Translation Tools: The Dictionary

Translating from Arabic to English can be tricky, and the best tool one can have is a dictionary. An experienced translator is like a living dictionary, often knowing all possible translations for very specific words, as well as nuanced translations for legal, financial, and medical documents, among others. It takes a while, and a lot of translating, to get to that point, and until then, the dictionary is a translator’s best friend.

In this blog, I would like to showcase three different dictionaries and their usefulness in translating Arabic to English.

The Classic: The Hans Wehr Dictionary
Students or those familiar with Arabic have certainly come across Hans Wehr’s Dictionary of Modern Written Arabic. The dictionary was originally written in German, but an English version is easily available, even online here.
The dictionary is organized in the Arabic alphabet’s ABC order and by word root. For those unfamiliar, Arabic words all have a 3 letter root (with rare exceptions), and each root has its own meaning. This dictionary is perfect for finding each root’s meaning and for working through different word forms, verb forms, and other Arabic structures.

An important note is that this dictionary is almost exclusively standard Arabic, which is the language used in business, law, academia, and the media in the Arabic-speaking world. For those hoping to translate a dialect of Arabic, first-hand knowledge is usually required, as dictionaries of standardized meanings of colloquial Arabic words are often elusive, and meanings can vary.

The Hans Wehr dictionary also lacks context, which is often the most important factor in translating. Being a print dictionary that hasn’t changed much since first being published in English in 1961, providing context and examples of usage is nearly impossible. Fortunately, online dictionaries have started to fill this gap.

The Modern: Online Dictionaries
Online dictionaries, such as almaany, have stepped in to fix Hans Wehr’s shortcomings. One can even search by word, saving the user from having to figure out the root and from of some longer, complicated words.

Online dictionaries often include more than one dictionary too, often across different disciplines and specialties. Not only will a user be able to find the standard, Hans Wehr-given meaning to a word, but legal, business, medical, and even Quranic, among other, meanings will be easy and accessible. The only short-coming with this is that the meaning that you are actually looking for can get buried, so sometimes a little digging or filtering is needed.

These dictionaries will often provide usage examples, helping to provide context. Although, like the meanings, it gives context for every possible usage so the usage that you are looking for can get buried. However, online dictionaries are certainly an upgrade over the classic Hans Wehr, and they will save you a considerable amount of time when looking up words. They are free to use too, and so will save you from buying legal and other specialty dictionaries.

The Best: Context Search Engines
Online dictionaries do help with finding context, but there is still some to be desired. Fortunately, context search engines fill this gap, clearly showing the word in context and its translated meaning.

My favorite is Reverso Context. What makes Reverso Context the best is that it accepts the word in any form (and even offers alternative words if it thinks you made a spelling mistake), lists all possible meanings and the number of times each meaning has been used, and, finally, it highlights the searched word in context and then highlights the translated meaning (no ambiguity and no need to guess!).

As well, Reverso context is fast and free and I wish I had found it earlier in my Arabic career. There is another, older context search engine called arabiCorpus that is similar, although it is a little dated and much slower. However, it is still a useful tool when finding niche meanings.

Conclusion: Experience is Still the Most Important Tool
Dictionaries and context search engines help translators tremendously, especially when trying to find different meanings and how the word is used in context. However, like many other professions, tools only provide so much help and are still no replacement for experience.

When a translator needs to find a meaning, dictionaries are ready to help. However, when a translator needs to actually translate a sentence or even an entire article, his or her experience and knowledge is the only thing that will help.

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