The Myth of the Monolingual Dictionary

Remember when you were at university doing your translation degree. Remember your teachers telling you about the holy grail of translation, the monolingual dictionary?

Monolingual dictionaries, was the reasoning, are much more useful than bilingual dictionaries because they help the translator really understand what a thing is about, by describing the term in question rather than just offering a couple of translations into the target language, without any context to explain them, and thus, they can mislead a translator and you and up using a completely wrong word?


I have not believed this from day one, although some of my colleagues bought into the myth and swore by their monolinguals. That is, their big, fat Collins dictionaries or whatever.

I have refused monolingual dictionaries from day one, and here I am, ten years in the business as a successful translator (even if I say so myself). But I had a nostalgic moment today and suddenly remembered how monolingual dictionaries were sold to us at translators’ school, and how they were made out to be somehow the purer form of the art, as opposed to the linguistic fast food crap that a bilingual dictionary was. Instant lookup of the translation term? How rude!

Have you ever really used monolingual dictionaries, and do they translate to the age of the internet? Maybe I got it all completely wrong? Let’s talk mono and bi in the comments.


  1. Janine said:

    I use monolingual dictionaries all the time! I don’t know that I buy into the argument that they are purer because there are plenty of bad dictionaries out there.

    • Hi Janine, there seems to be a lot of votes for monolingual dictionaries here today… Maybe I should re-consider them? What type of translations do you find them most useful for, and can you recommend any free online ones to our readers?

  2. I wouldn’t call monolingual dictionaries a Holy Grail — maybe der Heilige Gral has different implications in German (I’d need to check in a monolingual dictionary or corpus to find out), but for me it implies the one quasi-divine thing everyone is striving for but that remains tantalizingly out of reach, rather like God’s Algorithm used to be on the Rubik’s Cube.

    Monolingual dictionaries do exist, and they are useful, but are certainly not the solution to all problems. Conversely, my professor advised us to buy one certain monolingual dictionary and one certain bilingual one — and I bought only the monolingual one, partly on the grounds that ‘immersion’ would help me become more adept at that language, without relying on translation back into my mother tongue. I did eventually buy the bilingual one too, but only many years later.

    Now I sometimes find that my brain is slowing down and I will use online bilingual dictionaries as a shortcut to thinking up 5 possible translations for a word — but even then I will often use a monolingual dictionary to check the different shades of meaning and common usage. More commonly, I will use monolingual dictionaries to pinpoint the true meaning of unfamiliar terminology (e.g. technical terms or neologisms that simply haven’t made it into bilingual dictionaries)… and sometimes I will note down the results in my own glossaries, which are a combination of bilingual entries (possible translations) and monolingual comments on usage, subtle distinctions and the like.

    The Holy Grail as far as I’m concerned is an app/website which shows the source word in numerous contexts, and similar contexts for numerous possible target translations. Bilingual corpora sometimes get close to this, and it’s very exciting when they do, but they’re not quite there yet (and considering the huge amount of work/time/money needed to compile and analyse them, the limitations are only to be expected). The nearest compromise solution that I use on an everyday basis is one probably familiar to you: Google. If you’re using e.g. LEO more often than Google, I think you’re maybe not operating at maximum translation efficiency.

    It also depends, of course, on whether you’re a specialist or a generalist. In professional bodies such as the ITI or ATA it is often said that specialism is the best route to success as a translator — and I quite see the logic behind this, as one can focus on the content without wasting time constantly looking stuff up. On the other hand, I would find life too boring if I were to do only chemical patents without the odd legal document or advertising brochure thrown in. And every time I take on work in a field that is stretching my boundaries a little, I need to make sure I understand the text fully, which means using monolingual sources. After that I can search for monolingual texts in the target language, to make sure my translation reads well, as if it were a source document. Bilingual dictionaries can help a little in the process, as an aide memoire or to suggest other possibilities, but they are indeed no substitute for monolingual resources.

  3. Hi Ben, I agree with you on the usefulness of bilingual corpora. is such an effort though it is more useful in some subject areas than others, and I use it all the time. As for the bit about specialization, I have never really been interested enough in the major fields of translation (medicine, tech etc.) to really specialize in any of them. I very happily work within a certain field of “general” translations…

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