Sunday, April 27, 2014


Translators are the writer in a foreign land's best friends, aren't they?

Yeah, of course - but even best friends might mislead you sometimes. There are some awesome tools out there, but there are also some traps you have to be aware of. Here are my favorite tools:

  • Leo: In my experience, this is the best online source for translation. Outside of the usual translation functionality it also gives you examples how words are used and it also includes a forum which helps sometimes. On the negative side, the tool is only available online. That might be an issue if you are writing in a cornfield somewhere in Iowa.
  • Linguee: This website not only translates, but also looks up documents/webpages available in both languages and how a word was translated there. Very helpful.
  • Dictionary-App: Offline dictionary I use when being in a cornfield somewhere in Iowa
  • Thesaurus rex-App: Thesaurus application from Dictionary. You can tap on the results and get a short explanation or you can select if the result should be simpler or more complex terms. Additionally, the app is also available offline. Again, very helpful.
  • Longman, Merriam-Webster: The source to find the correct meaning of a word and its connotations. Personally, I use the Longman, because its a nice offline application, although a little expensive for an app. However, from time to time I think about switching to Merriam-Webster. The difference? Merriam-Webster is best for American English and Longman for British English.
  • Google search/Google book search/Google ngram viewer: Last but not least, the source to find out how often a word is used and in which context. Google is my last back-test to find out if I really have the right word and context and especially if the word is outdated or not. In the Ngram viewer, I also compare the word with other, similar words to see the development.
  • Other sources: There are tons of other services out there, from Oxford Advanced Lerner's Dictionary via Google translate to Babelfish (who remembers the time Babelfish was leading in this... a long time ago in a Web far, far away). Try to find the ones that fit best to you.

In order to come up with the right word, I use a combination of above tools:

  1. Translate a word with Leo. If the result consists out of multiple words, get a feeling of the flavor of each word by back-translating it within Leo. You will be amazed how this step already give you a good view on the word you are looking for (or not).
  2. Backtest it in Linguee and Longman: Look-up the shortlist in Linguee and Longman. Usually it already boils it down to the right one.
  3. If non of the words fit, I use the Thesaurus to give me a broader view. With the new list of possible words I start again with the backtesting in step 1.
  4. In the worst case, I can't come up with the right word at all I have to go back to the source and think about the German word where I started. There might be a better word or phrase in German that helps me coming from another angle. In that case I have to start the whole process with step 1.
  5. Check the use, context and frequency in google if necessary. Usually I only do this if I haven't heard a word before at all.

In most cases I'm able to come up with the word I'm looking for. If not, I've learned a lot.

Your writer in a foreign land

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