This is a two part series. For French dictionaries, you’ll have to wait until Friday 12th April 2019 at 9am!
As I’m sure fellow translators can attest to, when you’re working on a translation, dictionaries become your best friends (and sometimes only friends – the lonely life of a freelance translator!) But with so many dictionaries out there, which is the best? Is online or paper better? Well, I have some opinions, but necessarily they are limited to my working languages (Arabic and French). If you have any recommendations for either language, then I would love to hear them!
Let’s start with the trickier of the two languages. Tricky not only because the grammar is complex, the vocabulary is completely different and each Arabic-speaking country has its own dialect…but in the context of dictionaries, Arabic’s triliteral root system makes looking up a word in the dictionary incredibly complicated. Each word (noun, verb, adjective…you name it…) in Arabic has three (or occasionally two or four) letters which form its root. These roots can then be put into different patterns to make different words, usually with a similar semantic field. A quick example:
Root: k – t – b ك ت ب;
Example Pattern 1: Yaktubu يكتب (he writes);
Example pattern 2: maktab مكتب (office, e.g. a place where you write)
So, how does this affect dictionary use? Well, when you want to look up a word in the dictionary, rather than looking alphabetically for the infinitve of a verb or singular form of a noun, you have to decide what the root of the word you’re looking for is and then look it up alphabetically based on the root. Complicated, right? This also makes it difficult to make two-way dictionaries (e.g. English <>Arabic), so you end up having to buy two…
In all honesty, I have very rarely taken either of these off the shelf, because they’re so cumbersome. Before we move on to online dictionaries, however, there is one paper dictionary that I feel is worth mentioning…
A Bilingual Visual Dictionary
This can honestly be a godsend. When you need to know about a very specific piece of vocabularly (such as a car part or a medical term for a part of the body), it can be difficult to find these in more general dictionaries. However, this dictionary contains vocabulary grouped on subject matter. Each double page spread is a photo of something with every single detail labelled in both English and Arabic. It helped me to solve the mystery of فخز.
There are several, useful online Arabic <> English dictionaries out there. However, I would have to say that I don’t believe that any of them can be used alone. It is always worth double checking a term in more than one dictionary to make sure you have the most current translation. That being said, here are some of my favourites:
- almaany: this website provides both monolingual and bilingual dictionaries (including from Arabic to other languages, such as French) and provides lots of examples and words linked to the term you have searched. However, you do have to provide the simplest version of the term (e.g. the infinitive of the verb or the singular of the noun), which isn’t always easy to do!
- Oxford Arabic Online Dictionary: a subscription service, but I think it is totally worth it. It’s only £19.99/year and I use it on a daily basis, so it definitely pays for itself! Unlike almaany, you can type in a word in any form and it will link you to its translation. There is also a useful feature for verbs, which provides you with a conjugation table. Anyone who has studied the X types of Arabic verb formation will appreciate this! Nonetheless, sometimes the terms suggested are not the most modern or accurate and very often there are several synonyms given, so it can be difficult to know which to pick!
- Reverso context: not strictly a dictionary, but a rather useful tool where you can type in a phrase or full sentence and it will search the whole web to find bilingual websites which contain those words. This can be very useful for more technical texts, where you might understand what the words mean individually, but are unsure how to translate them altogether.
- ejtaal.net: this is a really useful resource for students of Arabic, particularly those with an interest in literature. Its ‘Arabic Almanac’ includes not one, not two, but THREE dictionaries, including an electronic version of Hans Wehr (favourite of Arabic university courses everywhere). While you do still have to know the root of the word in order to search it, it does at least cut down the time you would have spent flicking through pages to find the term you want (and means you don’t actually need to know the Arabic alphabet in order!) The second dictionary is actually by Edward Lane and was published in the 19th century and therefore is very useful for older texts.
If you know of any other useful Arabic dictionaries/resources, let me know in the comments!