Translation, the Key or the Equivalent?
a study of the dictionary
use strategies of Finnish senior secondary school students
It has long been the desire of lexicographers and publishers
alike to find out as much as they can about the needs, wishes
and skills of dictionary users, so that they can customize their
products accordingly. To this end, numerous questionnaire and
test studies have been conducted over the past few decades. The
study under discussion was based on a test aimed to compare how
well Finnish senior secondary school students make use of the
information available to them in the representatives of two dictionary
archetypes, the bilingual dictionary (represented in the test
by English-Finnish General Dictionary and Finnish-English
General Dictionary) and the bilingualized dictionary (represented
by Englannin opiskelijan sanakirja, a bilingualized version of
the Collins Cobuild New Student's Dictionary). The author
was part of the editorial team responsible for the bilingualization
of the Cobuild dictionary. A similar type of bilingualized dictionary
was first published in Finland as part of Kernerman Semi-Bilingual
Dictionaries in 1993 (Password English Dictionary for Speakers
2. Different dictionary types
It is well documented that the EFL dictionary market is still
characterized by a rigid dichotomy, that is, the battle between
the monolingual and the bilingual dictionary. The monolingual
dictionary is favored by language teachers, who feel that monolinguals
contain more information about the foreign language (L2) than
bilinguals (see, for example, Atkins 1985). More importantly,
monolinguals present their L2 information in L2. With their definitions
and examples, they make every dictionary search a useful experience
in more ways than the one perhaps originally intended; besides
pinpointing the meaning of a headword, the user finds out about
its collocations, learns how to paraphrase it, and receives several
good examples of how to use it in a sentence. In addition, the
user learns to think in L2 instead of relating every new word
he or she comes across to his or her own mother tongue (L1).
The drawback of monolinguals is that they are often difficult
to use for a beginner. With their L2 definitions, grammar codes
and lengthy entries, they may leave the user confused and unsatisfied,
but their main problem is that they are inherently circular;
the L2 definitions may send the user searching all over the dictionary
for the meanings of the words contained by the definition. What
is more, if the user wants to express something in L2 but does
not know the necessary words, he/she is unable to start searching
from among the L2 headwords of the monolingual dictionary.
Bilingual dictionaries, on the other hand, are reviled by EFL
teachers because they help students maintain a "translation
barrier": by concentrating on isolated headwords and their
equivalents, they keep up the students' habit of relating every
new word they learn to their L1. The listing of equivalents is
particularly harmful because of the anisomorphic nature of languages
(Zgusta 1971). All languages have a unique way of naming and
organising reality, which means that full equivalence is, in
fact, quite rare outside of terminology. Neat juxtaposition of
headwords and equivalents may keep the student under the illusion
that there is always full equivalence between the lexemes of
two different languages and, what is worse, that the equivalent
can be inserted to all contexts the student might come across.
The illusion is made all the more dangerous by the fact that
bilinguals rarely provide enough information on how to use the
headwords or the equivalents in an actual textual environment.
Bilinguals are nevertheless easier to use than monolinguals and
they provide instant answers. For these reasons, bilingual dictionaries
are the popular choice among students, especially in the beginner
and intermediate levels.
The bilingualized dictionary is, of course, the supposedly happy
marriage of the two above-mentioned paradigms. It contains the
L2 definitions and examples of the monolingual dictionary and
the easy-to-use L1 equivalents of the bilingual dictionary. (This
type of dictionary is often based on an existing monolingual
learner's dictionary.) The emphasis in the entries is on the
L2 material, and for this reason the equivalents are often called
'keys', as they are rather aids for understanding than stand-alone
translations of the headword. The user is supposed to turn to
the definitions and examples first, and if the meaning of the
headword still remains somewhat unclear, the key is there to
provide clarification and reassurance (cf. Reif 1987). If the
bilingualized dictionary is equipped with an index of all the
keys used, the user also has handles by which to access the L2
headwords when in need of an L1-L2 translation. In short, the
bilingualized dictionary can be seen as an all-in-one solution
to the needs of a learner's dictionary user.
The bilingualized paradigm, however, does not escape all criticism.
The concept of the key is slightly problematic, as the key should
be a competent L1 translation, but simultaneously draw as little
attention to itself as possible. There is a danger that the user
may skip definitions and examples altogether and only pick up
the instant translation proffered by the key (Nakamoto 1995).
Furthermore, the index is a double-edged sword in the hands of
an inexperienced user. Since it contains only the keys used in
the entries, it is by no means a representative sample of the
L1. It merely puts on display the reactions of the dictionary
editors to a series of L2 situations, that is, the entries of
the original monolingual dictionary. At worst, the index could
be used as a misleading and incomplete L1-L2 dictionary.
3. The test
The bilingualized dictionary used in the test, Englannin opiskelijan
sanakirja, is aimed specifically at senior secondary school
students. As its Cobuild background implies, all its definitions
are in simple English consisting of complete sentences ("if
you X something, you Y it"; "an X is a Y"), and
its examples are culled from the Bank of English, a corpus of
newspaper, literary and spoken texts. There are few symbols or
abbreviations in the entries, and each headword is complemented
with at least one key in Finnish. There is only one key per headword
whenever possible, as it is crucial that the user not get bogged
down in the Finnish part of the entry, but concentrate on the
information in English instead. With 35,000 headwords, it displays
only the essential vocabulary of the English language.
The bilingual dictionaries that were used, English-Finnish
General Dictionary and Finnish-English General Dictionary,
are much more comprehensive (90,000 and 160,000 headwords, respectively)
than Englannin opiskelijan sanakirja. The information contained
in them is packed very densely with the help of abbreviations,
symbols, parentheses, tildes and other space-saving methods.
In addition, there can be dozens of headwords in a single entry,
which sometimes makes finding the necessary information a time-consuming
task. The dictionaries contain some made-up examples of how to
use the equivalents, but these are often short phrases lacking
The test described in this study was devised to determine which
type of dictionary, bilingual or bilingualized, would be more
helpful to a completely untutored user working in an actual textual
environment. The test consisted of sixteen translation assignments,
eight from English into Finnish and eight from Finnish into English.
The study was decided to be conducted in the form of a test,
because observation studies would have required too much time
and manpower, and surveys can be a rather unreliable source of
information: the subject might give answers that he/she thinks
are appropriate, or he/she might misunderstand the questions.
A translation test was chosen over a reading comprehension test
on the grounds that in a reading comprehension test, the subjects
could use guessing techniques to deduce the correct answer from
the textual context. Finally, open-form assignments were chosen
over a multiple-choice study so that the subjects could not reach
the correct answer by way of eliminating the least plausible
options. As the subjects were confronted with English source
text words they did not know, or with Finnish source text words
they did not know how to translate into English, they resorted
to dictionaries in a natural, unforced manner. In other words,
dictionary use was dictated by the situation, not the test form.
More than one word was usually required in the translation, which
made it possible to reach an acceptable answer in more ways than
one. To avoid the pitfalls that have proved to be the undoing
of many dictionary tests and surveys in the past, the work of
Nesi (2000) proved to be a useful guide.
The test group comprised of twenty Finnish senior secondary school
students, all of whom had at least 9 (out of 10) as their previous
English module grade number. The point in choosing apt students
was to prevent the test from deteriorating into a cavalcade of
simple grammar mistakes, which would have undermined the original
intent of testing language learners for their dictionary use
skills rather than their elementary language skills. The students
were divided into two groups of ten, one using the bilingualized
dictionary and the other using the bilingual dictionaries. The
students had had no prior guidance in the use of dictionaries
apart from the exhortations of their teachers to use monolinguals
and distrust bilinguals. They had 105 minutes to fill sixteen
blank spots with the help of the Finnish and English source texts.
The texts were fairly long, so there was little time to contemplate
proper search strategies. Hopefully, this made it possible to
record the students' instinctive reaction to the information
on offer in the dictionaries.
The test was completed twice, once without any dictionary and
once with a chance to make use of the dictionaries. In the first
round, the students were asked under every blank spot whether
they were satisfied with the translation themselves. In the dictionary
round, two new questions were asked in addition to the satisfaction
question: on what page(s) the student had found information useful
for the translation, and how many searches he/she had made in
To illustrate, one English-Finnish blank
spot in the dictionary round looked like this (the English passage
requiring translation is is likely to be diluted or shelved):
...a ban on snowmobiles in the park,
due to come into effect in two years' time, is likely to be diluted
...puiston moottorikelkkakielto, jonka
pitäisi astua voimaan kahden vuoden päästä,
no. of searches: _____
satisfied (y/n)? ______
4. The results
When the answers to the dictionary use questions were analyzed
and compared to the actual translations, it was possible to "triangulate"
quite reliably, whether the students had used their dictionary,
where they had gone to search for information, what kind of information
they had found there and what they thought of its usefulness.
The test translations were marked according
to two criteria: they had to fit in to the sentence around them
and they had to represent the meaning of the source text accurately,
leaving nothing out. The open-endedness of the translations may
have left the test scores somewhat open for debate, as there
were quite a few translation proposals that were not clear-cut
correct or incorrect cases; in future tests, it would be advisable
to have more than one marker available in order to reach some
sort of consensus in such cases. The blank spots were chosen
so that the students could not simply copy a key or an equivalent
from the dictionary. Instead, they were often forced to adapt
the translations provided in the entry to make the translation
adequate. It was important to gauge the adaptability of the students;
should a user fail to do any thinking on her/his own and simply
accept the key or the equivalent at face value, any extra information
present in the entries, such as the definitions and examples
of the bilingualized dictionary, is rendered useless.
Content analysis of the students' translations revealed that
the students often used their dictionaries uncritically. A prime
example would be the translation of the word seething
in the context seething sulphur spring. The bilingualized
dictionary offered the key kuhiseva, an adjective used
to describe a place full of something that is animate. Most students
went for this key, with the resulting translation, kuhiseva
rikkilähde, being something of an absurdity, since a
seething sulphur spring can hardly sustain much life. In another
case, the text natural assets was translated word-for-ford
with help of the dictionary, a strategy which resulted in a nonsense
concept luonnolliset varat, "nature-like assets".
The most serious problem was, however, that the students used
the Finnish-English index as a dictionary of its own and seldom
bothered to consult the actual dictionary after they had located
an English word in the index. This resulted in errors when there
was something unusual about the inflection of the word or there
were several headwords to choose from, but nothing to give clues
about the suitability of each word for the context at hand.
The bilingual dictionary, with its dense entries full of symbols
and abbreviations, caused difficulties for many students, especially
when the necessary headword or equivalent was concealed inside
a long entry. Lack of entry navigation skills was a problem especially
during the Finnish-English test, as the students could not simply
deduce the correct English equivalent from a long string like
they could when faced with Finnish equivalents.
One major source of translation errors in both groups was the
students' inability to make some translations fit in with the
surrounding text. A missing definite or indefinite article or
a wrong case ending could make all the difference between a successful
and an unsuccessful translation. In such cases, there was little
any dictionary could do to help, and in some instances the test
measured the language skills and translator's instincts of the
students as much as their dictionary use skills.
Examination of the test scores revealed that the bilingualized
dictionary users improved their performance from the first (non-dictionary)
round more than the bilingual dictionary users. Due to the small
size of the sample, it is impossible to make any universal statements.
It can be said, however, that despite all the translation errors
caused by poor use of the bilingualized dictionary and its index,
the test group made better use of it than the bilingual dictionary.
Regardless of the dictionary used, the English-Finnish test scores
improved markedly in the dictionary round, whereas the influence
of dictionaries was only marginal in the Finnish-English test.
This could have been partly because the students only made roughly
half the number of searches while translating from Finnish into
English when compared to the English-Finnish test.
In the non-dictionary round, the students scored significantly
better in the Finnish-English test than the English-Finnish test.
In a way, it may have been easier to translate into L2, since
students knew the exact semantic content of the source text and
could attempt to paraphrase it in any number of ways. When translating
from L2 into L1, however, students were stuck with the source
text words they did not know; one cannot paraphrase something
one does not quite grasp in the first place.
Both dictionaries eroded the students' ability to evaluate the
adequateness of their translations, the effect being more pronounced
in Finnish-English translations. This could be detected by comparing
the adequateness of translations with the answers to questions
concerning satisfaction. The comparison showed that the number
of correct evaluations (correct-satisfied, incorrect-unsatisfied)
decreased in the dictionary round. This is a slightly alarming
trend, as finding a vaguely appropriate-feeling word during a
dictionary search should not be a universal seal of approval
that makes the user oblivious to all errors in his or her text.
The main lesson learned from the test results is that effective
dictionary use requires some rudimentary skills and a healthy
attitude towards dictionaries. The two contradictory traits of
the users, that is, not bothering to find out about the proper
uses of a dictionary while simultaneously accepting dictionary
information as final truth, often defeat the best efforts of
Before any further studies are conducted utilizing the method
described here, its biggest flaw needs to be addressed: a test
group of twenty is far too small to make any sweeping statements
about any dictionary type. Considerably larger groups, with more
than one person available to mark the translations, would be
the way to go. Ideally, future studies would dovetail with courses
on dictionary use; the test could be used to compare the scores
attained by an untutored group with the scores of a group that
has been given dictionary training. The results of such a study
might well be helpful to anyone devising a short course module
on dictionary use.
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Englannin opiskelijan sanakirja. 2001. Helsinki:
English-Finnish General Dictionary. 1990. Porvoo:
Finnish-English General Dictionary. 1984. Porvoo:
Nakamoto, K. 1995. 'Monolingual or Bilingual, that is
not the Question: the 'Bilingualised' Dictionary.' In Kernerman
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Nesi, H. 2000. The Use and Abuse of EFL Dictionaries.
How learners of English as a foreign language read and interpret
dictionary entries. Tübingen: Max Niemeyer Verlag.
Password English Dictionary for Speakers of Finnish.
1995. Helsinki: WSOY.
Reif, J. A. 1987. 'The development of a dictionary concept:
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About the author
Seppo Raudaskoski holds a
masters degree in English Translation and Interpreting, and is
a project researcher in the School of Modern Languages and Translation
Studies at the University of Tampere, Finland. This article is
a summary of his MA thesis.
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