Sometimes, whatever they tell you about guessing the meaning of words you don’t know from context, you just really, really need a good “bi-lingual” dictionary.
Years ago, when my wife and I regularly did translation work, we invested a big chunk of our meagre earnings in what was surely the most comprehensive English/Italian Italian/English dictionary on the market at that time: the “Grandi Dizionari Sansoni”, two volumes which were indeed big, weighed about a stone, and cost around $300 in 1999 money. That was a lot of lire for a couple of books.
Fast forward more than a decade and this essential linguists’ tool sits on our shelf, covered in cobwebs, for as surely everyone knows by now, a quick search in Google will produce many free online dictionaries and translation databases.
But are they any good? Does hot plastic beat dusty paper? Or are the old ways still the best?
For this post, I’ve decided to evaluate the top online English-Italian dictionaries, including the site that I’ve used myself for years when doing translating jobs. I want to look at Google’s top suggestions, and see which can give a helpful, accurate response to a really tricky query.
A search for “best online English italian dictionary” produces a number of possibilities (about fifty million), so like anyone, I decide to look only at the first page and to eliminate any results which are merely promotional gimicks for commercial products, rather than appearing to be “real” dictionaries.
The notorious false-friend “nervous” seems like a good choice for this trial, the idea being to sort the truly useful sites from the rubbish with a query that often produces a misleading or incorrect translation (“nervoso” often means “irritable” or “short-tempered” rather than “nervous”).
So, the great online dictionary evaluation begins! Working downwards from the top of page 1 of Google’s results, I get:
http://italian.engagedthinking.com/ which shows no translation for “nervous” at all. Well done, Google: another crappy search result! (Disclaimer – Google are not my favourite people these days, as my own site has more or less disappeared from their indexes after years of work and for no obvious reason…)
http://dictionary.reverso.net/english-italian/ gives “nervoso”, “ansioso”, “teso” and “appprensivo”. Plus plenty of notes and helpful examples. Apart from giving “nervoso” first, which is likely to mislead, they deserve full marks! Definitely worth trying out.
http://www.ectaco.co.uk/English-Italian-Dictionary/ produces similar results to the previous site, but without the helpful examples and notes. Just a list of possible words, which isn’t really enough. Waste of electrons.
http://en.bab.la/dictionary/english-italian/ comes up with only “nervoso”. So, zero out of ten for them.
http://translation.babylon.com/english/to-italian/ suggested “nervoso”, “ansioso” but also “vigoroso” and “conciso”, which leaves me scratching my head. Another dud.
Finally, my usual, http://www.wordreference.com/ which gives “teso” “ansioso” “agitato” and “nervoso” but also “inquieto”, which I like, and haven’t seen anywhere else. Google, why are these guys not higher up the page? Because your algorithm sucks, that’s why!
That said, with wordreference.com, you can do better than just the search results given above (which are, in any case, very ugly). Always scroll down to the very bottom of the page and look for the section which says “Forum discussions with the word ‘XXX’ in the title”. This is where lost souls ask for help, and enthusiasts offer it. A sort of Oprah Winfrey of dictionaries.
Invariably I’ve found the answer to my problem in the wordreference.com forums, or at least worked out that everyone else has the same problem and there was no obvious solution. For an example of how helpful the forums can be at their best, take a look at this thread on “nervous/nervoso” :
So, anyone out there got any other suggestions for online Italian/English English/Italian dictionaries? Maybe something that the once great but now deeply flawed Google failed to show me???
Leave a comment and let us know what sites YOU would recommend.