Good Translators Aren’t Walking Dictionaries

A professor of mine in grad school used to say that good translators aren’t walking dictionaries. I love this statement because a) it’s true and b) it’s pithy.

What she meant is that translators’ brains aren’t simple indexes of every word in their native language.

These language professionals—people I work with every day—are good at what they do not because they have bigger vocabularies than the average person.

No, good translators simply know how languages work.

man looking through dictionary; good translators are skilled researchers

While good translators frequently use reference books, they aren’t walking dictionaries.

Good Translators Aren’t Dictionaries on Legs

I see the translators-as-human-dictionaries myth at work almost every day. A client may ask why we don’t just assign a technical project (from English to Japanese, for example) to any English-to-Japanese translator.

I respond by saying that not all of our Japanese translators are skilled in technical areas such as architecture or electrical engineering.

It would be unfair (both to the translator and to the client) to assign projects based on nothing more than whether a given translator meets the language-pair criterion.

Why? Because a translator who specializes in, say, legal or marketing texts, is at a disadvantage when faced with a technical text. (You could argue that legal texts are technical texts, but that’s a discussion for another day.)

The average adult native English speaker knows only between 11% and 20% of the words in the Oxford English Dictionary.

A legal translator may not be familiar with English construction terms such as vented soffits or poly v/b. And she may not even be familiar with these terms in her native language.

How is that possible? Simple. No one—even good translators, skilled editors, or smart lexicographers—knows every word in the dictionary.

In fact, even for highly educated, well-read adults, most of a language’s words are unknown.

Statistics Don’t Lie

Consider this: According to the people behind, the average speaker knows between 20,000 and 35,000 English words. (This statistic is for adult native speakers. Children and those who speak English as a second language would have different numbers.)

The rub? There are over 171,000 words in the second edition of the Oxford English Dictionary —all twenty volumes of it!

Now consider that this total doesn’t include over 47,000 obsolete words.

These are words that were once part of the English lexicon but have since fallen out of use. (I can’t understand why. The word jargogle has such a nice ring to it.)

Translators Wear Several Hats

So if good translators can’t magically conjure up the perfect word instantaneously while translating, then what can they actually do?

Well, they can do quite a bit, it turns out.

It’s true that professional translators are highly skilled in languages. (Many are functionally bilingual.)

It’s also a fair guess to assume that translators have larger vocabularies than people who don’t work with words every day. (If anyone can point me to research that measures vocabulary size among specific groups of professionals, I would love to see it. Tell me in the comments below.)

But good translators are much more than that. They’re researchers, writers, and problem solvers.

Translators as Researchers

This might be the opposite of what you expect. After all, if a translator is an expert in languages, why does she need to look anything up?

It’s because great translators—like experts in any profession—know their own limits. They know what they don’t know. (I know, that sounds a bit Rumsfeldian.)

For this reason, the best translators research while they work. And they do it a lot.


Here are just a few of the tools that translators use:

  • general bilingual dictionaries (to check idioms, to use as a starting point for a tricky term)
  • monolingual dictionaries (to check the many ways that a word is used in the source language)
  • specialized bilingual dictionaries (to make technical translations more accurate)
  • online dictionaries (to increase productivity)
  • usage forums (to compare understanding of a phrase against a panel’s recommendation)
  • CAT tool termbases (a translation project manager may provide a termbase to a multilingual team)
  • source-language documents (to see how monolingual authors use a given term or phrase)

Good translators don’t just find one equivalent (X) for a term and call it a day. They cross-check that possible solution.

If they discover that X appears in multiple reference works, they can be more confident that they have the right solution.

Translators as Writers

Good translators are writers. That is, they should be able to write very well in their target language.

You’ve probably read a text at some point that “sounded like a translation.” The translator’s inability to write naturally hurt the final product. (And that’s assuming that he conveyed the meaning of the source text accurately, which may not be the case.)

In fact, as an agency owner, I have to say that writing is a must-have skill for professional translators. In other words, it’s not just about knowing two languages.

I have turned down applicants who write cover letters that are filled with typos. Why would I hire someone who can’t write well but whose job it is to write well?

Good translators are “communication brokers,” so they have to be able to produce a target-language document that is not just correct but that also sounds natural.

Translators as Problem Solvers

Last, translators are problem solvers. When confronted with a term, a phrase, or a passage that is opaque, contradictory, or otherwise erroneous, translators can’t simply “translate it.” They have to know what they are translating.

And when something doesn’t make sense, the best translators work to find a solution.

Good translators are problem solvers, like this woman at the chalkboard

Good translators can solve problems.

For example, on one project that stands out for me, a translator noted that the words in the source text did not match the screen shot that the client had provided.

The text was as follows:

You can also use the action menu to export a code, copy and order, or pause an unprocessed order.

Looks fine, right? No spelling or grammar errors.

Yet the translator, who saw the options Export, Copy, and Pause in the action menu, suspected that the word “and” in copy and order was supposed to be “an” (copy an order).

She was right. We contacted the client and got the confirmation we were looking for.

This is the value that good translators provide. In their desire to translate meaning—not single, isolated words—they end up solving problems in a client’s source text.

So while translators may not be walking dictionaries, they offer something better than an alphabetized list of words: common sense.

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  1. Leonardo Padovani May 25, 2016
    • Matthew Kushinka May 25, 2016
  2. Anonymous May 29, 2016
  3. Karenlise Nielsen August 24, 2017
    • Matthew Kushinka August 24, 2017
  4. Karenlise Nielsen August 25, 2017