Dictionaries for German Translators

Internet vs Hardbacks

As you are undoubtedly aware, there is a wide variety of online foreign language dictionaries available to choose from. These dictionaries are an excellent tool for general translations such as press releases or reports, but struggle as translations get more technical. To combat this, a large number of online dictionaries are configured to be open to user contributions, but even this innovative system has its limits and flaws. Online dictionaries first require user contributions to be verified by other users before being published as canon – but who is verifying the translations? No authoritative bodies participate in this process or preside over it, rather other translators who – and I do not wish to detract from their good intentions – may themselves not definitively know if the term to be verified is correct. This can cause terms to ‘become’ correct through seeming correct to a large number of translators, and can lead to the indiscriminate creation of Anglicisms in lieu of a proper German equivalent of a word.

This is where bound technical dictionaries come in. With an unambiguous publisher and no exhaustive listings of the possible definitions of a given word in every context imaginable, physical dictionaries remain an indispensible part of a translator’s assets. On which note, I searched three online dictionaries for the word ‘asset’. Naturally, I’ll refrain from specifying which online dictionaries these were; I don’t want to seem to be targeting any online dictionaries in particular, or indeed at all! In my first search, the top three German translation entries for ‘asset’ were ‘Asset’. The second dictionary’s top entry was ‘Vermögen’ and the third dictionary’s was ‘Aktivposten’. I then compared this to my hardback dictionary, and the German word ‘Asset’ did not feature at all. I’m aware that this is just one example and that it fortuitously happens to prove my point, but the online dictionaries contained on average 20 different German terms for ‘asset’, the only distinguishing categories for which being something like ‘financial’ or ‘economic’. Not the best way to translate a contract, I think you’ll agree. Of course, translators always work under time pressure and cannot afford to spend the time required to look up every single word in a physical dictionary, hence the miracle of online dictionaries. This blog entry is merely attempting to demonstrate and remind us that although revolutionary, online dictionaries are not (yet) suitable standalone reference points. Every translator should own a technical dictionary in order to support his/her work and to act as a proverbial safety net.

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