Nov 18, 2008

Saving a bundle on dictionaries

As anyone who has invested in new dictionaries for translation knows, the really good ones are seldom cheap. The leading references in fields like commercial or patent law, medicine, chemistry and physics often cost hundreds of dollars or euros. And despite the wealth of resources online, there are quite a few times when only a fool would deny the value of these "offline tools".

However, not only is it difficult for some translators to make the investment in building a substantial library - at least in the early stages of their careers - some valuable references are hard to find or can be quite expensive when acquired through specialist dealers in used books. When I looked for a certain volume on German-English watchmaking terminology a few years ago, most copies I found were well over USD 100; I got lucky that time and found a copy in excellent condition for about $25, but this will not always be the case.

The most valuable source of inexpensive or unusual dictionaries (both hardcopy and electronic) I have found so far is eBay. That may seem quite obvious, but I have been surprised to find that many colleagues have never looked there. (It can also be difficult to find interesting items by filtering out all the junk with the proper search terms and exclusions.)

The bargains can be superb. Just a few weeks after purchasing Cornelsen's logistics dictionary (Benz/Wessels) new for € 60, I got a new copy off eBay for € 10. Copies of the old standard "Wörterbuch der Industriellen Technik" (Ernst) that cost hundreds of DM can be picked up for less than I spend on lunch. One of the best dictionaries I have for industrial manufacturing and foundry technology cost me a whopping three euros. I could go on for pages listing the bargains I've found.

More important for me than mere price, however, is finding resources that have long disappeared from publication. Mathematics dictionaries that have not been improved on in 40 years, suddenly made available with the dissolution of a library or the disposal of a deceased translator's estate. Medical/technical dictionaries from the 1870's with terminology that is invaluable for translating documents from that period (which I have had to do for legal disputes). Even older dictionaries from the early 1800's that have great value for historical work. All of these available for what a current newspaper or magazine might cost me or just a little more.

It's important to check various eBay sites. For my language pair, I've found useful items on, and so far. Most of the good deals are found on the German site. One does occasionally encounter inconveniences with bids restricted to addresses in certain countries, but I change my address listing as necessary and if the seller won't be bothered with an international shipment, I have the books sent to friends or family who forward them.


  1. Specialized dictionaries do, indeed, cost an arm and a leg. I also agree that the value of "offline dictionaries" cannot be denied.

    The digitized books on Google are also a good source for dictionaries. Some of those scanned dictionaries date as far as back as the late 19th century, and I have found some good information there that I would not have obtained anywhere else (e.g., terms related to medieval architecture).

    Generally speaking, I still prefer my paper dictionaries (and after 20+ years in the business, my library is extensive).

  2. You're right about the digitized volumes from Google. Sometimes I find the interface difficult to deal with, but I've found a lot of good engineering terminology that way in dictionaries I haven't got around to purchasing yet.


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