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A word on dictionaries for German translators (and perhaps other languages) July 13, 2010

Posted by Jill (@bonnjill) in Tools, Translation.

The basic library for getting started as a German-English translator consists of:

  • 1 good general bilingual dictionary (Muret-Sanders is a probably the most complete and reliable bilingual dictionary. I also like Pons or Harper-Collins)
  • 1 good monolingual German dictionary (Wahrig Deutsches Wörterbuch)
  • 1 good monolingual English dictionary (preferably unabridged – I have a massive Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary of the English Language on a stand)
  • 1 good commercial-legal dictionary (Hamblock/Wessels Großwörterbuch Wirtschaftsenglisch or Dietl/Lorenz Dictionary of Legal, Commercial and Political Terms)
  • 1 good technical dictionary (Langenscheidts Fachwörterbuch Technik und angewandte Wissenschaft (by Peter Schmitt) or Ernst Wörterbuch der Industriellen Technik)

Once you become more established you will want to buy more dictionaries as you need them. I try to buy at least one dictionary a year (usually at the ATA conference). Here is some advice on dictionaries from a handout from Dr. Sue Ellen Wright, Kent State University, October 1994. Dr. Wright is a Professor of German and a member of the Kent State University Institute for Applied Linguistics, where she teaches terminology, computer applications for translators and German to English technical translation. She is one of the world’s leading experts on terminology and terminology management and is active on in the national and international standards community as well as standards for translation quality management.

1. General bilingual dictionaries

  1. Langenscheidt – Condensed Muret-Sanders
    Probably the most complete and reliable bilingual dictionary in any language pair for a reasonable price. [If you don’t think the price is reasonable, check out the price for the Encyclopedic Dictionary!] If you can scrape the $$ together don’t waste your money on anything else – go straight for the German-English, but bear in mind that you may want the English-German for stylistics.
  2. Langenscheidt – Muret-Sanders Encyclopedic Dictionary
    The greatest bilingual dictionary ever written. Period. In any language pair. It’s so great people who don’t do German ought to read it. If you ever have the money, buy it. Not only does it document general language, it also contains much general scientific vocabulary and a surprisingly rich selection of medical and biological terms.

2 Bildwörterbuch
The German-English Oxford-Duden is the great-granddaddy of the pictorial dictionary. It’s a super reference for translators and language students because lots of times we don’t know what word to look up in the first place, but we know how a thing looks or operates. Don’t let misinformed Americans convince you that the word “Duden” is a synonym for a pictorial dictionary! Duden is the German equivalent of Webster’s and Larousse and publishes a wide range of dictionary products. It’s nice that they also invented the pictorial dictionary, but that shouldn’t be an invitation to misuse their name.

3 General monolingual German dictionaries
Brockhaus, Duden and Wahrig all have their proponents. I personally think it is a good idea to have all three, but then I have had the time and money to invest in more dictionaries than most students do. Brockhaus in einem Band is also a terrific resource.  The important thing is to purchase at least one general language dictionary first.

4 Duden – Das große Wörterbuch der deutschen Sprache
If the Muret-Sanders encyclopedic is the ideal bilingual, this is the best quasi-affordable German resource. This six-volume set is what Duden is really famous for, and why I don’t like to see the name misused. So when you get rich instead of just good-lookin’, this is a terrific investment.

5 Grammar and Style
The Duden in 11 Bänder and the Duden-Taschenbücher are great additions to any dictionary collection. [My note: I’m summarizing here. The most important Duden Bänder are Stilistik (the original collocation dictionary), Grammatik, Rechtschreibung, and Gutes Deutsch (another mainstay for stylistics). The Duden Taschenbücher Sue Ellen recommends are Die Regeln der deutschen Rechtschreibung, Wie schreibt man gutes Deutsch, Wie sagt der Arzt?, Wörterbuch der Abkürzungen, Wie schreibt man im Büro (business correspondence), Wie formuliert man im Büro (business composition)]

6 Business German (small stuff)
[Note: If you were to ask Robin Bonthrone he would tell you that none of the business and financial dictionaries are worth the paper they are printed on. If you must, Schäfer Financial Dictionary and Zahn Glossary of Financial and Economic Terms are two decent choices.]

7 Commercial German (serious dictionaries)
Wilhelm Schäfer’s Wirtschaftswörterbuch: Band I: Englisch-Deutsch and Band II: Deutsch-Englisch is a good choice. Dietl/Lorenz Dictionary of Legal, Commercial and Political Terms and Romain Dictionary of Legal and Commercial Terms are also good. If you do a lot of legal Romain is a highly recommended dictionary. I also like Hamblock/Wessels Großwörterbuch Wirtschaftsenglisch.

8 Technical Dictionaries
Peter Schmitts Langenscheidts Fachwörterbuch Technik und angewandte Wissenschaft is supposed to be one of the best technical dictionaries out there. Ernst Wörterbuch der Industriellen Technik (although not perfect) is a good general technical dictionary too – just don’t get the notion that you will find everything here, nor that what you find will always be right for your context. Sue Ellen “disrecommends” buying DeVries & Hermann. She equated its use would be equivalent with the old use for the old Sears and Roebuck catalogues.

9 Specialized Dictionaries
[She did not recommend any in particular because you have to seek out the items you need for any given topic. I’ll write about the medical dictionaries I use another day.]

A Final Word on English Dictionaries:
The American Heritage Dictionary is good, but Random House and Webster’s New World are also reliable. I particularly like the Concise Oxford when I’m called upon to produce good “mid-Atlantic” English. Once you have a good modern “college-size” dictionary scrounge the flea markets and used book stores for the 2nd or 3rd edition of Webster’s New International Dictionary of the English Language published by Merriam Webster. The 2nd is the last great truly encyclopedic unabridged dictionary, and the 3rd represents a milestone shift to non-prescriptive lexicography. You’ll never regret the effort it took to find either of these classic dictionaries. (My copy of the 2nd was a $3 flea market find. I purchased a min-condition salesman’s sample of the 3rd a few years ago for $65. A realistic price for either probably lies somewhere between those two extremes.) [Note: I got my Webster’s Unabridged as a close-out at Border’s for $20]

Amazon, InTrans Book Service, Adler’s Foreign Books and Kater Verlag are all good sources for dictionaries.

Any German translators care to chime in as well with their favorites?



1. Kevin Lossner - July 13, 2010

Jill, I really think the time has come to give Ernst the burial he deserves. Someone who trusts that source these days should probably stick to translating poetry. It’s worth just about the 5 or 10 euros I paid last time for a used copy on eBay.

Robin will probably have your hide for recommending Schäfer, though he’s also not fond of my favorite – Zahn. However, he backed up his criticisms beautifully with examples in a seminar in London I attended last year in which I was thoroughly convinced I should never go near a financial report for the rest of my life after he got through his “quick list” of mortal translating sins in the area of corporate annual reports and the like.

On the whole I like your recommendations, and they reflect more or less my initial investments a decade ago. I would add the Chicago Manual of Style to the reference list. It’s great for settling punctuation arguments.

As I’ve mentioned elsewhere numerous times, I’m fond of haunting the eBay sites in the US, UK and Germany to find interesting used dictionaries for various specialties. I once picked up a DE-EN technical dictionary from about 1870, and a week later I had to translate research papers on manganese poisoning from that period. The dictionary proved useful in confirming my guesses about the Latin terminology.

2. Annelise - July 13, 2010

I’m surprised there is no mention of electronic dictionaries here. Using a good dictionary on my computer has saved me so much time over the years. I can’t imagine ever going back to a paper dictionary for anything other than the odd rare or specialist word. All those specialist dictionaries would just clutter up my workspace and would only be of use once in a blue moon.

Jill (@bonnjill) - July 13, 2010

Annelise, I have written about electronic dictionaries several times here. The most comprehensive post was called Electronic dictionaries vs. bound dictionaries. Most of the dictionaries I mentioned are available in electronic form.

Annelise - July 14, 2010

My apologies for missing your earlier posts about electronic dictionaries. Unless I am translating something extremely specialist, I find that the one bilingual and one monolingual dictionary installed on my netbook and laptop are usually more than enough, with a bit of help from Google and other online sources every now and then. This means I can do my job just about anywhere. It might be interesting to get some feedback on which languages are best served in terms of dictionaries: I usually translate from Dutch, and the selection is very limited, but I also work with Korean occasionally and there are several free online bilingual and monolingual dictionaries for that language which are even more comprehensive than the Dutch dictionary that I paid 200 euros for! Personally, I find that most of the time I understand the source text pretty much 100% and the dictionary acts as more of a thesaurus to jog my memory and help me find the most natural translation.

3. Herblay - July 13, 2010

Sigh, I’m an English-to-Traditional Chinese translator and neither Langenscheidt or UniLex are suitable for me. There are not many electronic English-Chinese (or Chinese-English) dictionaries in the market, esp. specialty dictionaries. I often have to check a technical term on Google and choose from many different versions of translation.

4. RobinB - July 14, 2010

Well, this Robin Bonthrone would never in a month of Sundays agree that Schäfer is worth buying. In fact, I think it’s a criminal waste of trees: poorly researched and full of lousy translations. There’s certainly a place for translations in dictionaries, but surely not when direct equivalents already exist in the target language. Do yourself and the environment a favo(ur) and recycle your copy of Schäfer 🙂

Dietl is OK for legal in combination with Romain, but avoid the financial entries. Just treat it as half of a legal dictionary.

What you could look at is the new Wessels, Wessels and Wessels “Wörterbuch Banken und Finanzen”, which appears to be a replacement for Hamblock/Wessels. It’s pretty good and very comprehensive on contemporary banking and financial markets terminology, although (like all other dictionaries) you should ignore it when it comes to financial accounting and reporting. One problem is that the target language entries are not well classified, so if you don’t know the answer already, you may have difficulty in picking the right one. But certainly miles better than Schäfer, Langenscheidt/Routledge & co.

Kevin: either you were asleep at the back 🙂 or I’d already overloaded your brain with all the financial reporting stuff: Zahn is still pretty good for nuts-and-bolts banking and finance, albeit getting a bit dated now. Perfectly useless for financial accounting and reporting, but that fact also extends to the alleged German/English accounting dictionaries available on the market.

Unfortunately, it seems to be a fact of life that none of the really usable dictionaries (e.g., Wessels, Zahn, or the Schulte/Lee/Paul Real Estate Dictionary) are available electronically. And it’s surely bad practice to use a bad dictionary just because it’s available electronically, isn’t it? Professional specialist translators use the best resources available, even if they’re written on papyrus or chiselled into blocks of guano.

Jill (@bonnjill) - July 14, 2010

I was hoping you’d reply, Robin, and your reply exceeded my expectations. Thanks so much for your words of wisdom. “chiselled into blocks of guano” LMAO!

RobinB - July 14, 2010

How about “engraved by gnomes on coprolites”? (The ones the dog hasn’t chewed to bits, that is.)

I perfectly understand the attraction of electronic dictionaries: I use a lot of electronic resources myself, for instance various formats of IFRSs and a number of financial “Kommentare”, and it’s great to have the fully searchable corpus at your fingertips. But no dictionaries. Or can anybody recommend a reliable German-English finance dictionary that’s available in ab electronic format?

5. Chris Irwin - August 12, 2010

Hi Jill,

We seem to share quite a few resources.

Robin’s quote re financial entries in Dietl is useful (I don’t do financial stuff – but still interesting to note). I also liked his “in combination with…” statement, which is a useful comment upon how dictionaries should be used.

Indeed, I remember a discussion on ProZ ‘Kudoz’ once when I submitted a suggestion gleaned from Dietl-Lorenz which he disputed vehemently, referring to “these egregious dictionaries!” 😉

One resource I find useful these days is http://www.linguee.com/ Given the context provided in the legacy material there, it is often easy to find a sound solution there, using that “large thing between your ears”.

(Baldrick: Well, how you gonna win your bet?
Blackadder: Simple, Baldrick. By the use of the large thing between my ears.
Baldrick: Ohhh. Your nose.)

6. Christo Volschenk - November 3, 2010

Ach, it’s good to read the stuff about the Schäfer publications, after a day of nothing but disappointment and frustration trying to find help there. Not that I resort to paper often these days. In fact, very seldom. But, today I got confirmation: Schäfer is not worth the paper it’s printed on.

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