One of the hardest things about learning Chinese is the lack of good dictionaries. I have one of the best — the ABC dictionary with “over 10,000 characters and approximately 200,000 words and phrases” in its electronic form (also on my Palm). It serves me pretty well for most tasks, but almost every day I realize its limitations: how do I say “outsourcing” in Chinese? [外包] Who is 哈里遜福特? [Harrison Ford] etc. These words are not in the dictionary, and even if they are, you can’t necessarily trust that the usage in the dictionary is current or what is used locally in Taiwan (as opposed to China). And since, unlike many foreign scholars in Taiwan, my life-partner can’t double as a Chinese-English/English-Chinese dictionary I’ve had to learn a few tricks to get by:
(These techniques should be just as useful for learners of English or people studying any other second language.)
- Google Dictionary: This is actually two hints. First, you can give Google’s translation tools a try. But that isn’t always reliable, especially if you want a more specific usage or technical term. For that, I recommend doing an “advanced search,” typing the word you are looking for in English, but setting the language choice to Chinese. You will then see people who’ve used the English term in a Chinese language web page. Something like this, perhaps.
- Wikipedia: Not every page in Wikipedia exists in both English and Chinese versions, but it is usually pretty good for celebrities. For instance, look up Tom Cruise in English, and you’ll see a link to the Chinese version (although that won’t tell you that in Taiwan he is often referred to as 阿湯).
- CDICT: The CDICT project is an attempt to create a user-submitted open-source bilingual dictionary. While the Chinese-English version is quite limited, the English-Chinese isn’t bad, and both offer many current terms not available in other sources. There are many interfaces which make use of CDICT, on the web, on the desktop, or on your portable electronic device. Here is one quick and easy to use web interface.
Usually poking around with these tools will get you the word you are looking for. It isn’t exactly one-stop shopping, especially since you often have to double-check your results using a few different sources to be sure they are accurate, but it gets the job done. If you have any other tips, please share in the comments!
NOTE: Also be sure to check out these useful Chinese tools for Firefox (be sure to read the comments).
UPDATE: Google now offers the ability to do a search in another language using your own language to enter search terms!