Monday, March 7, 2016

Dictionary Dilemmas - Part One - The Basics + Source Language Errors

Have you ever studied a foreign language? Have you ever translated something from or into a foreign language? If you've responded "yes" to either one of these questions, then you surely must know how hard it can be to use a dictionary!

Dictionaries can be great friends for the adventurous second (or third! or fourth!) language learner, as well as the occasional or professional translator. But dictionaries can also be tricky.

In this series of posts, I'm going to focus on bilingual dictionaries and the many errors in use I've come across in my years teaching English as a second language at the UOC, the Universitat Oberta de Catalunya.

All the examples shown in these posts are real, though I have made some edits to the sentences (typos, shortening). Of course, the sentences are shown in complete anonymity and are only intended to be used as commentary to highlight typical errors which occur when learning a new language.

Source and target

In translation, we refer to the working texts and languages as "source" or "target." Source languages are the ones we translate from and target languages are the ones we translate into. We begin working with the source text in the source language and end up with the target text in the target language.

In the extremely detailed image below, you can see how the source language is transformed into the target language by means of translation.

Yeah, that about covers how messy it can get.

In the cases I'll mention below, the target language is English. The source languages are Catalan and Spanish. English is the third (or sometimes fourth) language my students are learning.

Basics of using a bilingual dictionary

Source sentence (in Spanish): Quiero abordar este asunto pendiente.
Target sentence (English): I want to tackle this ... issue.

In this example sentence, let's imagine I don't know how to say pendiente. Let's look it up in a bilingual dictionary! Wordreference is a good option.

1) Think about the type of word you need. Do you need a noun, an adjective, adverb, verb...? - The word pendiente is an adjective which modifies asunto - issue. I need an adjective.

2) Make sure you spell the word correctly in your source language! This might sound like a silly remark, but I've encountered several examples where the original word was misspelled, leading to a confusing translation. Examples below.

3) Look at the different options the dictionary provides. Which word fits the grammatical word type you need (noun, adjective, verb, etc.)? In this example, the first entry in the dictionary is an adjective. The word we need is also an adjective! Wordreference offers us a synonym in the source language: pendiente - aplazado. This helps us know if we're on the right track.

4) Does the dictionary offer example phrases or sentences? Have a look at the usage of the translated words in the context of the sentences. Yes! Wordreference usually offers compound forms, where you can find idioms, collocations... Look! The third option in the list is exactly what I wrote in my original sentence: asunto pendiente!

5) With all the information the dictionary gives you, make your choice. Choose a word or a phrase as a translation. I can choose either "pending matter" or "pending issue."

6) To be extra sure you chose the right translation, I recommend looking up the target word in a monolingual dictionary. Does the definition make sense for what you want to say? Yes! It makes perfect sense! Yay!

Target sentence: I want to tackle this pending issue/matter.

Examples of Source Language Errors

To finish this post, I'd like to share some real examples of sentences ESL students have written. The mistakes in these sentences were caused by mistakes in the source language. It's very important to correctly spell the word you want to look up!

Example 1

I have blond hair and blue garlics.
Tengo el pelo rubio y los ajos azules.

This was a simple one-letter typo a student made, which completely changed the meaning of his description! The student used Google Translator to translate the whole sentence and didn't stop to proof it.

The correct sentence is "I have blond hair and blue eyes" - ojos.

Example 2

Overcoat, you must work weekends and holidays.
Sobretodo, debes trabajar los fines de semana y festivos.

Here the student wanted to say "especially", "above all", "most of all" or any similar expression. The student should have looked up sobre todo (two words) instead of sobretodo (one word). Ah, the importance of a single space!

The correct sentence is "Above all, you must work weekends and holidays."
Another option is "You must work especially weekends and holidays."

(There are more possibilities here.)

Example 3

I like Italian food: pasta, pizza and gutters.
Me gusta la comida italiana: pasta, pizza y canalones.

This error is probably an influence of Catalan over Spanish. In Catalan, cannelloni are canelons, and that letter "e" is pronounced in its neutral form, which sounds almost like an "a." This pronunciation has filtered through to Spanish, making some bilingual Catalan-Spanish speakers write the word incorrectly.

The correct sentence is "I like Italian food: pasta, pizza and cannelloni."


Dictionaries are an excellent resource, but you must always be careful when you manipulate one!

I will write more posts with other examples of dictionary gaffes.


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