Posted by: patenttranslator | March 13, 2012

Translators Are Obsessive-Compulsive Hoarders Who Will Never Part With Their Old And By Now Completely Useless Dictionaries

Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the face

Mike Tyson

Translators don’t like to admit it, but it is a fact that most of us have never thrown out a single dictionary, no matter how hopelessly out of date it has become.

There is not really that much difference between sad old ladies who collect stray cats and who cannot be happy until what used to be their house is a stinking hell that is under full control of little meowing monsters, or people who walk through dark pathways carved out between mountains of old magazines and newspapers in their living room and bedroom because they can’t throw out a single newspaper …. and translators who can’t throw out a single useless dictionary!

I know what I am talking about – I have not thrown out a dictionary in more than 30 years …. because … how could I possibly do that when it might come in handy one day?

I still have my old Большой Японско-Русский Словарь (Large Japanese-Russian Dictionary), published by the Soviet Encyclopedia Publishing House in 1970, because that was the my first Japanese-Something Else dictionary that I bought in 1975 when I started learning Japanese.

My sister had to ship it to me (for a pretty penny) from České Budějovice (Budweis) to San Francisco about 30 years ago. I actually never used it, although it is a pretty good dictionary, because it makes no sense to use Russian dictionaries when you translate Japanese to English, of course!

I wrote in a recent post on this blog that most people leave behind only debts and a bunch of remote controls when they die, but several sage commenters pointed out promptly that they will leave behind a lot of useless dictionaries that nobody could possibly want, not just useless TV remotes.

I met only one translator so far who was able to figure how to deal with this obsessive-compulsive disorder that is affecting so many translators. His name is Alan. He decided to make a clean break from everything by following a simple three-step program:

1. He divorced his wife.

2. He drove one beautiful spring day 18 years ago about 90 minutes to my house in Santa Rosa, California, and gave all his Japanese dictionaries to me (and I was immensely grateful to him for this selfless act).

3. He moved to Japan and joined a jazz band.

I especially appreciated among his many dictionary pearls for example the JAPANESE-LATIN-ENGLISH-GERMAN-FRENCH DICTIONARY OF MEDICAL TERMINOLOGY, 1259 pages, published in 1957 by Kanehara Shuppan Co., Ltd.

When I feel lonely and sad, all I have to do is look up a few medical or technical terms from 1957 in various languages, such as 活性汚泥層 (kassei odeiso, activated sludge tank). The dictionary does not have the correct Latin, German and French equivalent for this term from 1957, probably because Romans, Germans and the French for some reason did not have any activated sludge tanks, but it does have them for many other words, such as 過飽和 (kahowa, oversaturation, übersättigung, sursaturation). How could one possibly throw out something like that?

I was actually never able to use this dictionary in 18 years either. I think I tried to look up something in it about 10 years ago, but it wasn’t there. But still, one day it might come in handy! It’s definitely a keeper!

Fortunately for us translators, as dictionaries became largely unnecessary now that we can tap multilingual databases online and use machine translations, we were able at least to stop buying new dictionaries, even though we can’t part with the old ones.

I think that the last time that I bought a dictionary would have to be more than 5 years ago since I don’t even remember which dictionary it was.

So I try to fill the void in my life created by the absence of new dictionaries to buy and collect by a new passion – I am now collecting hard cover mysteries.

I wait until they are on sale at Barnes and Nobles and then I buy them. Only hard covers though. I can’t stand paperbacks. That way I can read them at my leisure and I don’t have to bother going to the library at all.

I got to know a local carpenter by the name of Adrian who so far made 3 huge bookcases for me so that I can put in them all the beautiful, brand new books I buy at B&N on sale when the spirit moves me, usually on Saturday afternoon.

We have a pretty big house with plenty of space in the hallways for new bookcases that Adrian can make for me once I fill up the space that is still left in the last bookcase he made for me.

I think I will have to order a new bookcase from  Adrian in another month or two.


  1. Brilliant! I wish I had thought of it. The dictionaries sure do look impressive on the shelves in the office, don’t they?


  2. Thank you.

    You are too kind ….


  3. I think I have gone a step further even though I’m only 23 years old. Not only do I keep every book I find, but I am also on the look out for old books. Just this month I bought the English version of a sci-fi book published in 1958 my father used to read to me in Spanish when I was around 6; After Babel, from 1975 and Toward a Science of Translating, from 1964. Not to mention the whole collection of French children’s books my grandfather bought around the time WWII ended.

    I sure could use a neighbour to build some bookcases for me…


  4. “I sure could use a neighbour to build some bookcases for me…”

    You can. Adrian is not cheap.

    But he’s worth the money.


    • Does he ship to Argentina? Otherwise I will stick to the suitcases (Yes, it is the driest, darkest and safest place I have found so far.


  5. He would ship something small, but not a bookcase.

    That would be too expensive.

    Incidentally, Adrian is a really interesting dude.

    He used to be a cop for a few years, but eventually he got tired of harassing people for a living and started to work with wood instead. He said it feels really good to be able to work with wood, as opposed to being a cop. He does the work and his wife handles phone calls and accounting.

    In addition to three huge bookcases he also made a great pergola for our backyard which is much favored by cardinals, blue jays and other birds that I can watch at a distance of a few feet when they congregate on our pergola.

    There is probably an Adrian where you live too.


  6. You can include me in the obsessive-compulsive category when it comes to dictionaries. I even keep several editions of the same dictionary when it is especially dear to me! Can it be fetishism? 🙂

    But there was one very sad occasion when I had to painfully decide which dictionaries to leave behind and which ones to keep: that was when I moved from Brazil do Germany five years ago. Since my personal library was too heavy and moving it to another continent was too expensive considering the other costs of moving, I had to part with some of it, especially the heavy dictionaries that were also available online or as CD-ROM.


    • You can ease the heavy burden on your conscience if you place a dictionary with another translator instead of just dumping it, the way you would place a dog or a child with a good family.


  7. That’s what I do everytime I move, I choose dictionary and recipient very well 😀


  8. One thing you can’t do with an online dictionary is fling it across the room in frustration when you think you’re finally making progress on a big job and then discover the client has formatted all the tables using only the space bar.

    (Based on a true incident in my home office some years ago.)


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  10. My LEDA Czech-English dictionary is one of the most useful books I have: it has been helping to hold up my monitor at a more comfortable viewing level for years!


  11. Incidentally, I am not so sure it is any more useful to add Budweis in parentheses beside České Budějovice than it is to, say, put Brünn in parentheses beside Brno. Yes, there is the famous beer, but recognizing the beer is not going to make things any more clear for the reader…



  12. I have to translate things even when no translation is needed.

    I just can’t help myself.


  13. You can also throw a heavy dictionary at an intruder when a gun or a knife is not momentarily available.


  14. Eat my lexicon, you bastard!


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  16. Aside from being mega-rich and famous, what do David Beckham and Leonardo di Caprio have in common? Both suffer from Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD), Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder is an anxiety disorder that is characterized by an obsessive or distressing thought. It may also involve compulsions or “rituals.” It is such a serious concern that event the World Health Organization has labeled OCD as among the top 10 most disabling illnesses faced by society today. In the United States alone, it is estimated that 3.3 million people are suffering from OCD.:

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