My Translating Trick (Which Doesn’t Work)

My Translating Trick (Which Doesn’t Work)

When I’m translating and come across a specific term not listed in a general dictionary, I use Wikipedia. The same Wikipedia that I would tell my students never to use (or should they still feel the compulsion, to limit this activity to the privacy of their home, much like masturbation). I input the term in the English Wikipedia and then look for a Czech mutation of the page. Sometimes I get lucky and get a hit. More often I don’t get lucky, which is where mutations of the page in other languages come in.

First I check other Slavic languages, when available. Slovak is supposed to be the closest language to Czech, but it’s a lie. It has letter accents I don’t recognise and spellings which would be so wrong in Czech. The Slovak equivalent of the term I’m looking for is usually just a bunch of nonsense letters which don’t mean anything to me. Time for Polish, which is supposed to be pretty similar to Czech. Not really. Polish sounds like someone was poking fun at Czech.


In the depths of utmost despair, I turn to Russian. I learned Russian for a few years but what remains from my Russian is a few random words and a limited ability to read the Cyrillic alphabet. It looks like this: I read it out aloud, letter by letter, so that I could hear the result. I also tilt my head like a dog or an idiot because looking at print from an unnatural angle apparently facilitates reading. Typically I end up nodding my head, fascinated but not enlightened.

For the sake of practice, I sometimes skim what other languages are available and click randomly for possible inspiration. Sometimes there’s a version in Latin. What the heck. Are these the Middle Ages? There are also African languages, which I’m sure are thrilling, but not particularly helpful. What’s missing is Klingon. That might have been useful. If you have a more intelligent and effective method for tackling terms in translation, do tell me please.

18 thoughts on “My Translating Trick (Which Doesn’t Work)

  1. I’m sure it must be a frustrating exercise at times….English is a tough language as it is. When you think its made up a heap of other languages all twisted and turned to suit the person using the word at the time. There’s a great book called the Surgeon of Crowthorne about the compilation of the Oxford English Dictionary and they suspect that 20% of it was the work of a man who was incarcerated in a mental asylum…he had books and not a lot to do…


  2. Check out It crowdsources translations (good and bad alike) of terms and ranks the various alternatives by frequency for you to choose from. It is a fairly crude tool but I like the way it empowers the translator to use his or her own judgment and add to the ongoing work of linguistic jurisprudence rather than imposing a (constitutional) solution the way dictionaries do.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I often look to other languages too, usually Spanish or Italian (French is my first language so those are pretty close), but I had never thought of checking Wikipedia! It’s not necessarily a bad idea, I might try it next time I’m stuck!


    1. I see, it seems that many translators use the same tricks independently! Sometimes other languages are helpful and other times they just add to the confusion. Thank you for stopping by!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Useless tip: I occasionally type a word into an online translation system–it maybe Google, but honestly, who cares?–set the languages I want to translate from and to, and half the time it gives me the same word in both languages. It doesn’t inspire me with confidence, but it gives me a good, sour laugh every time.


    1. Machine translation is the best thing ever. It has the best jokes. Thank you for your tip, which might not be too helpful in translating, but is immensely helpful when one needs a good laugh! (Though your blog is another way to get a good laugh. In a good way.)


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