Why use dictionaries and glossaries?

By definition, dictionaries aim to provide all meanings for a term in a particular language. Glossaries, on the other hand, aim to provide the specific meaning of a term in a particular context. Both dictionaries and glossaries can be monolingual, bilingual, trilingual etc.

In regards to terminology, every translator is as good as his/her resources. No one, however specialized, will ever know all the words and how they correspond in two different languages. Therefore, what we all need is a solid set of resources that can help us get through our terminology hurdles.

When assembling his/her translation resources kit, a translator must look for good monolingual dictionaries and bilingual glossaries. This is important because the definition for a particular term may not exist in relation to the topic of your particular translation in a glossary or it may not be applicable. Sometimes this happens within the same topic, when a particular term may be used to mean two different things in a source file and there is only one entry in the glossary. For example, in a translation about chemical lab reports the word “assay” may be used to mean the test performed or the object of analysis. In such case, the translator must know that assay has more than one meaning, or he/she must use a monolingual dictionary to determine how to translate assay to convey the appropriate meaning.

Translators should always use monolingual dictionaries and bilingual glossaries as complementary. In the example above, the translator may be able to infer from the source text that there is more than one meaning to the word “assay”. However, let us say that the word was used in a table with figures; the translator might look up the word in the glossary and just translate it all the way through in the same way.

The less familiar translators are with a topic, the more reliant they should be on a combination of resources.

When your bilingual glossary fails, or when you don’t feel that its definition applies to your context, you should always research.

There are several online and offline resources available to translators for reference (Please see Glossaries and Dictionaries), which can be general or specific to a particular topic. I have created ongoing lists online of the resources I like to use in my translations, but these are by no means exhaustive.

In addition, to using online resources, translators can and should also create their own glossaries. Having your own resources can be really helpful, especially when you have a repeat client or a particular topic of specialization. In such cases, your glossaries not only work as a tool to help you deal with terminology, but they can be used effectively to ensure consistency. You can create specific glossaries for a client, a topic or even for a particular project.

If you are working on a long translation project, and you have been working on that for weeks, sometimes the translation of an unusual term may escape you. In such cases, having your project glossary not only helps you find the term quickly, but also helps ensuring that you don’t find a different translation for it and end up with an inconsistent translation.

One other thing that you can do when you create specific project glossaries is send them for your client’s approval. This can be really helpful with particularly technical terminology, when the client will likely be a lot more knowledgeable than you. Your client-approved glossary is a powerful tool to ensure consistency and your delivery of a satisfactory product to the client.

In short, you need one good general dictionary in each of your working languages, one good subject-specific dictionary in each of your working languages (for each of your working subject areas) and several glossaries. Managing dictionaries and glossaries is another very important aspect of a translator’s job and we will discuss in more detail in an upcoming post.

Please click for a compilation of glossaries and dictionaries.
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