Friday, April 25, 2008

"Online Spanish references: the amusing & the accurate"

(Published April 26, 2008 in the Guadalajara Reporter)

“Health became duck with the studies of the River Santiago.” That is the translation of Monday’s headline in Guadalajara newspaper El Publico, and also one more piece of evidence that language is tricky and electronic translators should never be trusted. Specifically, AltaVista’s online application Babel Fish (, notorious for such silly linguistic conversions.

But “Salud se hizo pato con los estudios del rio Santiago,” the original text I translated, is far from silly. It seems that hacerse pato actually means to play dumb, and discovering state health officials are casually circumventing environmental studies promised weeks ago to address serious health risks, I’ll elect a different translator next time I need the facts.

A good online dictionary is indispensable. Babel Fish cannot be completely disqualified – it’s a great form of amusement, to say the least. Its name is taken from a fictional animal in Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy who can instantly translate any language. The application can convert about a dozen languages, and going from one to another can be like playing the telephone game.

In fact, a popular website called Lost in Translation ( allows the user to translate a piece of text consecutively ten times. “I’m a little teapot, short and stout” becomes “They are a small potentiometer, short circuits and a beer of malzes of the tea.”

The sole advantage of Babel Fish, beyond entertainment, is that it translates large blocks of text and also entire websites, so that a basic, if flawed, understanding is gained by its user.

There are countless free online dictionaries that will translate just about any language from one to the other, and many, like Google Translate, offer the same block text conversions as Babel Fish.

So where do I turn for accuracy? The single most valuable online translator is Word Reference (, which has offered free online bilingual dictionaries since 1999.

Word Reference, once discovered by desperate language students and linguistic junkies, will become a permanent bookmark online. It is an immense glossary, boasting a catalog of 120,000 Spanish words with 250,000 translations.

Type a word into the search box, “decir” for instance, and a long list of definitions pops up along with a speaker icon to click if you’d like to hear it pronounced aloud. Along with every definition (in this case, one noun form and five verb forms) comes an example and its translation. Decir’s third definition implies to opinar, afirmar, proponer: “¿Qué me dices de mi nuevo corte de pelo?” is “what do you think of my new haircut?”

Then the site lists countless idioms and expressions below the definitions. “Ni que decir tiene,” means “needless to say,” and “!No me digas!” is “really!” according to Word Reference.

And at the end of that list is the reason Word Reference rocks: forums. If you search a word and it doesn’t appear, or the use you sought is not addressed in its definition or idiom list, chances are another person had the same problem and requested assistance in the forum from other users.

An entire thread of the responses, including the original user’s question along with opinions from native speakers from around the world, appears when you click on the thread’s title. Under decir, link to these inquiries read “cabe decir,” “’to claim ... decir, mostrar, or afirmar?’” and “al decir.”

In order not to seem too prejudiced (I have found no site more informative and user-friendly than Word Reference), I’ll say that there are so many free dictionaries online these days that it’s probably hard to go wrong. For instance, Reverso ( is a compilation of various technical dictionaries-business, medical, and computer-and will instantly conjugate any verb. If you’ve got Google Translate set up as your homepage for a quick conversion every now and then, by all means, translate away.

Word Reference, however, is the anti-Babel Fish. It insists that you read into a word before going off and using it willy-nilly, that you know its alternate definitions and compound forms, and that you understand hacerse pato is not a cooking technique for poultry.