Decades ago, before the advent of the Internet, there was a popular saying suggesting that you didn’t need to know it all, you just had to know where to find what you needed to know.

Though Millennials may find such a statement puzzling (after all, you can find everything online), translators live by this rule, with the added onus of making sure that the information they find is correct. For this, we use reliable sources, that is authorities in the field in question. We know where to find all kinds of information on the topic of language. We are all familiar with the best dictionaries, hard copy and online. Most of us probably have bookmarked the website of our mother tongue’s maximum authority, if one exists. In my case, that’s the all almighty Real Academia de la Lengua Española, which posts its dictionary and grammar rules on its site, and has an email service where you can inquire about specific issues.

Photo by on Unsplash

Translators also know which is the best grammar book in our respective target language and are perfectly capable of finding specialized glossaries with a particular industry jargon, like legalese and even group-specific slang. However, these reliable sources may not always provide a satisfactory answer. These cases are the ones that lead us into temptation and make us turn to “questionable” sources. Let’s admit it, we are all guilty of googling terms…

[Tweet “Let’s admit it, we are all guilty of googling terms. Relying on unreliable sources in #translation”]

I have to confess that I have used a few less than perfectly reliable sources:

  • Wikipedia comes to mind. This open resource is always available and has an answer for everything you can think of; the only problem is the article may be right, or it may be wrong.


  • Open forums, chat rooms and the like can be very useful, but are also tricky. Though many of these are used by translators, I have found a few suggestions that lead me to believe the person providing a solution is not as knowledgeable as one would expect him to be. These open forums are handy, but you need to be able to determine if a suggestion really makes sense.


  • Industry-specific websites and associations. When a term is specific to an industry, profession or sport, I search the websites of professional associations or sports federations in my target countries to see how they refer to the same term.


  • Online stores can also be a source to find out how a brand name product is known in certain markets.


  • Google images is a little trick I have used to make sure a specific term has the same meaning in its source language as the equivalent in the target language. I compare the resulting images of a search in one language with the resulting images of the “equivalent” term in the target language to see if the images indicate that they mean the same. It doesn’t work all the time, but in many cases it is quite conclusive.


  • Call a friend. This is my last resort when digging has failed to come up with a satisfactory answer. My youngest sister is a pretty reliable unreliable source, since she is actually a Spanish language and literature teacher in the process of obtaining a master’s degree; it also helps that she has experience as a translator. But the real benefit of contacting her or my oldest sister is that they live in Mexico, where they are surrounded by the very words and terms that I am trying to figure out. I have also called Argentinian and Spanish friends with region-specific inquiries.


Any contact really can do in a moment of desperation or fast-approaching deadlines. Once I had my niece, who was the only person available to answer my call in the middle of the day in Mexico City, look into the pantry and read several labels so that I could confirm a commonly used term in the food industry.

All these resources are indeed valuable if we follow a very important rule that I carry with me from my time as a journalist: verify with more than one source. I would also suggest that your professional translator’s instinct can often be a good indication. If something doesn’t sound right to you, it probably isn’t, and it’s better to look elsewhere.

[Tweet “Translators can follow the journalist’s rule: verify with more than one source. “]

I would love to hear about your peccadillos. Share what unreliable sources have you used; it would be good to know another place to look for those recalcitrant terms!

Pilar Bolanos is a certified translator, former journalist and communications professional. Whether working in international news, international relations, as a translator and editor, the axis of her entire career has always been words. As Account Manager with Intralingo, she helps English-language authors find their voice in her native Spanish.