Translators and dictionaries – are they synonymous?
For most people, I guess, a dictionary is the most typical artefact associated with translation. Well, for some people, translators are actually like walking dictionaries. But the truth is translators are NOT dictionaries incarnate – they do not know all the possible meanings of all the possible wor(l)ds. One thing is for sure, though: skilful and effective use of dictionaries is one of the most important skills in this profession.
Paper and electronic dictionaries
Does it mean that we, translators, are just a group of worn-out Saint Jeromes, leaning and poring over dusty volumes in search of THE word, on a daily basis? Clearly not. Let’s be honest – paper dictionaries are on the decline, which is because the online ones are simply easier and quicker to use, and their quality is growing strong.
Who is this article for?
I’ve compiled a list of the dictionaries that we at Translatorion use most often and find most useful. The list should be of use to all translators, not only beginners. I believe that everyone can learn about something new here, regardless of their experience.
What’s more, every person who writes, learns a language, or deals with language in any other way will definitely benefit from using these dictionaries. Why is that? A carefully designed dictionary is a way better and more reliable choice than any machine translation service if you want to learn the meaning of a word. In a dictionary, you get so much more than a random equivalent – you get the context and plenty of other details to get a deeper understanding.
The dictionaries I’m going to describe here are mostly Polish and English ones, as these are our primary translation languages. As a bonus, I’ll give you examples of several Spanish, Portuguese, and Czech dictionaries. Of course, I’ll also mention multilingual dictionaries which cover multiple languages, as the name suggests. In the case of online dictionaries, I’ve provided links so you can check them out straight away.
This article is NOT sponsored. I simply wanted to show you some solid resources which we use regularly at work as translators and editors.
What kind of dictionaries are there?
The most basic classification of dictionaries is the one that I’ve already referred to here: online and paper dictionaries. But there are so many more!
There are monolingual dictionaries, which present the vocabulary of a single language, and bilingual dictionaries, which contain lexical equivalents between two languages.
For translators, the crucial types are glossaries and term bases. They are mono-, bi-, or multilingual dictionaries which aggregate words and phrases related to a specific subject area.
Another dictionary type is a thesaurus. Mind you, this is not a polyglot dinosaur. A thesaurus is simply a dictionary of synonyms – and synonyms are words of similar meanings.
We need to go deeper. There are also thematic dictionaries, and they are legion: from scouting, to chemistry, fishing, and telecommunication dictionaries.
When it comes to the medium type, dictionaries can be classified even further. For example, digital dictionaries are more than websites, mobile apps, or desktop software which can be also used offline. E-dictionaries include PDF and spreadsheet files as well.
When I open my laptop and my browser, there are some tabs that I hardly ever close: my private inbox, my professional inbox, and a couple of dictionaries and language resources, namely – Oxford Dictionary, Pons, Proz, Linguee, and The Free Dictionary. The first program I start after my dear CAT (Wordfast) is Wielki Słownik PWN (The Great PWN Dictionary). These dictionaries will be my first recommendations (along with some similar alternatives). Later in the text, I’m going to discuss some special-purpose dictionaries.
Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary
This is the dictionary that I use definitely the most. I can choose from three versions: paper, online, and a desktop app. However, the online version is just fine for my daily work.
This is a monolingual English dictionary. How is it better than a bilingual dictionary? Well, this is because nothing is lost in translation here. In a monolingual dictionary, definitions are meant to reflect the sense of the word in the most accurate way, also accounting for context. What’s more, a monolingual dictionary should provide all the possible meanings of a word along with their usage (just take a look at “go” with its 38 definitions, plus idioms, collocations, and phrasal verbs).
The dictionary is developed by Oxford University Press, which means it’s based on thorough research. Besides, it gets pretty frequent updates.
What I like about the Oxford Dictionary is the pronunciation recordings (in both British and American versions) and illustrations that accompany some entries and provide visual cues for them.
The Cambridge Dictionary resembles the Oxford one, and its publisher is just as respectable: Cambridge University Press. In a way, this mirrors the eternal rivalry between the two great British universities. You can pick whichever you like better.
I used to visit the Cambridge Dictionary more often, but now I’m more into Oxford, as I prefer its graphic design, legibility, and information arrangement. Also, Oxford usually offers more examples. I still go to Cambridge if the OALD definitions are not sufficient.
Other dictionaries that work like these two are the Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English and the Collins English Dictionary. They are also both available online and in print. I will not discuss them in detail here, though. Take a look at their websites, explore their functionalities, and choose the dictionary that you find the most useful for your purposes.
Although the dictionaries described above normally present two varieties of English (BrE and AmE), the focus is on the British one. I’m fine with that, as this is my default translation language. However, if you need a dictionary focused on the American variety, I can recommend Merriam-Webster.
Wielki Słownik PWN & Oxford
This may be my favourite bilingual dictionary – since ever. It’s not perfect – there are typos, disputable translations, archaic words that are not marked as archaic, and more up-to-date vocabulary isn’t accounted for. Still, I think that this dictionary is the most user-friendly one and I love how it surprises me with its abundance. It happens quite often that I can’t find a specialist word anywhere, and I find it right here in this lovely dictionary. This also means that the dictionary helps in analysing a wide variety of senses for a single word.
I use it as a desktop program. We bought the latest version in 2016: it was a USB stick with the installation file. Now, the paper version only serves as a proud bookshelf exhibit. You can also buy access to this dictionary online. This is probably the most convenient option, although I’m not sure if it’s also the most cost-effective one.
I recommend the Pons dictionary to all my English and Spanish students. This is a very basic and simple dictionary – so easy to use that there are no more excuses for you to be using Google Translate. Here, the only thing you need to do is also to type the word you’re looking up. But what you get in return is so much more! What shows up when you search for a word is all its translations, sometimes with examples of collocations and idioms, information about the language variety it represents (e.g. British or American English, LatAm or Castellano in the case of Spanish), information whether it’s archaic or colloquial, etc. At the same time, it’s a concise dictionary, so it won’t overwhelm you with too many details.
What’s more, you can look up equivalents between numerous language pairs: I find it particularly useful as a Portuguese learner, because I can look up Portuguese words with their English translations. This dictionary is available as a website or a mobile app.
Another similar dictionary is bab.la.
The Free Dictionary
The Free Dictionary accumulates information from multiple sources (e.g. The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language and Collins). It offers so many functions that it’s hard to enumerate them all in a single blog post. Take a look at the website and check it out. Apart from the general dictionary, there are also specialised medical, legal, and financial sections, as well as an idiom dictionary, acronym list, and encyclopaedia.
I use it mostly because of its versatile and clear thesaurus which offers synonyms and antonyms for various senses of a given word, along with practical word maps.
ProZ is like a literal portal to the world of translators. You usually learn about it as a first-year translation student, sign up, and become a proud member of the translators’ guild. For ever. Above all, ProZ is a place where you can find translation job listings and professional translator profiles. For me, the most important part of this website is Term Search.
This is where you can look up terms in your language combinations and fields of specialisation. The term base is built by the users. Someone posts a query, and other translators offer their ideas: sometimes, they just give a translation suggestion, but frequently (and that’s so much more useful), they also add a commentary explaining the context and reasoning behind it. Then, other users evaluate the suggestions, giving them kudos (and this is actually where I first saw this word in my life). All the terms remain in the database, so you can explore it to find the meanings of particularly difficult or rare terms.
Of course, you need to take it with a generous pinch of salt and always double-check the translation suggestions. Nevertheless, this is a great point of reference in any translation search.
Linguee is more than a dictionary – it’s an online bilingual concordance tool. To put it simply, it works like a public open-access translation memory. You choose a language combination and enter the term you’re looking for in the search field. Then, Linguee returns its translation along with a long list of bilingual texts with parallel sentences containing this term. This way, you can analyse the paired sentences to see how the term has been translated in various contexts, along with their sources: they are often the European Union documents.
Słownik Języka Polskiego PWN
The PWN Dictionary of Polish is a must when it comes to Polish – and the online version should be just fine. The website is a monolingual Polish dictionary along with a spelling dictionary accompanied by a set of spelling rules, an electronic corpus of the Polish language (I’ll write more about that in a text that follows this one), and a language consulting service, where linguistic advice is provided by Polish professors, including Mirosław Bańko, famous for his witty remarks.
There is also a hidden gem which I value a lot, as it often comes in handy: the digitalised version of Słownik języka polskiego by Witold Doroszewski. This is a Polish language dictionary from the 1950s and 1960s. It’s very useful when you need to look for senses that have become obsolete or words that are no longer used. This is especially helpful when you translate for museums or specialise in history, or simply if you’re a literary translator.
Another decent dictionary of Polish, endorsed by another renowned institution, is Wielki Słownik Języka Polskiego PAN (“The Great Dictionary of the Polish Language of the Polish Academy of Sciences”).
Dobry Słownik is literally a very good dictionary – an indispensable resource if you edit and proofread Polish texts or translate into Polish. I love this dictionary – it’s saved my life many times, coming up with answers to my most nagging questions about correctness, style, syntax, or punctuation.
The dictionary is based on top-notch research by three Polish linguists and lexicographers. I’ve paid for the Standard subscription so far, but I’m tempted to level up to the Pro version. In any case, this is a really comprehensive dictionary and language guide.
If you’re looking for a dictionary of Polish synonyms, here’s the one I use most often. It’s simple and effective – what’s not to love. Besides, they say they’ve got Professor Jerzy Bralczyk’s approval.
For analogue users, I recommend Słownik synonimów polskich PWN (“The PWN Dictionary of Polish Synonyms”) edited by Professor Zofia Kurzowa. Apart from synonyms, it provides lexical definitions and it’s also based on solid research.
IATE (Interactive Terminology for Europe) – European Union Terminology – is what it says it is. If you translate anything that contains some EU terms, here’s a resource for you. This European terminology database proves useful not only to legal translators. I make use of it whenever I translate grant applications or reports for cultural institutions.
It’s quite easy to use: select your languages, enter your term, and press search. You will receive translation suggestions with their reliability rate, subject areas, sources, references, and definitions. Personally, I don’t like its interface as I find it rather unfriendly.
Urban Dictionary is a treasure. Or, more so, a treasury of colloquial English vocabulary. It’s absolutely necessary if you want to understand modern informal English – and it can be very helpful in avoiding blunders. If I want to use a word or phrase when translating into some marketingese English, I always consult Urban Dictionary to make sure there are no offensive or inappropriate innuendos and implied meanings behind them.
And, let’s be honest, it’s so fun to browse this dictionary even without purpose.
Online Etymology Dictionary
Alright, an etymological dictionary is not a basic element in a translator’s toolbox. And yet, I had to put it here: it’s our favourite dictionary. And it’s very dangerous, as you can get lost in it for hours and hours.
Even so, etymology fun facts can give you more than pure scholarly pleasure: when you learn about the origins of words, you understand them better and see how their meaning changed over centuries. Etymology helps translators finds connections between different languages, sometimes very distant, and that can help you choose the best equivalents in your translation.
Słownik terminologii prawniczej
Dictionary of Law Terms – English-Polish, Polish-English by Ewa Myrczek is another useful resource for us even though we’re not legal translators. Difficult and devious legal terms may show up in other types of texts too – let’s just mention terms and regulations of cultural institutions. This is when we consult this dictionary. Apart from the glossary part, there’s also an ample theoretical introduction and practical exercises. We use both the paper and the electronic version.
Słownik mitów i tradycji kultury
Dictionary of Myths and Traditions in Culture by Władysław Kopaliński has been with me since time immemorial, which is why I have a soft spot for it. I have an old print edition and I don’t really know if it has ever been digitalised. I haven’t really come across an online version, but I must admit that in this case, I indulge myself leafing through the yellow pages.
This type of dictionary is a great helper if you translate texts about art, culture, and history. Take a look at your bookshelves, perhaps you’ll find a similar dictionary there, waiting in oblivion?
And here comes the bonus!
RAE, or Real Academia Española – The Royal Spanish Academy, is a royal institution that describes and regulates the use of the Spanish language. The RAE dictionary available online is an important resource when it comes to Spanish. However, I must say that I get irritated when I see definitions like “matador – que mata” (“killer – one who kills”), which don’t really clarify anything.
But if you do need clarification, take a look at RAE’s Diccionario panhispánico de dudas – “The Pan-Hispanic Dictionary of Doubts”. As the very name indicates, this dictionary is here to disperse your linguistic doubts.
Priberam is a dictionary I use as a learner of Portuguese. It’s got everything I need from a monolingual dictionary and I haven’t found a better alternative so far.
Lingea is the only sensible Polish-to-Czech and Czech-to-Polish online dictionary I’ve come across. It’s alright, but not very comprehensive. If you know of a better one, let me know.
So many dictionaries, so little time
As you see, my list of useful dictionaries is quite long, even though I did my best to include only the most helpful, important, and general ones. I haven’t included the myriads of specialised terminology dictionaries we use (online and offline), from civil engineering and other technical dictionaries to glossaries of film terms. I haven’t gone into detail about our own glossaries either: they are resources that we’ve built for years throughout our translation projects. We use them in our CAT software.
Now what? You’ve got access to the whole wealth of information online, but how to find your way around them? Next week, I’m going to talk more about working smart rather than hard when using dictionaries: the goal here is to translate and write well, understanding the nuances and layers of language. These tips will be of use for translators, editors, writers, and language learners.
Now it’s time for a sentimental journey.
When I was a teenager (living in Poland, let me remind you), I came up with the idea to translate the last two Harry Potter books from English – for myself and for my friends – as it was really difficult to wait for the official Polish translation to be published. I quickly realised I needed a good dictionary to decipher all the hidden meanings accurately. Another reminder – all of that happened over 15 years ago and I didn’t have access to many resources.
But I did have some and they turned out to be very useful! What I had was some old paper dictionary and two CDs. The CDs contained my beloved Oxford and Cambridge dictionaries (the former was bilingual, and the latter – monolingual). Like I said before, I still use both of them, obviously – updated. Back then, in the noughties, the CDs were free gifts added to one of the most popular Polish newspapers, Gazeta Wyborcza. What’s more, I had no internet connection at home back in the day, up to the final year at secondary school, so these were my only resources – but they were priceless.
To wrap this text up, I’ll do a bit of #gratitude practice.
I am really grateful for having access to so many sources of linguistic and general knowledge these days – this makes the translators’ work so much easier, more efficient, and simply better. At the same time, you need to remember to verify every piece of information – more on this, in the text that follows.