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May 10, 2010


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An excellent post. My feeling is that I wouldn't want to live and work as a translator without the internet, but I also know from experience that when I do work without the internet and am forced to rely on paper dictionaries and books (which happened often when I was living in Eritrea), I end up producing better translations (though much more slowly).

Have you read Gregory Rabassa's If This Be Treason: Translation And Its Dyscontents-A Memoir? I would thoroughly recommend it. I don't think Rabassa has ever used the internet in his translation work.

I use internet-based resources all the time in my very, very amateur little translations, but....

I don't trust anything that ain't on paper, and I try to subtly encourage my students to get proper book dictionaries.

"Subtly encourage" because pointing out that pollution is modern, therefore modern does not equal good does not convince them that an electronic dictionary is not better than a good old fashioned book.

And yet books do always seem to produce the best results, as Paul Frank above seems to imply.

Actually, the older I get the more I see the Tower of Babel as a parable for our modern, technology-worshipping times, but it's getting late and I'm not sure I could explain that well or succinctly enough to leave as a comment here.

Hi Chris,

Thank you so much for leaving a comment. I didn't respond right away because I wanted to think about what you and Paul said about book-based translations oftentimes producing better results.

I kept thinking what the guys in my translators association would say (translation being more and more about computers). Why would a book-based translation be better? For example, in my case (Japanese), I use three main sources: the first is just an online version of what Japanese→English translators call the "Green Goddess" (which is the queen of all dictionaries. This resource is probably superior to the book since it is updated more often.

The 2nd online dictionary is run by a scholar down in Australia and this online resource will take chunks of text and translate all the words. This tool could really not be replicated by books either (and I use it for very hardcore stuff which is dense with kanji so I can get a quick grip on the text.

Finally, there is the wikipedia of online english<>Japanese dictionaries Eijiro which produces really an abundant possible translations and sample sentences. Like wiki it was a user-created dictionary made by translators. Also like wiki many of the translations are dubious. However for sheer volume it cannot be beat and most translators use it more like a thesaurus.

With these online tools in mind, I wondered why paper-based translations perhaps really do make better translations and I think the answer is obvious: time.

Like Paul said, the paper-based dictionaries are just so slow and I think that using them engages a different part of your brain. I just cannot explain how often I feel like a data processing machine. When I am in LA, the DSL connection is slower there than here in Japan and sometimes my stomach will start burning because I feel it is not keeping up. It has been said before, but the tools you use are tools of course, but they also shape the way you engage with them and when I use these online tools, my work is different by necessity because my mind is working in a different way, I think.

For example, an essay written as a blog post would probably differ than an essay written in ink (using a fountain pen). You can imagine how.

And I think this modern method is probably very appropriate for business of technical translation.

However, I just finished a novel which I translated entirely using online sources. I think, while I very efficiently got all the proper name translations (of places, boats and people), the translation suffered in a sense that I maybe needed that space to sit and look up words... You could hardly imagine someone translating 100 years of solitude using online dictionaries, can you? Or think of Avicenna translating Aristotle .

On that note, however, the novelist wrote the entire novel in notebooks with a pen!

If you have time, I really recommend that top essay on technology by Dreyfus ("the question of our time"), because I think this is something that every individual needs to address as an individual. We can, of course, step back and decide how we want to engage in technology, because one of my mottos is that some of the best things in life are just not very efficient! :)

Anyway, hope to hear from you again!!

Paul, thanks for the book recommendation, and speaking of books, Chris, I also love the Master and Margarita...

Peony, just to make a couple of things clear:

1: I love internet-based/electronic tools. I use them all the time. They have very clear advantages. They also have their disadvantages, as do all tools.

2: If I have reason to distrust an online dictionary's (for example) rendering of a word, I turn to a book, every time.

3: My attitude towards online/electronic tools comes from teaching Chinese students, who almost always use their tools (be they paper books or plastic and metal electronic dictionaries) badly.

Basically, it comes down to using the right tool for the right job, first, and using it well, most importantly. I try to persuade my students that all dictionaries, be they paper or plastic and metal or online, contain a lot more information than they see, and they must learn to see and use that information. I fear I am fighting a losing battle, but my best students seem to survive it somehow. But: Right tool for the job. Their are some jobs I will naturally go to www.nciku.com for, and some things I will first grab a book for.

I haven't made anything clear, have I?

Hi Chris, I couldn't agree more-- If your students are students of translation, then they will need the ability to use the online tools. Very few will become literary translators so these online tools are essential. If your students are studying English language or literature, they probably would do better using paper-based dictionaries. I think your students are pretty lucky that you even think about such matters too!

Did you read the Nicholar Carr article, Is Google Making us Stupid? There was a lot to think about, I thought.

My students major in IT, so perhaps they'll be the ones making the next generation of online dictionary...

Unfortunately I can never quite seem to convince them to use their dictionaries properly. Well, most of them aren't language geeks and I just never seem to have enough time with them to teach them everything they need.

Read the Carr article, it was interesting and he had some good points, but I don't see the sky falling yet.

I'm not sure it's about the sky falling, but after I wrote that 1st post about google, a friend mentioned to me that, where he used to read 30 books a year, he barely reads 10 a year now-- such is the extent of his online reading. His words really resonated with me and I realized, I probably read even less-- and I have not cracked a paper dictionary in over 5 years and have not touched an electronic one for at least 3.

Is that a bad thing?

Regarding reading books (versus online reading), I think it's not good. Ever since that post I am back to more serious reading again-- and you know what? I already feel like I am processing things differently-- better.

But again, I don't think its a matter of good or bad but really trying to achieve the proper balance.

To be honest, I am still kind of puzzling over Paul's (and your) statement regarding translations being slower but often times better using a paper-based dictionary.

In most cases, I do not find that.

In the novel I just finished, in retrospect, I maybe would have done better using an old-fashion dictionary, though. Why? I'm not totally sure...

Hope you're enjoying your weekend. Tonite is the beautiful moon in Japan. the 13th night. The stars are absolutely dazzling here. Hope you can see a few sparkling stars there-- probably not, huh?

Beautiful clear skies here, Beijing is settling into autumn again. No stars right now, but it's 9:55am, so that's quite understandable. I'm sure had I looked skywards last night I would've seen- light pollution. Oh well. Had their been a city-wide powercut I'm sure the sky would've been stunning.

Agreed on the changing reading patterns, but I'm not sure that's necessarily bad. It depends, just like with books, what you're reading. I prefer to stick to the more intelligent and intellectually demanding stuff. Blogs such as yours, Granite Studio, and the Useless Tree are great for getting the neurons fired up and exercising properly. But yes, I do wish I'd spend more time a way from the flickering screen and sitting with a good, old-fashioned book.

I don't know if this will clarify things, but I find the electronic dictionaries, be they online or handheld, tend to induce laziness- which I believe was one of the points in that Google article. I also have a rather conservative, stubborn and perfectionist streak. When I'm studying Chinese- which lately hasn't been much more than translating newspaper articles that interest me, thanks to my heavy classload- I insist on having an old-fashioned, paper book dictionary next to me. When I'm studying properly I do it the old-fashioned way with a pile of books and pen and paper. I insist on writing everything by hand and looking up new characters via the radical index. It takes longer, but it involves a lot more thought and concentration. And I think it's all that extra work involving several different brain functions in different ways that produces a better quality outcome.

Translating a newspaper article online too often only involves copying unfamiliar characters/words, pasting them into nciku, and hitting enter, and I don't think I really learn much from that. I think the best I can achieve that way is to maintain my current Chinese level, when I really desperately need to be moving up at least one if not two HSK levels by next April.

So I think this is the clearest explanation I can manage for my views on electronic/online vs book dictionaries and other tools, and also a very clear statement that once I get this big stack of essays marked (which is what I'm supposed to be doing now) I really need to go find myself some self-discipline. I believe they were selling that at the local market....

Chris, it sounds like you have quite a lot of self-discipline! You know what I think helped me with Japanese more than anything? Well, two things. But, one was more fun so I'll tell you that one. I loved studying calligraphy. I studied with a wonderful teacher when I lived in Tokyo. I cannot even explain why it was so helpful because after all you practice characters that you already know, but I found it just that: tremendously helpful. In fact, I switched to tea ceremony when I moved to tochigi and you know what? That was even more of an amazng experience (in terms of helping me with language skills)....

Just like you were saying with books versus electronic learning, studying in a different context (artistic) maybe somehow engages different parts of your brain as well...

This is an interesting balance between paper & the internet. It doesn't resolve anything, but its fun…


Well, I'm not a professional translator, and can only speak for European languages, but I am finding internet tools much more useful than paper dictionaries. Examples: wordreference.com, which includes discussions by experts (and amateurs) of idiomatic constructions linked into the word-search; and the Latin "Words" program, which can parse a complex word to tell you where it comes from--a paper dictionary just cannot do this.

I'll add that word-for-word translation (including the notion that English x should always be translated by Japanese y) has a respectable ancestry in the work of Schleiermacher.

No one would disagree with that. Internet tools, like I said, have completely transformed translation. For things like you are working on as well as for the majority of translation I do-- without a doubt they have raised quality (especially with regard to stnandardization).

That wasn't really the point though...

Now, that I am on this new kick of Japan joining the EU, we might be co-patriots someday, wouldn't that be great? Then your respectable ancestry and my respectable ancestry could join together!

And regarding your weird sweets from the east, please check the expiration date as usually bean sweets are only good for a few days. Have them with tea (even your British tea) would be OK. Or did you finish them all already? Happy belated birthday.

Don't know if anyone's home, but recently I spent a couple of afternoons on the interent tracking down the rare French word "bousingot". Along the way Google Book took me to most of the sources of the citations used in the dictionaries (Gautier, Hugo, Sand, et al). I also found a number of old glossaries and so on, some of them critiquing one another, and one occurrence of the word older than all those usually cited. There may be something better out there which isn't on the internet, but my aggregated page is the best thing I know of on the word, and may be the best anywhere.

The real point is that thirty years ago this kind of research could only be done by specialists with access to a first rate library, whereas nowaday it can be done by any diligent, resourceful person who can read French and has access to the internet.

You know I am always home! And, I agree, John, that the Internet has opened up knowledge in a way that was impossible even a decade ago. Especially for people like me and you.... it really has been a godsend, you know?

I mean, you know me, I love all this stuff... and I guess the point I was trying to make (this post was written almost 2 years ago) is that, like with TV, we need to be conscious though of what kind of relationship we want with this technology because it is not necessarily neutral. there are tradeoffs and it does inform the way we see the world.... Did you read the article, Is Google Making us Stupid? Because in a sense there is that idea that we are becoming "pancake people".... that article basically summed up my own feelings on "life after google" for me. And I know all of the particular people I named in this post are all very careful about this technology, two refuse to join facebook and one will not rely on google; while two others restrict their online time to force themselves to read or relate offline!

As you know, I am no bousingot! Did you notice this?

Hi Peony,

re: Conrad Roth: "Mark my words, the internet is going to make bloody idiots of us all, soon enough. It won't be Facebook or Myspace—although they will help—it'll be EEBO, Wikipedia and Google Books."

-- I like Google Books. I just can't afford all the books I want and in fact, Google Books helps me search books I do have for things which aren't in the indexes.

re: "It's a medical fact that new information, novelty, releases a flood of dopamine ..."

-- Now that's interesting, but I think to call internet users drug addicts and stoners is over the top.

re: "I am interested in how I can relate myself to technology in a way that not only resists its devasatation but also gives it a positive role in my life."

-- Good attitude my friend.

re: "Are you like many others who perhaps read a lot less books nowadays?"

-- No. I buy more books now. But then, I read much more now, both books and online articles.

As for translations, I have a couple of paper dictionaries, but the online ones are indispensible to me. With everything clickable and interlinked, it is so much faster. I can see your point about slower being better, at least some of the time. perhaps that's why I use both. If there's a word that needs more attention and thought, out comes the book. My list can be found here:

It's so good to see you here, Bao Pu! Did you read the above article, is Google Making us Stupid? Speaking for myself, I do read far fewer books than I used to--and that is not necessarily a bad thing since, like you, I think I am fairly productive or choosy in how I spend my time online, but the part about "pancake" people really rang true for me. And I feel that whenever I travel here from Japan. That people seem less able to really focus or intellectually commit. You are certainly an exception to that!

re: "... people seem less able to really focus or intellectually commit. You are certainly an exception to that!"

Huh? What were you saying? ;-)

Thought of you:

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