishers’ copy editors — because corpus guidance helps teams serenely resolve the clashes of dialect and idiolect that sometimes arise.

Pre-workshop information and open-access reading:
1) Participants will ideally come with a laptop able to access a WiFi network. If you’re interested in the workshop but can’t come with a laptop, write to the facilitator. A pre-workshop pack will be sent to participants as they sign up.
2) Just before his death in 2006, one of the pioneers of corpus analysis, John Sinclair, wrote a succinct, useful book chapter summarizing the principles of corpus building and analysis in plain terms and answering FAQs many newcomers have.
3) The three early developers of MET’s evolving corpus workshops wrote an article about the concepts we emphasized:
– Maher A, Waller S, Kerans ME. Acquiring or enhancing a translation specialism: the monolingual corpus-guided approach. Journal of Specialised Translation. 2008 (10); pp. 56-75.
Translator Kevin Lossner reflected on practical applications of that article on 27 November 2008: blog on 27 November 2008.

About the facilitator: Mary Ellen Kerans taught English, English for specific purposes (where corpora are often used), and academic writing since the late 1970s through 2013 in a variety of university and non-university settings. She has been an author’s editor and translator since the late 1980s, mainly but not exclusively in clinical medicine. She also has experience with journal copy editing of manuscripts from authors whose native languages vary. Mary Ellen’s MA is from Teachers College Columbia University in TESOL (teaching English to speakers of other languages), and she now freelances in Barcelona. Since 2005 she has been active in encouraging language consultants of all types to share knowledge through the association Mediterranean Editors and Translators.


A great deal of the thinking behind this workshop was worked out along with Ailish Maher and Stephen Waller in the years when the three of us developed and facilitated MET’s earlier workshops on corpus use (2005–2010). Some of the thinking that went into those workshops can be found in the article mentioned by Maher et al. above.

The growing interest in corpus guidance in our profession has been much facilitated by Laurence Anthony’s gracious permission to use AntConc, a conconcordancer intended for free use by language learners. Laurence’s permission for our use of the tool reflects his understanding that translators and editors are students of specialist and changing usage.