Questions From Our Readers

Le Robert Collins SeniorAnthony writes:

I’m looking for a French and English dictionary. I have a Harrap’s Modern College which I bought when I was in grad school at Berkeley in the 1970s. Could you recommend one?


Jean-Benoît answers:

It all depends on what you want. If you are looking for technical or specialized terms, that’s one thing. If you are interested in digging deeper into the language, that’s another thing. If you are looking for a quick fix… it’s yet another.

Le Robert Collins Senior French-English English-French Dictionary is reputedly the best standard translation dictionary. It was recommended to me when I took some translation courses, and it is used as reference for most translators who work in French and English. The reason is simple: it’s a very good, idiomatic dictionary. It lists a lot of expressions, and works well either way: from English to French or from French to English. For example, if I look up the word trottoir (sidewalk), there are translations for five common French expressions with the word trottoir in it: trottoir roulant, se garer le long du trottoir, changer de trottoir, faire le trottoir or se retrouver sur le trottoir.

Online dictionaries and computer dictionaries are very good for giving you a translation on the fly, but they have a significant weakness in comparison to a good ol’ paper dictionary: tunnel vision. If you are looking for the proper translation for to deceive, an online dictionary will take you to tromper in a second, but only to tromper – and this is where you might err. There are probably computer interfaces now that show you the whole page, and this is what you want. A single glance at a page shows you that there are other translations for deceive, maybe: “se tromper, se tromper de, tromperie, trompeur, trompeusement,” and it may very well be that the proper translation or expression will take one of these forms.

This brings us to the heart the matter: what is good translation? A bad or amateur translator always tries to stick to the original structure of a sentence, whereas a good translator knows that a noun in English may sound better as a verb in French, and that a French verb may sound better as an adjective in English. Sometimes, an English passive may end up as a French pronominal. A good feel for either languages is necessary.

Paper dictionaries have one major disadvantage however: they have trouble keeping up with the times, and it’s costly to buy new editions every year especially for someone like me who works with a dozen of dictionaries close at hand.

Whenever I am looking for technical or trade terms, I find the best, up-to-date resource is Le Grand Dictionnaire terminologique, from the Office québécois de la langue française. With more than a million and a half definitions, it’s online, it’s free, and it can give you both the definition and translation of a term. So for example, if you were looking for the French term for hashtag, you would find it there – but the term hashtag is not in my 2006 Robert Collins Senior (It’s mot-clic, by the way). Le Termino, as it is called, is so up-to-date that it receives about 50 million information requests per year, half of which come from Europe.