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As with all master craftspeople, artisans, and (word)smiths, we translators have a variety of highly sophisticated tools at our disposal to help us piece together the perfect puzzle presented by each and every translation task. Computer-assisted translation tools feature special translation memory functions which store every word we carefully select from the tens, sometimes hundreds, of potential candidates, each phrase we lovingly sculpt from the page up, and every paragraph we craft as we add the colours to our word-shaped masterpieces. Internet search engines provide us with access to generations of knowledge, breaking down specialist subjects into accessible pockets of information, with pictures providing additional clarity, and video imagery enabling us to inhabit the worlds we delve into while conducting our research. If there was one tool in the translator’s arsenal I could never do without, though, it would without a doubt be that treasure trove, that endless word depository, that Schatzkammer as Jacob Grimm so elegantly put it that is: the dictionary.

I say “the dictionary” in the loosest sense, of course, as there is in fact no one, single dictionary containing “all the words” ever uttered, typed, or scribbled on a page. Even the Oxford English Dictionary has a strict policy of only allowing words to enter its hallowed pages once they have proven themselves to have been in existence and use for a certain amount of time (check out an excellent graphic explaining how words (or in this case initialisms) like “OMG” enter the OED here). What’s more, “the dictionary” is likely to mean a different publication to different people, often depending on the particular copy they had access to while growing up at home or in school. While most dictionaries undoubtedly share some fundamental similarities, such as a list of headwords with definitions and information on pronunciation, plural forms, and spelling variants, there are often also some key differences. Dictionaries may or may not, for example, include information on the history, or etymology, of a word or phrase. Some dictionaries may provide illustrative examples of words in use, taken from books, magazines, research journals, online articles, and a variety of other linguistic sources. Some dictionaries might be illustrated, or use colour to highlight different uses of a word in different contexts. Some might (literally) take a leaf out of the thesaurus and offer synonyms, or even antonyms. Dictionaries can be big or little, thick or thin, specialist or generalist, for children or for adults, monolingual or bilingual, or, as is increasingly the case in our ever more digital society, electronic rather than paper in form.

These two final points are perhaps the most significant in terms of the types dictionaries I use every day as part of my job as a translator. Before I begin a translation, I first open up my favourite bilingual German-English dictionaries and monolingual German and English dictionaries, all spread across neat tabs in my internet browser. The fact that these works are available online is a huge advantage for a number of reasons. For one, looking up a term takes literally a matter of seconds, as opposed to the potential minutes it might take to look up the same word in a paper dictionary. Translators need to be able to work quickly and efficiently, which online dictionaries allow us to do in ways that paper dictionaries simply cannot. I’ve heard it said that online dictionaries take away the serendipity of the paper dictionary – the act of flipping through the pages in the pursuit of a particular word and becoming delightfully distracted by another. Sad as it might sound, a lot of the time, serendipitous experience simply isn’t the primary goal of a translator. That said, the notion that online dictionary research is a purely clinical exercise couldn’t be further from the truth. When using bilingual dictionaries, for example, choosing a word from the variety of available options in itself opens up possibilities for taking a phrase in a different direction than you’d perhaps first considered. Translating the German glatt as “smooth”, for example, has a different feel to translating it as “sleek”, or “slick”, or “glossy”, or “slippery”, or “even”. Not only does the translator have to choose the right word for the semantic context – that is, the word that makes the most sense – but also the right word for the pragmatic context, taking into account the tone, audience, and type of text being translated. Having these options in front of you while you translate forces you to consider the nuances of each word and how each might sound to the reader. Having a “smooth finish” on your kitchen worktop perhaps sounds more appealing than simply an “even” one, and less strange and jarring than a “slick” one. You could even opt for a “smooth, glossy finish” to give your translation an extra boost (or if you’re struggling to pick a favourite…).

Monolingual online dictionaries also present countless opportunities for the discovery of new words, even if these might not always be entirely pertinent to the job in question. When deciding how best to translate Fadenkreuz in a manual for a cooking appliance recently, I came across the English term “reticle”, defined by Oxford Dictionaries as “a series of fine lines or fibres in the eyepiece of an optical device, such as a telescope or microscope, or on the screen of an oscilloscope, used as a measuring scale or an aid in locating objects.” A quick Google search also revealed an alternative spelling for the same item in the form of “reticule”, with the following alternative definition given in the same dictionary: “A woman’s small handbag, typically having a drawstring and decorated with embroidery or beading.” After some (in this case rather brief) consideration, I decided it was unlikely that the cooker manual I was translating would have recourse to reference a woman’s small, beaded, drawstring handbag. I also decided that the average user would probably not expect a term like “reticle” to come up, nor be particularly helpful, when they were trying to work out the different functions of their new oven. In the end, I opted for “target”. I finished the translation feeling satisfied that I had chosen the right word for both the semantic and pragmatic context, and that, thanks to the online dictionary, I had learned a new word that I would attempt to use in conversation whenever the opportunity next presented itself (thus far, it has not).

Another crucial benefit of online dictionaries over their print counterparts concerns occupational health and safety: I simply would not have the desk space to use the same number of print dictionaries as online ones in any kind of safe or efficient manner. The sheer size of paper dictionaries also limits their transportability, restricting their use to a limited range of locations. Electronic dictionaries, in contrast, can take the form of dedicated websites or handy apps available to download, the only spatial requirements being your smartphone or tablet’s free gigabytes. For all their bulk, though, paper dictionaries present something of a paradox, in that, despite their volume, they do not and cannot contain the same number of headwords or the same amount of information as their online equivalents. Essentially, a print dictionary becomes out of date the second it is published, as new words are being added to – and lost from – the language all the time. New inventions constantly require new words to be coined to describe them; specialist fields invent new jargon to facilitate communication within a specific community, and new meanings are assigned to existing words. Online dictionaries have a far better chance of keeping up with changes in progress than print dictionaries ever have, which is crucial when having the exact right word available at your fingertips is what you need in order to do your job properly.

Don’t get me wrong – I love print dictionaries. Perhaps slightly more so than the average person. For my undergraduate dissertation, I looked at the ways dictionaries present themselves as “authorities” in either a descriptive or prescriptive sense, calling on the wisdom of self-confessed “harmless drudge” and lexicographical genius Samuel Johnson and founding father of the OED James Murray to examine the goals of dictionary creators. In particular, I looked at the dictionary prefaces to see how the dictionary authors set out and described what it was that they wanted to achieve through their works. Online dictionary prefaces which make absolutely clear the authors’ exact intentions are comparatively lacking. While not necessarily cause for concern, this should at least give us pause for thought – who are the people behind dict.cc, linguee.com, leo.org, www.duden.de, oxforddictionaries.com, and https://www.merriam-webster.com? Is the content being brought to us by a crack team of trained lexicographers, or does the pooled knowledge of individuals from across the globe from a variety of specialisms and backgrounds form the basis of the entries? What references are used to back up decisions and provide evidence for a word’s usage? And how are we supposed to read the knowledge we are presented with – as prescriptive “fact” or descriptive “opinion”? For all the technological advancements over the years, these are the kinds of questions of identity both print and online dictionaries are still grappling with today.

I can absolutely relate to the timeless appeal of the print dictionary as what Macmillan’s dictionary blog describes as “a familiar and respected cultural artefact”. There is something oddly comforting, almost homely about holding a big, thick, print dictionary in your hands. When it comes to translation though, online variants do generally offer a faster, more comprehensive, and more practical alternative – yet another example of how technology is something we translators must learn to embrace rather than fear.