Paper Dictionaries are Dead. Long Live Online Resources!

Shelf4A recent quick poll and discussion focused on whether translators buy the latest versions of the dictionaries they use when they are published. This quickly turned into a debate on whether to ever bother using paper dictionaries given that everything is now online, and even whether professional translators need dictionaries. As long as we are in our comfort zone (and shouldn’t we always be?), then there should be no need to refer to anything at all.

Naturally, this radical viewpoint elicited a number of counter responses. Expecting us to be walking-talking dictionaries is a fallacy people who are not in the industry might assume, so it’s quite shocking to hear it voiced by a peer. None of us is infallible, and I have always thought that learning something new most days is one of the reasons why so many us enjoy the challenge of our profession. We cannot possibly know every word printed in a dictionary, and even when we stick religiously to our chosen fields, the unexpected can still crop up.

Perhaps there’s an age issue involved in these differences in opinion on how to access resources. I first set eyes on a computer when I was around twenty at university, but I didn’t get my own until ten years later when the Internet really started to take off. I was brought up in a non-digital world where electric typewriters were considered sophisticated. Obviously we relied on books for our studies rather than iPads (which my daughter’s school now requires her to own). I remember that one of my father’s work colleagues was so in love with books that he would close his eyes and smell them—I can still picture him now in that moment of pure ecstasy. My father was also a book fanatic, and although he is sadly now long gone, we are still surrounded by the physical manifestations of his obsession, piled high on shelves that sometimes sag slightly under the weight of them all. And of course he passed on this legacy to me, even if I do now supplement book reading with a fair few hours on the computer, something he never ever used (he did, however, cotton on to the fact that web searches were useful for solving crossword puzzles—usually the only times he would come on the phone was to tell me what he needed me to look up).

Shelf8It’s hardly surprising that I might be slightly at odds with the younger generations of translators in our tools of choice, for I love paper dictionaries. I have quite a few which I still consult, some of them only once in a blue moon, but I’m still glad they are there when I do need them. The three main Spanish to English and vice versa dictionaries live on my desk for easy access at all times. For some jobs I never open them, for others I am constantly flicking through their pages seeking the term that is just right for the context. There’s also a Thesaurus on the floor beside me (seems to be its permanent home now) because it doesn’t fit on the desk.

One of the things I love about some of my dictionaries (especially the monolingual ones) is the ease with which you can travel from one term to another, see an illustration and suddenly have a light-bulb moment. Another, if they are any good, is that they have been double and tripled checked and can be trusted, whereas a lot of information online is bogus at best. Personally I find Linguee helpful in that it usually pinpoints what I shouldn’t put.

Paper dictionaries can, however, be expensive, even extortionate, and you can land yourself with one that is virtually useless (unfortunately I have a number of those on my shelves). That is why in 2009, after many of us had clamoured for one for years, launched the dictionary and reference board where you can enter books and rate them. I am proud to have played a part in this board from the very beginning, helping to shape what it is today, and I am still a member of its admin team.

Of course, when searching for terms or that perfect collocation, we need to draw on a wide variety of resources, which will differ from translator to translator depending on language combination, the field in question, context, etc.  There is no one size fits all. For me at least paper dictionaries are very much alive, but long live online resources too.

This post was first published on 02/03/2014 on my previous blog. 

Versión en castellano

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