Foreign Language Dictionary:
Quality and Choice


We are used to treat a foreign language dictionary as a reference book that has a corner on the truth. However, dictionaries are not always as omniscient as we think. They are compiled by people, and people may have certain presuppositions and be biased. So we should approach dictionaries with a critical mind.


In order not to be unsubstantiated, let me give a concrete example.

Imagine a translator who - in search for specialized financial terms - opens a modern specialized dictionary of economics and finance. A number of Bolshevism-, Marxism- and Socialism-related terms arrest the translator’s attention right away.

Why this outdated economic and political terminology is still in use in the 21st-century dictionary of economics and finance? Further digging reveals that the dictionary is packed with common-usage words such as be, give, on, day, about, etc. What translator would look these words in a specialized financial dictionary?

The dictionary in question is Elsevier's Russian-English Dictionary of Economics, Business, Finance and Law compiled by N.G. Rakipov and A.N. Rakipova. By the way, the quality of English translations is not as good as one would expect from a language dictionary of that price (USD 367.95 on Amazon.com as of 19 Jan 2012).

Just a few examples of questionable translations: благотворительный базар - fancy (should be charity bazaar), давать деньги в долг, взаймы - to accommodate with a loan, accommodate with money (should be to lend money), капиталисты - the capital (should be capitalists).

Luckily, not all Russian-English dictionaries are of such quality. There are good dictionaries too.

To be sure that you buy an accurate dictionary, pay attention to the publisher. Among various and numerous dictionaries of all sorts, there are prestigious families of dictionaries known for their objectivity, competence and erudition. For example:

  • American Heritage, Webster, Barnhart, Random House (the USA)
  • Oxford, Collins, Longman, Chambers, Hamlyn (the Great Britain)
  • Dictionaries of the Russian Academy of Sciences (Russia)
  • Trésor, Le Robert, Larousse (France)
  • Duden, Langenscheidt (Germany)


The other thing is when you buy a reputable foreign language dictionary that doesn’t meet your specific needs. A dictionary for beginners will not do for an advanced foreign language learner. And a specialized dictionary-glossary may be a good reference book for a professional translator, but can disappoint people who want to learn the basics of foreign languages.

So it is always good to look through dictionary reviews before buying. A review on some good English-Russian dictionaries is provided on this page. Other reviews of translation dictionaries are available here. Good sources of free dictionary reviews are amazon.com and translationjournal.net.

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_____________________________________________________________________ Website owner: Irina Lychak, self-employed freelance linguist, Russian translator, Ukrainian translator, Kiev (Kyiv), Ukraine

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