Bilingual dictionaries: how to pick them, how to use them

I was in the Navy with an Armenian woman.  (No, you don’t have to be a citizen to serve in the American military, and that’s probably true in most countries.  In France, you can get citizenship by serving in the military–you are français par le sang versé, “French by spilt blood.”  This isn’t the case in the United States–you can apply for citizenship as a member of our military, but there actually isn’t any guarantee that you’ll get it.) We’ll call her Nairi (not her real name).  Like many members of the Armenian diaspora, Nairi was massively multilingual–she spoke Armenian, Arabic, and Spanish natively, and French and English as very strong second languages.  (I once saw her mother test her to make sure that she wasn’t forgetting any of them.)  One day Nairi came back from leave (what we call vacation in the military) with a seven-language dictionary.  I admired it, and she insisted that I take it.  I refused, she insisted, I refused, she insisted, I refused, she insisted, and finally, I took it.  What I didn’t realize was that in Armenian culture, if someone admires something of yours, you must insist that they take it.  Armenians know that they most certainly should not take it–I didn’t.  Now I do.  Stupid me–every time I see that dictionary on my bookshelf, I feel like a total jerk.

In a recent post, we talked about monolingual dictionaries–that is, dictionaries that list words in some language and give definitions of them in that same language.  Today, let’s talk about bilingual dictionaries–that is, words that list words in some language and give corresponding words in another language.  Of course, anything that we might say about bilingual dictionaries applies equally to dictionaries with even more languages, like the one that I stupidly took from poor Nairi.

I carefully said “corresponding” words just above–I carefully didn’t say “equivalent” or “the same” words.  This is because it’s often the case that there isn’t a single translation from one word in one language to one word in another language.  Even when there is one, it doesn’t necessarily “mean” the same thing, in some sense of the word “meaning.”  To give you an example from my college French 101 textbook: a fenêtre in French is a window in English–fine so far.  But, say window in English, and the referent is most likely a casement window, specifically–one that slides up and down.  Say fenêtre in French, and the reference is most likely a window that opens in the middle–horizontally.  (We would call this a French window in English.  See this post for a list of things that we call French something-or-other in English that aren’t called anything of the sort in French.)  And, as I said, there often isn’t just one.  A language that I worked on in grad school has the word invert.  But: invert what?  If you’re inverting a hollow object, that’s one verb–if you’re inverting a solid object, it’s another verb.  French has maybe two words for snow–la neige, and la poudreuse (powder snow).  Depending on how you count, English has 13 or 55 or 120 (scroll down past the Inuit words) or 182 words for snow.  So: not a 1-to-1 correspondence.

Having at least mentioned some of the theoretical issues, let’s look at the practical points of buying and using a bilingual dictionary.  In these days of Amazon, you can use reader reviews in a way that we never could before–it’s really a nice advantage over the old pre-Internet days.  However, there are also some specific things to look for.

  • Example sentences: you want a dictionary with example sentences, at least in the language that’s foreign to you.
  • Verb + preposition combinations: a good dictionary should tell you which prepositions, if any, go with which verbs.  You need to know, for instance, that in English you shoot at something, you lean toward (have a preference for) something, and you stop doing something, with no preposition.  Likewise, in French you need to know that you tirer sur or tirer contre (shoot “on” or shoot “against”) something, you pencher pour (lean “for”) something, and you arrêter de (stop “from”) doing something.
  • If you are working with language(s) that have gender, you want the gender to show up both in the Language1 -> Language2 section and in the Language2 -> Language1 section.  If you look up kitchen towel and find that the translation to French is torchon, you don’t want to then have to go to the French -> English section to see whether it’s le torchon (it is) or la torchon (it isn’t).
  • This might seem obvious, but make sure that the pronunciation is given for the words in any language whose pronunciation isn’t obvious from the spelling–and, yes, that includes both English and French.
  • This takes a while, but: when you find the word that you’re looking for in the other language, you might want to look it up in the other direction.  For example: suppose that you look up the English word towel in a crappy bilingual English/French dictionary.  In a crappy dictionary, you might find the following: serviette, torchon.  Both of those can, indeed, be used to translate towel from English to French–but, they’re not equivalent.  Serviette is for a bath or beach towel, while torchon is for a kitchen towel.  You want a dictionary that will distinguish between the various possible translations.  It’s often useful to look the French words up in turn (or the English words, if you’re going from French to English).  If you do that, you’ll find that a serviette can be a towel, but also a napkin, or a briefcase.  A torchon, you’ll find, can also be a messy document, or a rag.  It’s good to be on top of this kind of thing when you’re trying to choose between supposed synonyms.
  • Labelling of registers, or levels of appropriateness: you most definitely want a dictionary that includes slang, obscenities, informal words, etc., or you’re not going to get very far in real life.  However, you also want a dictionary that labels words that are non-standard–offensive words, etc.  This kind of thing can be really, really hard to catch when you’re learning a language from movies, your neighbors, etc.

The always-awesome Lawless French web site has a good page on the subject of how to use a bilingual dictionary, and it has much better examples than I do.  You can find it here.

So, what are some good bilingual English/French dictionaries?  Here are some options.

  • The best thing out there these days is almost certainly WordReference.com.  It has lots of language pairs, example sentences, colloquial expressions, pronunciations, male and female forms of adjectives, plurals, a verb conjugator, and a reverse look-up feature that does exactly what I suggest you do in the last bulletted item above.  The auto-c0mplete feature in the search box saves me enormous amounts of time (and guessing about spellings).  There’s an excellent WordReference iPhone app.  Be aware, though, that the iPhone app will not generally let you look up obscenities–you have to go to the web site for that.
  • For the Kindle or for the Kindle app on your phone, the Collins English-French and French-English dictionaries are quite good.  They’re quite highly rated on Amazon.com.  I have the Collins dictionaries on my phone, and use them whenever I don’t have Internet access and therefore can’t get to WordReference.com.  The Collins dictionaries also have an advantage over WordReference: they don’t give as many super-subtle translations.  The only bad thing about WordReference is that it can sometimes give an overwhelming number of other-language translations.  That’s great when you want it, but when you don’t, you might prefer the Collins dictionary.  As it happens, there is a Collins dictionary tab on the WordReference site, and it’s easy to click on that.
  • Linguee.fr is fantastic for seeing things in context.  You will generally get lots of example sentences.  There’s an iPhone app for that, too.
  • Reverso.net is another good one for seeing things in context.  It sometimes has better coverage of colloquial, slang, and obscene language than Linguee does.  Again, there’s an iPhone app.

I found Nairi on Facebook recently.  I sent her a friend request–no response.  Is it because she doesn’t remember who the hell I am?  Is it because she hates me for taking her dictionary?  I have no idea.  Nairi, if you’re reading this: I’m sorry!

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3 thoughts on “Bilingual dictionaries: how to pick them, how to use them”

  1. Out of your main subject I was amused by the Armenian custom you tell, because it reminded me a custom some good friends of mine, a couple, had learnt in Iran . They were there about 10 years ago and they travel like me, with a bagpack and no plan, meeting the locals out of touristic devices . They did the same mistake : in Iran when someone offers you a gift you’re supposed to refuse 3 times . If the person insists a fourth time then you know the offer is for real . They accepted the third time …
    When we travel, really travel, in non western countries we can lean a hell of a lot of things about life, of which some, but not all were known by our European ancestors yesteryears ( on a smaller level we could say the same for US people travelling in France or Spain) . Many a time I suddenly felt deeply stupid and uneducated when I realized certain things, but I couldn’t live as a prisoner of my culture of birth .

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I use WordReference when translating, but actually discourage students from buying bilingual dictionaries: I believe our intelligent-software brain eventually finds connections and meanings between words on 4th or 5th encounters on its own, and this leads to real memorization. If you really have to look up a word, focus on the example sentences. I hope you find Nairi 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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