Does a Good Translator Need a Dictionary?

February 29, 2024
Does a Good Translator Need a Dictionary?

If you have a good knowledge of both source and target languages, then why spend time consulting a dictionary instead of actually translating?

This article will explain why it’s important to use a dictionary – even if you’re a veteran translator. Having established this, we’ll then discuss some relevant dictionary-related matters.

Why you should be using a dictionary

Have you noticed that experienced doctors consult their medical reference book when dealing with patients? Or did you know that professional lawyers frequently make use of extensive law libraries when working on a client’s case?

For translators, the same applies to dictionaries: dictionaries act as an important reference tool for professionals, and they certainly shouldn’t be considered as a crutch for beginners. 

Unless you’re blessed with a photographic memory, then knowing the semantic range of each word in a particular language is impossible to retain. 

However, when working on a translation, you need to consider each potential interpretive option for a word in both the source and target languages. A dictionary will allow you to understand the semantic range of the original word, and then choose the most appropriate word to translate it into.

After all, awareness of a document’s immediate and wider contexts, in addition to the individual author’s literary style, is something that allows human translators to distinguish themselves from machine-based translation. And without a dictionary, you’re limiting your translation options to words that are familiar to you. 

Read more: What Is the Hardest Language to Learn?

Bilingual vs. monolingual dictionaries

Having established that dictionaries are essential for translators, let’s take some time to discuss two popular types of dictionaries: bilingual and monolingual dictionaries.

Bilingual dictionaries are often specifically marketed to translators, promising an easy way to look up a word in one language and then find an alternative for the translation. Whilst this might sound like a good idea, bilingual dictionaries are actually detrimental to a good translation.

Bilingual dictionaries assume that each word has a direct replacement in the other language, but in reality this just isn’t the case. As we discussed above, words have a wide range of meanings, and the context often dictates what meaning should be inferred from a particular word. When translating, you need to translate a word’s meaning, not just find its equivalent in another language.

This is where monolingual dictionaries come in handy: good monolingual dictionaries present a wide range of possible meanings for each word and go into the sort of depth that just isn’t possible in most bilingual dictionaries due to space restrictions. 

When you’re proficient in both the source and target language (and if you’re not, then you really shouldn’t be working on the translation!), then using a monolingual dictionary shouldn’t be problematic for you to use, and it will allow you a much wider range of options when choosing a suitable translation.

Online dictionary resources

Thanks to the internet, there’s a ton of dictionary-related resources that translators can make use of, including sites where you can ask translation questions and discuss the meaning of certain words in context. Below are a couple of sites that you should definitely check out: has access to online dictionaries as well as a forum for translators and language enthusiasts to debate various word choices. is specifically geared towards translators, allowing them to network and improve their work through discussion. There’s also a wealth of dictionary resources available to use, and you can discuss a difficult translation with another professional in a matter of minutes.

Final thoughts

Do you agree on the importance of using a dictionary for translation? Perhaps you have an opinion on the bilingual vs. monolingual dictionary debate? Or maybe you know of some great online dictionary resources for translators? We’d be more than happy to hear from you, so please do leave a comment below.

By Ofer Tirosh

Ofer Tirosh is the founder and CEO of Tomedes, a language technology and translation company that supports business growth through a range of innovative localization strategies. He has been helping companies reach their global goals since 2007.



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