Posted by: patenttranslator | December 7, 2010

New Dictionaries Are Going The Way Of The Typewriter

New dictionaries are going the way of the typewriter. We still need them, but not that much. A little bit more perhaps than the typewriter, but not that much more. I still have a typewriter, but I only use it once a year when I need to fill out tax forms. It takes me forever to do that because I am not used to typing on a typewriter any more. This is a really heavy Brother typewriter that I bought in 1983. I doubt that I will ever need to replace this particular machine. I bought it at the Emporium department store on Market Street in San Francisco. The department store has gone out of business more than two decades ago, the typewriter still works fine.

What is killing new dictionaries, of course, in my case mostly technical dictionaries, is the same bloodthirsty monster that is killing or has killed a number of long-established institutions such as Yellow Pages as I wrote in another blog, or Blockbuster stores and “adult” video rentals, as well as vanishing professions such as mid level managers, not to mention the quaint concept of privacy in general: the Internet. Like most technical translators who have been plying their trade for a long time, I have probably more than 200 foreign language dictionaries, mostly Japanese-English, English-Japanese, German-English, French-English, Czech-English, Russian-English, etc., as well as a couple of dozen monolingual dictionaries in the languages mentioned above. I love dictionaries and I could never have envisaged their eventual demise prior to my own demise. But it is coming, and the chances are that I will be around to see it.

We have gotten used to the fact that fabulous latest technology is often phased out after only a few decades: think of cassette tapes, video tapes, CRT monitors, fax machines or boom boxes. When is the last time I actually saw a ghetto blaster? Probably in an American movie from the seventies or eighties. There is a lot of talk about the eventual disappearance of paper books from our lives, but I really think (or hope) that this is mostly just a lot of hype. Although fewer and fewer people will be probably reading books on paper every year. Unfortunately, unlike their parents who used to read and still do read paper books and paper newspapers, our children grew up on stupid video games. And now they spend their time mostly texting each other and writing snide remarks on YouTube, Facebook, Myspace and other “social network websites”. They should read a book once in a while, or at least start a blog.

I am a tactile person and I love touching the pages of my books and dictionaries. I consider the privilege of being allowed to both look at and touch a book one of life’s many small pleasures. But the truth is, unlike a decade ago, I occasionally use only less than a dozen dictionaries out of my considerable collection of technical dictionaries, and I can’t remember the last time when I bought a new dictionary. I think I bought one 5 years ago, but I don’t remember what it was.

For example, I still use my favorite Japanese-Chinese-English chemical dictionary when I translate Japanese chemical patents, but not as much as I used to because at the same time when I download the original Japanese text, I also run it through the machine translation function available on the website of the Japan Patent Office. The machine translations are mostly atrocious, but I can use the MT version as a dictionary because the English names of chemical compounds are almost always correct.

When I translate German or French patents, I usually go to the WIPO website and find an English summary with translations of technical terms that I am not sure about. It is usually faster than looking up something in a dictionary. And most importantly, the information on the Internet is much more current than what you would find in a paper dictionary. On the other hand, when I am translating old patents, and some of them are more than a hundred years old, it is hard to find terms on the Internet which are not skewed toward recent technology and an old dictionary may come in handy.

I would not want to be in the dictionary publishing business today. For a while it seemed that there was a shift toward publishing of technical dictionaries on CDs, but I never bought a dictionary on a CD. As I said, I like to touch pleasant things, including books and warm and fuzzy animals that don’t bite me when all I am doing is trying to be friendly.

I think that translators will be inevitably migrating from paper dictionaries and CD dictionaries to bilingual databases available, mostly for free, on the Internet. These super-friendly online dictionaries are now spying on Internet users, including the users’ prior search history, and then sell your information to advertisers. According to this linked article and a call-in program that I saw recently on C-Span,  the worst offender placing the greatest number of spyware on computers was the site Since I have been going to various online dictionaries for about a decade, they must have a lot of information on me by now. (I no longer use

I once wrote an assay about dictionaries in which I tried to picture what heaven for translators would look like. About fifteen years ago, heaven to me looked like a huge bookstore, for example the one I remember from Munich, I forgot the name of it, or the one in Tokyo near the central train station, was it Kinokuniya? I am not sure any more. But anyway, in that particular version of heaven for translators, this big bookstore was full of dictionaries that had the answer to any question a translator might have. In my slightly dated version of heaven, you could spend eternity leisurely leafing through beautiful dictionaries, sipping coffee and looking at the friendly people around you in the store who are engaged in  similar activities. I am  not sure whether talking to them would be a good idea. But it would be probably OK if it really were a heaven.

I don’t know any more what heaven for translators would look like if dictionaries are no longer needed. It’s probably not a bookstore. Not anymore. There probably is no heaven for translators anyway if I can’t even imagine what it would look like.


  1. Hi Steve (is IT Steve, isn’t it?),

    I’ve been reading your blog for a few weeks now, and finally decided to say hello 🙂

    I can definitely relate to this post – I’ve a bunch of very good dictionaries on my shelves, but the poor things are gather dust. They are lovely, thick covers, delicate paper, so many interesting words and concepts between their pages, but the only time we use them is when we are playing Scrabble or when I come up with some word that my husband doesn’t recognise!

    When it comes to work, I use my desktop ABBYY Lingvo and – the latter is a brilliant resource for Russian translators, millions of words, phrases, expressions and a host of a very helpful forum. There are also gazillions of custom dictionaries for Lingvo, as there are groups of dedicated (or obsessive?) people who scan in dictionaries, run them through an intensive formatting process and release them pro bono for Lingvo users. With this highly developed technology, it becomes a choice between a desk covered in books or being able to run a search through millions of words with a single click of a mouse…

    Perhaps a heaven for translators would be a world where everyone else was monolingual and loaded with money 😉


  2. P.S. Proofreading comments that one leaves in another’s blog is probably a good thing, too :). Oops.


  3. “Perhaps a heaven for translators would be a world where everyone else was monolingual and loaded with money”

    That would be heaven on earth, I think. Or do you think they need money in heaven too?

    Anyway, I don’t think any more that there is a heaven any more. We only get only one chance to get it right here on earth, or at least try to get most of it right.

    And most of us probably don’t get it right, most of the time.

    That picture looks like Amelia Earhart.

    Best regards,

    Steve Vitek


  4. I don’t believe in heaven either, or hell for that matter. So many people manage to live in little hells of their own making, I can’t imagine that, if there is an afterlife, it could be any worse… and conversely, there are people who consciously build a wonderful, happy lives for themselves, not hoping for any after-death reward. As Pasternak said, “A man is born to live, not to prepare to live”.

    There is something about that picture that really appealed to me – such a bright, hopeful, wholesome face 🙂 Though I suspect it’s not Amelia Earhart, the face is too different.




  5. “There is something about that picture that really appealed to me – such a bright, hopeful, wholesome face”

    On second thought, I think she kind of looks like the famous female Luftwaffe bomber who was dropping bombs on London during WW II.

    Best regards,



  6. Haha 🙂

    Well, we all have something that we are hopeful about! Maybe the Luftwaffe bomber saw her own version of the brighter future when she was pressing the button!


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