Why I Don’t Use Bilingual Dictionaries And Why You Shouldn’t Either Our best friends and enemies

Greater than 4 minutes, my friend!

The first tool that comes to your mind when you think translator is: bilingual dictionary

Bilingual dictionaries seem to be our salvation but in fact they are not and I will show you why I almost stopped consulting them at all.

First of all, bilingual dictionaries (at least paper ones) are not really what we commonly know as a dictionary but are more like a glossary. They have the word in language A and then another ‘equivalent’ word in language B with some details about the word (if it’s a noun, adjective, verb etc.). Sometimes you will find a sentence or two to give you an example of how to use this word. But that is mostly it. Traditional monolingual dictionaries have so much more information: details, class of the word, etymology, pronunciation, definition, examples, synonyms, etc.

So you will ask me: what is wrong with using dictionaries working as glossaries?

The problem is that we use them thinking they are dictionaries. Which means we think that the definition of both words are the same and consequently that the words are equivalent. And this is false!

One example found in wordreference.com for FR> ES:

“poisson [pwasÕm pez, pescado;’

The problem is that the concept of ‘poisson’ (fish) holds both concepts of ‘pez’ AND ‘pescado’ (‘pez’ is the fish alive, ‘pescado’ is the fish seen as a good or food), as shown above.

Image001At the opposite, ‘pescado’ is only one part of the concept of ‘poisson’ and ‘pez’ is another part of the concept. So it is not possible to use ‘pez’ and ‘pescado’ as synonyms because in fact they are not!

This leads me to the second point: bilingual dictionaries don’t have any context or very few. In the case just seen above, the problem may have been resolved if there was at least some context (two or three phrases). As bilingual dictionaries usually lack of context sentences, it is very hard to know exactly how to use the word translated. They also lack explanations about which of the many words suggested you should use and they present them all as equivalent. In the best case scenario, you have a small context indication, usually between brackets such as: ‘régler: (payer) to pay’.

The third point is that it is quite common that none of the words suggested are correct in the context you want to use it.

Another example from wordreference.com for EN> FR:

issue n (problem, dispute)


problème, objet de litige

(sujet) question

Well, you may find better options for the word ‘issue’ in French. You could use ‘point, problématique, préoccupation, objet, thème, situation, enjeu’. But by giving only 3 possibilities, the bilingual dictionary ‘blocks’ or ‘focuses’ your mind only on these 3 words and you can’t see any more possibilities.

The fourth point is that bilingual dictionaries, as we just saw it, blocks your mind on one (or more) words. And we all know that translating is not about words but about ideas! When you translate a sentence you need to transmit an idea in another language and words are your tools not your target! So by focusing on these few words you lose your inspiration and you try possible sentences that only include these words instead of looking for a new and different way of saying it. Unfortunately sometimes saying it in a different way is the only solution to get out of a tricky sentence.

Fifth point: usually bilingual dictionaries are general dictionaries. Keep that in mind because when you are translating in a specialised field you might face a specialised term and not just a general word. In this case general dictionaries are of no use and can even lead you to big errors without even giving any hint that you are on the wrong path!

Point number 6, last but not least: when you make the effort to look up the word in the source language in a monolingual dictionary (still in source language), you read the definition and understand what the concept of source language is. By doing just that, you can already spot any differences in the concept between language A and B. Sometimes you know and just remember the word in target language as you are reading the definition, but usually you only guess more or less what it could be in your language. But then, how to find the term in your own language? Tricky question. You have to try to find it. Look up words that you feel could fill the definition you just read. Look in parallel corpora (like for example linguee). Try to find documents in your language talking about the field you are translating. You may struggle to find the right word that will fit in your sentence but I can assure you something: by struggling so much you will not forget that word and next time you face it you will remember the numerous possibilities you found in your previous research!

Why I tell you this? Because when I started my studies in translation at the University of Geneva, one of the first things they told us is to throw away our bilingual dictionaries. In fact, we can only use monolingual dictionaries during our exams!

In my experience, this advice has been of the best I’ve been given since I started and I have learnt many things and I understand better the ideas and the concepts I am translating.

Of course bilingual dictionaries are very convenient for usual everyday words you tend to forget and they can sometimes indicate the right word, I am not saying we should never use them. But as a colleague pointed out, it is our job as professionals translators to determine if the propositions given by the dictionary are acceptable for our case or not. For once consider translating a page or two without them apart from these small words and use the monolingual dictionaries.

Try it and tell me if you are convinced or not. Let me know in the comment section if as me you try to avoid bilingual dictionaries or if at the opposite you use them everyday!

Kevin Fernandez

About Kevin Fernandez

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

9 thoughts on “Why I Don’t Use Bilingual Dictionaries And Why You Shouldn’t Either Our best friends and enemies

  1. You are right on the spot. I happened to do some proofreading (ENHE) and found major mistakes (hilarious or tragic, depends on your mood). To make matters worse, Hebrew is usually written without diacritics so vowels are omitted, and at least 3 glyphs (consonant letters) have each two different pronunciations (B/V, P/F, C/KH) without the diacritics – so the same 3-5 letters can mean many different things, so that one does not even know what to look for in the dictionary (that has diacritics). One example that I met was the word spelled as MFTH – with vowels it can be read as Mafteah = key (of a lock) or as Miftah = span (of a bridge or an opening). In the case in question, the translator used “key” where full sentence said something like “The cross section of the beam shall be determined in accordance with the span” – imagine how senseless it becomes if one puts “key” instead of “span”. To make matters worse, the actual sentence read “The angular moment of inertia of the beam…” – the translator was of course not knowledgeable of the physics/materials strength terminology involved – so they translated “inertia” as “integration”.
    Life is funny

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    1. Thanks for your comment Meir!
      I can imagine that with Hebrew it must even be more difficult! Truth is you have to balance in each case if what the dictionary is proposing you is worth it or not, and sometimes you have to double check with a monolingual to be know what you are talking about… So finally why not start with the monolingual? 😉

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  2. I think you raise some interesting points. While I won’t throw away my (wide range of!) bilingual dictionaries just yet, I will definitely try translating using only a monolingual dictionary and see how that helps with finding meanings and improving my language skills too!

    (By the way, your title should read “…why you shouldn’t either.” Negatives are pesky in every language, it seems!)

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    1. Hey, thanks for you comment Natalie!
      Of course don’t throw them away, I still have mine haha 🙂
      But yes I can tell you that when you are translating in a field you are not totally comfortable with, the monolingual can help you get a bigger picture of what you are translating and as you just said it can help you improve your language skills too: you might discover new definitions to a word you already knew!
      (I thought I had corrected that BIG error…seems like I have to triple check next time, thanks! ;))

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      1. Ah yes, “either, neither or too?” – if I didn’t already speak English, I don’t think I’d ever have the patience to learn it! XD

        Funnily enough, I have had to use monolingual dictionaries twice already on my current project, as I had real trouble finding a translation for the idiom “ouvre des parapluies” and then also came across the word “yaka” – neither of which I could find in my usual reference places! So, it’s working already!

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  3. I regularly use bilingual dictionaries to look something up, get a choice between options A and B, and decide that neither are any good before resorting to translation C, D or E. But I still don’t regret having started by looking the word or expression up in a bilingual dictionary or glossary, because often it is precisely the realisation that A is incorrect and B is jarring that leads me straight to C, which is just right. To me, the idea that translators fixate on the options they find in bilingual dictionaries and end up with a mental block limiting their options as a result is a bit like saying that Goldilocks can never find the bowl of porridge which is just right for her if she is silly enough to taste other bowls of less perfect porridge first. I think that what matters is less the jumping-off point for the initial search than the powers of discernment that are brought to bear on sifting through the results. But I would certainly agree in the strongest terms that those powers of discernment can be honed by using monolingual dictionaries and resources.

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    1. I wholeheartedly agree, Sarah. This is exactly how I use bilingual dictionaries. Often I look up terms or expressions precisely because I already know what they mean (or have a very good idea) and simply need something to jog my memory. I would describe it as something like “tip of the tongue” syndrome where I know I have a particular word or expression stored aware somewhere in the recesses of my brain, but I just need a little help to bring it to the surface.

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      1. I would go even futher: bilingual dictionaries are a tool for making your translations objectively better.
        Instead of putting yourself as the Absolute Authority on how a certain concept should be translated, they allow to enter a larger, deeper discourse (dictionary curators are language specialists after all)
        And maybe all their options are wrong and irrelevant and you carry on with smug satisfaction.
        But maybe we discover (gasp) that we were wrong, and what we thought as perfection is actually a regional or personal bias that should be fixed…
        In other words, I think that refusing altogether a judicious, critical use of bilingual dictionaries (side by side with monolingual dictionaries) is quite short-sighted

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  4. Could not agree more. Bilingual dictionaries are a hundred times worse than monolingual ones.

    First, the meanings listed there are often imprecise and incomplete, often leading to errors, especially in area-specific translations.

    Second, such dictionaries make a translator complacent about his/her erroneous beliefs in some equivalents (based off of a totally imprecise dictionary). Thus, such dictionaries endorse imprecision and mistakes. What’s more, translators often justify incompetence by citing such dictionaries.

    Third, the translator doesn’t improve his/her competence by using bilingual dictionaries but rather on the contrary: He/she gets accustomed to wrong and/or imprecise equivalents. Over time more and more of “wrong” knowledge is amassed and turned into an “incurable incompetency”. That is the result of blind beliefs in bilingual dictionaries.

    Fourth, the translator not only starts to believe “this is it”, and stops to apply logic and coherent reasoning. The translator simply clams up with his/her deeply-ingrained equivalents (many of which are wrong) to such a degree that we have too many bad translations. I even saw a bilingual dictionary made out of a monolingual learner’s dictionary. Despite all the definitions/examples right under the nose of translators, the bilingual learner’s dictionary was supplied with wrong/imprecise equivalents in many places. The translators were so fixed on wrong equivalents they learned over their careers that they were incapable and unwilling to accept definitions in the monolingual dictionary whenever they diverged from what they “rote-learned” in bilingual dictionaries.

    Fifth, the worst thing is that such “bilingual dictionary” translators validate each other, support each other’s erroneous claims and mistakes, creating poor standards in the translation industry. And unfortunately, they are in the majority!

    We all know the result of this malpractice and how poor most of translations are. We all know it’s heavily based on bilingual dictionaries, and that’s the root of all evil in the translation industry. Yet, nothing is done to educate translators about the problem. The worst thing is that such “bilingual dictionary translators” validate each other, support each other, and justify mistakes. That is exactly the reason why most translations are of such heinous quality. It’s because translators ask how to translate, say, a given phrase or a word, and not what it means. It looks like most of them don’t care what it really means. They just want to comply with bilingual dictionaries and be on par with “an average translator” not knowing that the latter creates and spreads too much nonsense.

    I commend this post, although, it’s just a drop in the bucket as is my comment here.

    Bottom line: Only monolingual specialized dictionaries, glossaries and textbooks can be used with confidence. Only deep knowledge of the subject area warrants good translation. Good translation is only possible into one’s native or main language, and not vice versa.

    Hope this comment will be helpful to someone.


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