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HOW TO USE DICTIONARIES IN A SMART WAY?

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In my previous article, I gave you a long list of the key dictionaries (mostly online ones) that we use at Translatorion when translating and proofreading. I hope you’ve found them useful in your language-related activities. If you have any questions concerning more specialised dictionaries – feel free to ask.

A dictionary is more than a tool – and the art of writing and translating is in how to use the available tools in a smart way. Looking up a word in a dictionary is not enough – however, if you look up words in dictionaries rather than in Google Translate, that’s 10 points to Gryffindor for your professional approach! If translation were that easy, it would really mean just replacing one word for another – which is what some people wrongly believe it to be.

So, how to use dictionaries to translate and write smart not hard? Are dictionaries the only source of knowledge about words and languages? And why is every translation decision so difficult? Read on to find out.

a bookshelf full of dictionaries for translators

BETTER DOUBLE-CHECK THAN SECOND-GUESS

My first and most important piece of advice is something I learned years ago when I studied translation at the Jagiellonian University in Kraków.

If you’re not sure about a word, consult a dictionary.

And if you’re sure, consult it twice.

Believe me – in the past decade of my translation experience, I have always followed this rule and I encourage you to do so, too. Double-checking is a good idea not only in the field of translation. Of course, this doesn’t mean that you need to look up every single word in a dictionary. What this rule wants to say is that your language habits and overconfidence may sometimes turn against you. If you come across a suspicious piece of vocabulary, verify it even if you’re positive that you’re one hundred per cent right. Been there, done that!

BETTER CROSS-CHECK THAN BE CROSS

Don’t take anything for granted. When it comes to specialised terminology, looking up a term in a single source is usually insufficient. If you encounter a new term or deal with a new subject, or it turns out that your design translation contains a long paragraph about semi-trailers, cross-checking is the way to go. In simpler terms: always check multiple sources.

And what sources can you use? Start from the basic dictionaries or term bases which I mentioned in the previous text, and then verify their suggestions against specialist dictionaries, on paper or online. I keep talking about dictionaries, but I’ve mentioned that there’s more to that. What else can you do to ensure the best quality of your translation?

TRUST A SPECIALIST

All sorts of experts and specialists are translators’ best friends. If you stumble upon a problematic term in your text, consult someone in the know to get access to first-hand know-how. Perhaps you’ve got a friend who knows everything about piping systems? Or maybe one of your schoolmates became a biotechnologist and will be happy to help you? Or why don’t you just join a relevant Facebook group to ask its members the right question? And the question goes:

“What do you call this?”

Where else can you look for subject matter experts? Well, you don’t need to look far. If you work directly with end clients, they are often the best sources of terminology expertise related to the subject of the translation they commissioned to you. Sure enough, they’ll let you know about the customary names they give to certain objects in their lingo and help you adjust the register to the language they speak in their organisation. No matter what kind of SME you find – don’t be afraid to ask questions!

CONTEXT IS KING

Well, but what if you really have no subject matter expert within reach, or you’ve chosen the solitary profession of a translator for a reason, which is to avoid human interaction?

In this case, or actually in any case concerning the translation process, remember to learn the context. To be specific: apart from using dictionaries, find texts about the subject you’re translating. Surrounding yourself with real-life context is a crucial element of translation research.

If you translate product descriptions for an online clothes or furniture shop, consult other similar websites to make sure what kind of vocabulary and register is used there, what the products are called, and how their characteristics are described. If you translate a text about psychology, read other similar texts in your target language to become familiar with the vocabulary and style used in them. If your text contains terms connected with photography or fishing, visit a discussion board for people who are into these activities to see how they speak about them and what words they use.

The internet offers countless resources: you can find a blog or a website about literally any subject and use it to validate your initial terminology research.

WIKIPEDIA IS NOT YOUR ENEMY

I know, right? At school, all the teachers would have told you that using Wikipedia was contemptible, wrong, and sinful. Surely: like with any other source, you should verify the information you’ve found there. And yet, I dare say that Wikipedia has become much more reliable and better edited than some of the printed sources these days.

Here, I’d like to highlight its linguistic value. When you look up an entry on Wikipedia, for example – “African sharptooth catfish” – you can check its title in all the languages provided for a given term. What’s more, in the introductory paragraph, Wikipedia usually bolds all the names used for a given object or phenomenon in a particular language. This is a great starting point for your translation research! Besides, the encyclopaedic descriptions and definitions provided on Wikipedia offer plenty of vocabulary items that may also come in handy when you translate a text on a given subject.

a screenshot of how wikipedia can be used as a dictionary

Again, though – don’t take anything for granted and refer to your common knowledge and common sense as well. These should be the foundation of your translation work. Also, be careful: when you choose a different language for an entry on Wikipedia, it may redirect you to a similar or more general term rather than to its direct equivalent, if that has not been published yet.

Speaking of Wikipedia, it’s also a good idea to take a look at Wiktionary. I use it when I search for equivalents, etymologies, variants, and archaic senses of words.

O CORPORA, O MORES

A text corpus (plural: corpora) is another great companion for a translator. But what is a corpus? Let’s take a look at what Wikipedia says: “in linguistics and natural language processing, a corpus… is a dataset, consisting of natively digital and older, digitalized, language resources, either annotated or unannotated.” In a nutshell, a corpus is a collection of texts where you can look up real-life uses of particular words and phrases as well as their frequency and collocations.

In Polish, you can refer to Korpus Języka Polskiego PWN (“The PWN Polish Language Corpus”), which contains 100 million words, or Narodowy Korpus Języka Polskiego (“The National Corpus of Polish”). For English, there’s the British National Corpus (also around 100 million words) or the Corpus of Contemporary American English (with more than a billion words!).

There is also one bulky corpus that everyone knows and has access to: Google Search. I use Google as a text corpus on a daily basis and can’t really imagine my work without it. As a result, I confuse all the ad targeting systems: one day, I search for the names of bike parts, on another, I look up names of Polish mushrooms.

But how is that useful? Well, you can use Google to search for words and phrases to see how and how often they are used – in which contexts and registers. If you come up with a translation idea for a sentence or collocation but it turns out that it shows up only a hundred times in the search results, even though the subject is rather popular, you should reconsider your idea.

Also, if you narrow down your search to Google Scholar, you will learn more about the academic terminology in a given field. These suggestions for how to use Google in your translation work are just the tip of the iceberg. What I want to emphasise here is that useful language tools are really all around.

On a final note here: keep in mind that Google shows a lot of content which has not been created by native speakers, especially in the case of English, so you need to take that into account when evaluating the results and deciding on a term to use.

LANGUAGE CONSULTING

Here we go again: consult professionals. As you see, translation is not as solitary as they paint it. Language consulting services are a wonderful concept. How do they work? Users ask questions (online) and linguists respond to them – in a more or less definitive way. Then, other users can browse through their responses to disperse their own linguistic doubts.

I really love language consulting websites, even though a lot of responses say “it depends” or “both versions are correct”. For Polish, the most popular and extensive one is by PWN. There are also other language consulting services run by universities, e.g. University of Warsaw and University of Łódź.

PAY ATTENTION TO DETAIL

You already know that cross-checking is a good idea. However, when you do that, always account for certain details to make sure you’re dealing with a reliable resource.

Who is the author of the book/dictionary/website/article?

What are their qualifications?

When was the text/post/book/dictionary published?

What is this website?

What is this book?

On the whole, it may be assumed that printed publications are more credible because they were carefully edited and peer-reviewed, whereas online, you can find all sorts of unverified information. On the other hand, books published in recent years have proven to be less carefully proofread and verified, which makes them not-so-trustworthy. Then again, some of the older paper resources may have already become obsolete and haven’t been updated, in terms of both language and content. So, if you’re looking for examples of contemporary language usage, the internet is your resource. However, if you’re translating a scientific text that contains a lot of specific terminology and must rely on careful scholarly research, validate your online sources with printed books, articles, and monographs – if possible.

BUILD YOUR OWN GLOSSARIES

Let’s be honest about it: our brains have a limited capacity and it’s fairly impossible to remember all the existing words in a given language. Besides, as I’ve emphasised frequently here and on other occasions, translators are not dictionaries and they don’t need to remember all those words. What they need to do is know how to effectively look them up and understand their meaning correctly. But then, looking up every single term in every translation project will make your work a never-ending endeavour.

That’s why translators use CATs. Don’t overlook the glossary function in your CAT! No matter if you’re into Trados, memoQ, Wordfast, or another tool – feed your CAT with thematic glossaries. When you work on a text that just bubbles with terminology, add new terms to your glossary immediately after you’ve cracked them. You will find them useful later on not only in the same file but also in future projects.

If you don’t use CAT tools (why not, though?), create your own glossaries as separate files, each for a different subject area. This will make your work easier, as you can refer to them instead of frantically browsing through all the available dictionaries and sources.

HOW TO READ A DICTIONARY ENTRY

How to read a dictionary? Well, you don’t need to read it from cover to cover, although that may be a nice experience.

Let’s now see how to decipher a dictionary entry using an example from Oxford English Dictionary. What should you pay attention to, except the very definition of a word?

  • All the definitions of the word – normally, there will be plenty of these. Take a look at all of them to understand the various shades of meaning of a given word and find the sense that suits your purpose best or make sure if what you think agrees with the actual use.
  • The most important element in a dictionary entry is examples. They show how the word is used in practice and how it collocates with other words.

screenshot of OEALD entry

  • Oh yes, collocations: it’s essential to know which words like each other and which don’t get on so well. To speak and write a language fluently, you need to use collocations adequately. In the OALD, the Collocations section comes in handy: it shows the most frequent combinations and co-occurrences of words (prepositional phrases are particularly tricky!).

screenshot of the collocations section in the Oxford dictionary online

  • Dictionaries also show what part of speech a given word is (e.g. an adverb or a noun) and how to apply it with that in mind.

screenshot of Oxford Dictionary

  • Another important thing to know is whether a verb is transitive or intransitive: if it takes a direct object or not.
  • For nouns, check if they are countable or uncountable: this gives you a hint which articles and verb forms should be used with them.
  • Coming back to verbs: check their past and participle forms, even if you’re sure you know them (double-checking for life).

dictionary entry verb forms

  • Oxford offers a lot of usage tips as well: the dictionary will tell you if a word is formal, informal, archaic, or offensive, and in what context it is used. There are also cultural information snippets to help you choose appropriate phrasing or avoid awkward linguistic misunderstandings and outright cultural blunders.
  • Apart from individual words, there are also lists of phrasal verbs and idioms. The latter are particularly useful if the text you translate is filled with wordplays or if you need to translate a metaphorical phrase from your source language. Even if there is no exact English equivalent, you can still choose a phrase from a similar semantic field. For instance, if the source idiom contains the word “hand” or some other hand-related theme, you can scroll through the “hand” idioms and fixed phrases in the dictionary to find something that will suit the sentence.

EVERY TRANSLATION DECISION MAY TURN OUT WRONG

At some point (better sooner than later), every translator must realise they are not infallible. You may be an expert in a given field and have access to a number of reliable resources coupled with your well-trained language intuition, and you will still make mistakes and err in your language choices, or simply fail to find the right equivalent.

This may be a very discouraging thought but what I want to say is that as a translator, you need to minimise the risk by basing your work on thorough research and expanding your knowledge endlessly. If I were to limit this article to just one little piece of advice for people who are just beginning their translation journey, I’d say: KEEP LEARNING. As well as…

HAVE FUN!

Nowadays, online dictionaries offer such a great abundance of resources and functionalities that you can simply use them to have fun, at the same time building up your vocabulary. Dictionary websites contain quizzes, riddles, games, fun facts, words of the day, new words (recent additions to the dictionary), or interesting blog posts.

WRAP-UP

Congratulations! You’ve passed the TLDR test and reached the end of this article. This shows that you have enough dedication and willpower to translate: to force your way through the tens and hundreds and thousands of paper and virtual pages in search of the most adequate words and meanings in different languages. And next time someone asks you “How do you say XYX in English?”, you may answer “I don’t know, but I know how to find out!”

Martyna

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