Whether it’s a stack of dictionaries on our bookshelf or a list of saved dictionary websites on our internet browser, we all translate with dictionaries. They’re what we turn to when we can’t quite remember the exact sense of a word, get stuck thinking of synonyms, or are just looking for that “perfect” solution.


Recently, I’ve noticed how automatic my dictionary use has become. On my computer, I’m constantly clicking back and forth between my translation document and my web browser, with several tabs open to various dictionaries and thesauruses (along with Google for those tricky cultural references), and at times the back-and-forth happens so quickly that I don’t really give myself time to think about the options I can come up with myself. It’s when I happen to be working on a translation somewhere with no internet and no access to dictionaries that I get the wake-up call.

In our fast-paced world, taking a moment to stop and think—letting that question simmer, rather than searching for an immediate, gratifying solution—is a disappearing art.

So what if we forced ourselves to do it on the first draft of a translation? Try it—sit down and translate a few pages of something with nothing but a word processing program open (or pen and paper if you prefer). If you have to, turn off your internet connection and/or move those dictionaries far out of your reach.

If you’re like me, you’ll be surprised, not only with what you don’t know, but also with the ingenious solutions you come up with. Without dictionaries, it might actually be easier to think of an equivalent idiom or culture-specific reference without falling down the rabbit hole of a Google search.  You might come up with a near-synonym that a bilingual dictionary wouldn’t necessarily suggest, but perfectly fits “the feel” you’re getting at in the text. At the very least, it’s a good way to test your knowledge of your source language. You could even keep a list of the words or phrases that gave you trouble, to commit to memory later.

Translating a first draft without dictionaries might also help you craft a first draft in more “natural-sounding” English, rather than one that’s “too close” to the foreign text. Harry Mathews, in an essay on translation, talks about how he translates what he understands rather than word-for-word:

When I translate, I begin by studying the original text until I understand it thoroughly. Then, knowing that I can say anything I understand, no matter how awkwardly, I say what I have now understood and write down my words. I imagine myself talking to a friend across the table to make sure the words I use are ones I naturally speak. It makes no difference if what I write is shambling or coarse or much too long. What I need is not elegance but natural, late-twentieth-century American vernacular.

While Mathews doesn’t talk about dictionaries here, his point about translating based on understanding is pertinent to what we’re after with this dictionary-less approach. By not focusing so much on the exact meaning of each and every word, and focusing more on the meaning of the overall text, Mathews is able to craft a first translation draft that already flows in English.

And don’t get me wrong—I’m not advocating banning dictionaries altogether. Once you have a draft you feel good about, by all means, pull out those dictionaries and check anything you weren’t sure about. Think of it as editing, in reverse. As Mathews says, rather than worry about trying to pull the English away from the foreign text and get it to sound more natural, he can focus on bringing his English text back to the foreign one, all while resting in an English text that already flows.

Speaking of editing, this dictionary-less approach can come in handy at that stage as well. You may have heard of the importance of letting your translation “sit” for a while, like our own Stacy McKenna talks about in her article that compares translation to pizza dough. Once you come back to your translation after a hiatus, that first editing run-through is the perfect time to look it over without the dictionary or the source text. That way you can focus solely on the English text you’ve crafted. You’ll be amazed at the things you notice!

Does going cold turkey on dictionaries sound too crazy for you? Then you might try just cutting out bilingual dictionaries instead. If you stick to a solid source-language dictionary for your first draft, you still give yourself the freedom of coming up with the English yourself.

Give dictionary-less translating a try! What did you discover? Tell us about your experience!

Christiana was drawn to literary translation through her love of reading, writing, and the French language. Her passion is for experimental writing that seeks to create new kinds of literature, such as the works of the OuLiPo. She received an MA in Literary Translation (French-English) from NYU in 2013 and is currently working on a PhD in Translation Studies from Binghamton University. Her first book-length translation, One Hundred Twenty-One Days, a novel by Michèle Audin, came out in 2016. She lives in Raleigh, NC. You can find Christiana online at www.christianahills.com