Bilingual dictionaries are perhaps the most obvious resource and the resource most commonly used by translators. Sometimes they give us the information we are looking for and that’s great but I find that, more often than not, they serve as a useful and sometimes essential starting point but any potential translations for terms they offer need to be cross-checked in another source.
Why it is unwise to blindly trust bilingual dictionaries
Pick up the nearest bilingual dictionary you have to hand. When was it published? If it is more than a year or so old some (obviously not all) of the suggested terms may well be already out of date. This is certainly the case with older bilingual law dictionaries and most certainly also with older medical dictionaries, automotive dictionaries, environmental dictionaries and so on. Technology is progressing so fast that the print medium simply cannot keep up. Dictionaries take years to compile so by the time they are published, some of the terms are inevitably already going to be out of date. Online glossaries can sometimes be more useful but in practice it very much depends on how often they are updated and ultimately on the credentials of the person who compiled the glossary in the first place. These days anyone can publish anything online so we need to find ways to establish whether the source we have come across is authoritative.
Bilingual dictionaries and glossaries in context
Unfortunately most bilingual dictionaries are just lists of terms in two languages and do not provide much contextual information. Even if you have a bilingual dictionary for your specific field, can you be sure that the context in which the term is being used in the dictionary is the same as the context in which the term is being used in the source text you are currently working on? As a legal translator I can say that in the legal field this is a particular problem with terms being used differently within different areas of law and, of course, within different legal systems using the same language. And context is naturally the key to carrying out accurate research.
Stop! Don’t bin the dictionary yet!
Having said all that, a bilingual dictionary is often a very good and even essential starting point when we come across an unknown term. Consulting a bilingual dictionary and then entering the terms offered into a search engine and seeing how the target language term is used in context is a great way of ensuring that you have the right term. For tips on how to find reliable original target language documents similar to the source language document you are translating and how to effectively leverage the terms used there, be sure to come back and read Part 4 – The secret power of search engines in this series of posts on research techniques later this week.
Tomorrow’s post will be Part 2 – Monolingual dictionaries and encyclopaedia (online and offline)