On bilingual dictionaries, round II Explanatory note

  • Greater than 2 minutes, my friend!

    After receiving feedback from lectors, I decided to develop my main idea in a new post. You can read the previous one here.

    So, first of all, of course, I am not telling you to get rid of your bilingual dictionaries, keep them! 😉

    From my experience, bilingual dictionaries from X language to French are not of the best quality. Some are good, but most of them are not.

    What I am trying to tell you is that using mainly monolingual dictionaries can be a interesting way to translate:

    Looking up in source language obliges you to read all the definitions accepted for that word. So, you don’t only learn one word, but many!

    Take a typical problem French legal translator face when starting: ‘common law’. Common law can be many things: 1) the English law system 2) a law from that system vs. statutory law 3) a law that is common to the state (federal law in the US) vs. local law (state law). If you take Collin’s bilingual dictionary ‘common law’ is translated as ‘droit coutumier’, which is the equivalent only to definition n ° 1! If you use ‘droit coutumier’ in a text talking about the differences in federal US laws and the states’ laws, your text is going to be a nonsense.

    When you use a bilingual dictionary, you are looking at the choices of the creator of the dictionary. This person knows that one word can be translated in many ways but it is impossible to list them all, otherwise it makes no sense. By choosing and keeping only the main translations or the most used translations for this word, it closes other options.

    Let’s take ‘approach’: in Collins you can find ‘approche’, ‘accès’; in Larousse “approche”, “arrivée”, “façon”, “proposition”, “voie”. In the context of a financial document (let’s say advertisement for a portfolio) if you see ‘we value a … approach’, you can, of course, use ‘approche’ but by reading the definition of ‘approach’ (Oxford: ‘A way of dealing with a situation or problem’) the word ‘stratégie’ could come to your mind which suits perfectly in that situation. Or you could think of “méthode”, “démarche”, “perspective”, “éclairage”, “politique”, entrée en matière”, etc. Working with the definitions obliges you to search for more propositions and possibilities in your language, but when you simply look it up in a bilingual dictionary you have your three words and you tend to stick to them and get past other potential better possibilities.

    The error with bilingual dictionaries is to consider all their options are valid and truthful. It is our duty to be evaluative with all of our sources of information and I tend to think that we (translators) have this bad habit not to apply this rule to bilingual dictionaries, but we should.

    Bilingual dictionaries are a valuable resource because they have made part of our job before us: the terminology research. But as with everything, we need to double-check just to be sure. And remember that there are as many translations as there are translators and after all, a bilingual dictionary is just another translator so their proposition can be as valid as your idea, it all depends on the context!

    Kevin Fernandez

    About Kevin Fernandez

    Swiss Translator based in Geneva, translating from EN and ES into FR.

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