Among the scores of posts published on translation blogs every day, very few manage to reach out and grab my full attention as much as Kevin Fernandez’s on The Open Mic. Provocatively entitled Why I Don’t Use Bilingual Dictionaries and Why You Shouldn’t Either, I knew I wasn’t going to agree with the content before I even started reading it. And although he softens the initial impact of his title by assuring us that he isn’t actually advocating that “we should never use them”, the beast had already been unleashed, sending everyone scurrying off to defend their respective corners.
I can appreciate that excessive use of a bilingual dictionary as a prop without exploring whether its suggestions are appropriate for the context in question is not helpful. This is especially true if you are a language student trying to get to grips with the intricacies of a language. But giving impressionable young professional translators the idea that it is wrong to even use a bilingual dictionary for their work is counterproductive.
In a working context where time is money, one of the best assets you can have is knowing which resource to turn to in the first place. And that knowledge comes from hours and hours of practice, trial and error and narrowing down your specialist fields. It comes from turning to the bilingual dictionaries in your language pair and being disappointed by the results because you realise none of them fit. Looking up your query in a monolingual dictionary and discovering that it’s not even in there. Reaching for the thesaurus and flicking through numerous pages and still not hitting on that elusive word. Reading through explanations in industry-specific glossaries or comparing similar texts in both languages until you get that lightbulb moment. Typing your source term and possible translations into Google Images and sorting through them until you finally find a match. Asking your colleagues for help because you just can’t get your head around it. Reaching for the phone to speak to a specialist in the field you’re translating. Not being afraid of telling your client you’ve no idea what they’re talking about and could they please explain.
Each of these possibilities (and no doubt I’ve failed to mention a few) has a time and a place. And sometimes you have to go through a fair number of them before you arrive at a solution to your terminology problem. Given that they are all valid for helping us in the translation process, which method you choose will depend on the term you’re looking for, your language pair, available dictionaries, glossaries and other resources and their quality. For example, the Spanish monolingual dictionary known as the DRAE is not useful for modern usage or more technical terms. In fact, in my experience with technical construction texts, which I used to do quite a lot of, hardly any terms can be found in dictionaries so you have to research how the term is used in context in the source language and then find the equivalent in the target. It’s a time-consuming business, but one that can also be absorbing, rewarding and help you discover the equivalents of many other useful words for that field along the way.
But what I don’t like about a discussion on this topic is the assumption in some circles that you cannot be a professional translator if you use a bilingual dictionary (in a previous post on resources I mentioned that some colleagues believe that the need to use any dictionary at all betrays a lack of comfort with the subject area). And I don’t like it because it’s an attitude that’s usually based on the sweeping generalisations we (yes, I suspect I’m thoroughly guilty of this too) seem so fond of bandying about on rates, client types, machine translation, post-editing, CPD and so on, and which serve no other purpose but to see which side of the good/bad translator line others fall.
As a group of professionals with an international focus, who have studied other languages and cultures and probably travelled more widely than most people on this planet, we should surely be far more acutely aware that there is no one-size-fits-all and be more tolerant in our attitudes and less prescriptive in our guidance.