Dictionaries for Translators and Others

Tom Gally

The following is the written version of a presentation
I gave at the International Japanese/EnglishTranslation Conference
on May 20, 2000, in Kyoto, Japan.

(For more on dictionaries, see Lexical Leavings)


Obsessions are difficult to explain.

As of May 2000, I owned over thirty Japanese-Japanese dictionaries (国語辞書), and I often spent time comparing them. You may well wonder why. Take a look, for example, at the following entries for the word こうとう 【皇統】 in several midsized kokugo dictionaries:






Or the entries in larger dictionaries for せいむ 【政務】:





But wait! Here's an alternate definition:

「政治を行う上での事務。行政事務。」(学研国語大辞典 )

That's not much help. In fact, if you spend much time comparing kokugo dictionaries--or Japanese-English or English-Japanese dictionaries, for that matter--you'll find many cases of definitions and examples that are identical in dictionary after dictionary. My obsession with kokugo dictionaries is sometimes difficult to explain even to myself.


But just as often you will find substantive differences between dictionaries. Let's look at what two dictionaries have to say about the word しんじゃ【信者】


「その宗派の宗旨を信仰する人。(「信徒」よりは用法が広いが、天理教では「信徒」とは言わないようである。また、俗にその人に対する崇拝者・ ファンの意にも用いられる)」(新明解国語辞典)

While the 岩波国語 definition is adequate, the additional information in 新明解, if correct, is clearly more complete and useful.

Another example, this time for ぎょうこう【暁光】:



And きょうご【教護】:



Note that the definitions from 広辞苑 seem to have been based solely on the words' etymologies: 「あけがたの光」 is just a conversion of the kanji in 暁光 to indigenous Japanese words, and 「教育し、保護すること」 treats 教護 merely as an abbreviation of a putative 教育保護. In contrast, the 大辞林 definitions, while still brief, do include information that presumably reflects how the words are actually used; the information provided by「東の空にさす」 and 「非行少年を」 cannot be inferred from the kanji alone.

These 広辞苑 definitions that are mere rewordings of 漢語 are typical of many kokugo dictionary definitions. Such definitions are based on the assumption that the meanings of words come from their etymologies rather than from how they are used. While 新明解 and 大辞林, both published by 三省堂, also contain definitions of this type, they are more likely to define words based on actual usage. (The most recent edition of 広辞苑 seems to have changed policy somewhat, perhaps in partial imitation of 大辞林, and now may have a larger proportion of empirical definitions.)

When dictionaries do differ in their definitions, the differences often reveal not only differing editorial policies but also changes in social attitudes. In Japan, mental illness is a sensitive subject. Look, for example, at some definitions of きょうじん【狂人】:

「発狂した人。狂者。」 (三省堂国語辞典)


「気の狂った人。きちがい。」(広辞苑 (1955) )

「気の狂った人。気違い。」(広辞苑 (1969, 1976, 1983) )

「正気を失った人」(広辞苑 (1991, 1998) )



Remarkably, none of these definitions from different dictionaries are identical. The first one, from 三省堂国語, is not particularly helpful; if a person didn't know the meaning of 狂人, the definition 「発狂した人。狂者。」 is not likely to make the meaning any clearer. The 大辞泉 definition is also typical in that it seems to be a rewriting of the 大辞林 definition; 大辞泉 was published a few years after the first edition of 大辞林, and it seems to have drawn heavily on its predecessor for its definitions.

Perhaps the clearest definitions of 狂人 are from the old editions of 広辞苑, because they include 気違い, a word that is known to all native speakers of Japanese. However, because of increased sensitivity about such words and topics, the word 気違い has nearly disappeared from mainstream Japanese media, and the recent editions of 広辞苑 no longer use it in this definition. (The word does have an entry of its own, though.)


The meanings of words are revealed best by the contexts in which they are used, and dictionary entries that include examples are usually easier to understand. Here are some more entries for きょうじん【狂人】:

気が狂った人。きちがい。精神異常者。「校長は狂人じみた山田の語 気のはげしさに、…うなずかざるを得なかったのだろう<小島・アメリカン…>」(学研国語大辞典)

気がくるった人。気違い。狂者。[ヘボン] 「どうしても自分にいくらか狂人の素 質がある事を、悟らずには居られなかった [異端者] 」「法官の前に狂人立てりとも [牧牛] 」(新潮現代国語辞典)

狂気の状態に在る人。「狂人側から言わせると彼等の方がまともで、常人の方がか えって狂人なのだそうだ / ひとを狂人扱 いにする」(新明解国語辞典)

Examples need to be chosen carefully, though. The 学研国語 seems appropriate for this word, because the meaning of 狂人 is elaborated with 語気のはげしさ. In contrast, the 新潮現代国語 example, taken out of context, does not seem to illustrate the meaning of 狂人 at all. Perhaps the best are the examples in 新明解. The first seems invented rather than taken from a text, but at least it is entertaining, while the second one shows a typical context in which the word is used.


As noted elsewhere, 新明解 is known for its unusual definitions and examples. At times, the definitions seem too quirky to reflect the full breadth of a word's meaning, but at other times they are refreshingly incisive. The dictionary's publisher, 三省堂, used 新明解's definition of じっしゃかい【実社会】 in its advertisements for the dictionary. Another 三省堂 dictionary defines the word very blandly:

「(学生の社会に対して)実際の社会。『卒業して実社会に出る』」(三省堂国語辞典 )

The 新明解 definition is much meatier:

実際の社会。(美化・様式化されたものとは違って複雑で、虚偽と欺瞞とが充満し、毎日が試練の連続であると言える、きびしい社会 を指す)(新明解国語辞典)

Or consider two definitions of げひん【下品】:



Once again, 新明解 describes not just the objective meaning of a word but its emotional nuances.

Another strong point of 新明解 is its explanations of the meanings of idioms. Many kokugo dictionaries give examples of words in phrases but don't explain the idiomatic meanings of those phrases. For example, in a Japanese text I was translating, I came across an expression I didn't know: 寸分たがわない. I first checked 大辞林 for すんぶん【寸分】, and this was its definition:

〔「すんぷん」とも〕一寸と一分の長さ。ごくわずかの長さ・程度。現在では下に打ち消しの語を伴って副詞的に用いることが多い。 「寸分たがわず仕上げる」「帷幄の裏に臥して聊かに寸分の歌を作る/万葉{三九六五詞}」 (大辞林)

The expression I was looking for appears in an example (「寸分たがわず仕上げる」), but there is still no indication of what that expression means. In contrast, 新明解 typically includes bracketed explanations of the meanings of idioms. Here is that dictionary's definition of すんぶん【寸分】:

(ごく短い時間や長さの意) 「兄と寸分たがわぬ [=よく似ている] 顔 / 寸分も [= 少しも] すきの無い服装」(新明解国語辞典)

The [=よく似ている] is what I needed to understand the expression, and of the dictionaries I checked only 新明解 had it.


I first started becoming obsessed with Japanese-Japanese dictionaries when I discovered how much better they (usually) are than Japanese-English dictionaries. Consider, for example, the word つゆ 【梅雨】. In Kenkyusha's New Japanese-English Dictionary, it is defined as "the rainy [wet] season"; Nelson's Japanese-English Character Dictionary has "rainy season"; and the freeware dictionary EDICT has "rainy season; rain during the rainy season." While none of these is wrong, consider how sparse those definitions are compared with the definition from, for example, 集英社国語辞典:


A person unfamiliar with the Japanese climate would benefit much more from this type of explanation than from the sparse glosses offered by the bilingual dictionaries.

Another problem with bilingual dictionaries is the many words they do not contain. They are particularly weak on proper names. For example, none of the following words is in Kenkyusha, Nelson, or EDICT:


サブレー(サブレ is defined, perhaps incorrectly, as "sand" in EDICT.)

芭蕉(in sense of 松尾芭蕉)

湘南(The reading only is listed in the EDICT name file.)



How can someone expect to understand Japanese without knowing the meanings and connotations of words like 芭蕉, 宝塚歌劇団, and 大日本帝国?

While much broader in scope, kokugo dictionaries also contain some surprising omissions. For example, the most recent editions of 広辞苑, 新明解国語辞典, 新潮現代国語辞典, 岩波国語辞典, 集英社国語辞典, 日本語大辞典, 明治書院精選国語辞典, and 大辞泉, all published since 1993, omit the word ホワイトデー. Only 大辞林 and 三省堂国語辞典 include this very common word. This omission illustrates the slant of many kokugo dictionaries toward words from literature and scholarship at the expense of popular culture.

More Examples

Example sentences are enormously useful, and different dictionaries take different approaches. Consider how the word "neighborhood" is illustrated in several dictionaries.

An English-Japanese dictionary aimed at Japanese high-school students has a perfectly adequate example that seems to have been invented:

She lives in a wealthy neighborhood. 彼女は高級住宅地に住んでいる。

Random-House Webster's and Webster's New World offer only typical phrases:

a fashionable neighborhood (RHW)

an old neighborhood (WNW)

The second, "an old neighborhood," seems half-hearted and not very illustrative, as "old" can be used with almost any noun. "Fashionable" is marginally better.

Compare the examples in the COBUILD English Dictionary:

He was born and grew up in the Flatbush neighbourhood of Brooklyn... I feel a part of my immediate neighbourhood.

Chosen from real texts, these COBUILD examples are much more alive than the made-up or typical examples in the other dictionaries. The retention of proper names--Flatbush, Brooklyn--is a feature that sets COBUILD apart from many other dictionaries.

The Oxford English Dictionary is famous for its citations, and it has many splendid examples of words used in context:

1951 Social Aspects Town Devel. Plan (Univ. Liverpool Social Sci. Dept.) ii. 25 It must be emphasized that the essence of a Neighbourhood from the point of view of the planner and sociologist alike, is the opportunity it provides people to meet together, to share the burdens of daily life, and to co-operate in an endeavour to overcome their common problems.

While superbly explanatory, this example would be difficult for many learners of English--and some native speakers, too--to understand.

Some more examples from the same dictionaries, this time of a rather difficult word to define, "nifty":

a nifty corkscrew 気のきいたコルク抜き (an English-Japanese dictionary)

a nifty new suit (Random House Webster's)

nifty clothes (Merriam-Webster's Collegiate)

Bridgeport was a pretty nifty place... It was a nifty arrangement, a perfect partnership. (COBUILD)

1923 Inimitable Jeeves iii. 32 Roville ... is a fairly nifty spot where a chappie without encumbrances in the shape of aunts might spend a somewhat genial week or so. (OED)

Other than the OED example, which might be incomprehensible to people unfamiliar with P.G. Wodehouse, none of these examples really seems to capture the meaning of "nifty." If they had included ten or twenty examples taken from real contexts, the meaning would probably become clearer.

Finding Examples

In the days before databases and the Internet, the only way to find examples of words in context was to read text after text and record citations that struck one's interest. Now, though, it is possible to find many examples of words in real contexts nearly instantaneously. For example, here are some citations for 狂人 found in literary e-texts compiled by the 青 空文庫 project.

また畸形の肉體に盛られた心は、矢張り畸形にしか育たない。彼女は精神の畸形なる天才や狂人のことを考へたのであつた。けれども 天才は現世に幸福でなかつた。狂人は如何に幸福であらうとも、肉身のものの苦痛をどれだけ増 さねばならぬかと云ふことが解らない。(三十三の死 素木しづ子)

俺は無意識にすぐ棒切を以つて其土まんぢゆうを掘り出した。無暗に掘つた。狂人の 様に掘つた。(悪魔の舌 村山槐多)

狂人たちは皆同じやうに鼠色の着物を着せられてゐた。広い部屋はその為に一層憂欝 に見えるらしかつた。彼等の一人はオルガンに向ひ、熱心に讃美歌を弾きつづけてゐた。同時に又彼等の一人は丁度部屋のまん中に立ち、踊ると云ふよりも跳ね まはつてゐた。(或阿呆の一生 芥川龍之介)

(父は)一時にある事に自分の注意を集中した場合に、ほとんど寝食を忘れてしまう。国事にでもあるいは自分の仕事にでも熱中すると、人と話をし ていながら、相手の言うことが聞き取れないほど他を顧みないので、狂人のような状態に陥った ことは、私の知っているだけでも、少なくとも三度はあった。(私の父と母 有島武郎)

Internet search engines can also be a splendid source of texts, though of course the resulting hits will be of the mixed quality typical of the Web. Here are some that I found for 狂人:

狂ってしまった人を見たことがあるだろうか。精神的に異常をきたした人を。「異常」とは、つまりは「正常でないこと」なのだが、 では、「狂人」とは果たして、単に「正常でない人」を指す言葉であろうか。私が思うに、それ は違うと言いたい。私は精神医学には無知な人間なので、専門的にどうなのかは無責任にも解らないのだが、精神病者と性格異常者との区別はきちんとつけるべ きだと、強く思う。

「マトモな論理」も「狂人の論理」も、それなりに整合性はあるものでございます が、そこには根本的相違がございます。

端的に言うと、岩下志摩は二重人格で、狂人と慎み深い婦人を演じ分けるのです。で狂人時 の乱れかたがホントに恐いんです。「んはーんはー」と息荒く体をよじりながら手淫に更ける様。自分の娘に、その様を見られたと気づいた時の表情。

狂人に見える人はみな狂人で あり、見えない者もその半分は狂人だ。

Internet search engines can be enormously useful for translators unable to find the meanings of words in dictionaries. For example, I was translating a summary of a play when in the following passage I came across a word I couldn't find in any printed resources, 像主:


I could guess at the meaning, but I wasn't sure. However, a brief Internet search turned up several examples that made clear that 像主 refers to a person who is the model for a portrait, sculpture, etc.

むろん、すべての肖像が、そこに造形化された本人(これを像主とい う)のものではない。没後に作られる場合も多いからだ。

肖像が、引っ越しのあとにも居場所を保障されるか否かは、まさに組織の歴史的な記憶がうまく継承されるか否かにかかっている。まず、その歴史上 の人物として、像主の名が伝わっていなければならない。そして、その歴史に自分たちも帰属し ていると考える人々が、肖像を守るためには不可欠である。

明空が墨衣墨袈裟を着し、大きい屏障のある牀座に、両手で数珠をつま繰り、暈繝縁の上畳を敷いて坐している。膝前の経几には、大無量寿経、観無量寿経、阿 弥陀経の浄土三部経が置かれている。像主の大きい鼻、強く結ばれた口唇、高い頬骨など特徴あ る面貌が活写される。描線・彩色ともに本格的な施工であり優れている。

Enjoying Examples

If you spend (or waste) a lot of time reading dictionaries, you're bound to run into examples that will surprise or amuse you. 新明解 described above is a good example, but even more straight-arrow dictionaries have hidden gems. This example of 出発, from Kenkyusha's Japanese-English Dictionary, is a novel compressed into a single sentence:

夫が東京へ出発するとすぐに男友達に電話をかけた. As soon as her husband was on his way to Tokyo, she phoned her boyfriend.

In dictionaries that use invented examples, you can often learn much about the example writers. The following examples all appeared in one brief section of a Japanese-English dictionary that I was asked to check:

彼女の外見に惑わされた。 I was deceived by her appearance.

彼女は私を2時間も待たせた。 She kept me waiting for as long as two hours.

私は昨日彼女に待ちぼうけを食わされた。 I waited for her yesterday, but she never showed up.

私は彼女がいると緊張して舌が回らなくなる。 I get nervous and tongue-tied in her presence.

彼女の言葉には誠実さのかけらもなかった。 There was not an iota of honesty in her words.

直感的に彼女は嘘をついていると分った。 I knew intuitively [in my bones] that she was telling a lie.

These examples don't paint a positive picture of the social lives of lexicographers.

Irony can sometimes be found as well. A certain paper Japanese-English dictionary contains this example:

電子辞書は検索しやすいという点では紙の辞書よりずっと勝っている。 Electronic dictionaries are much better than [superior to] paper dictionaries in being easy to search.

My all-time favorite example is found on the very last page of Kenkyusha's New Japanese-English Dictionary, in the entry for ずさん:

この辞書は杜撰だ. This dictionary is carelessly compiled.

Free Words

Among its many other benefits, the Internet makes it much easier to carry out collaborative projects. Well-known examples include Linux and other open-source software projects, but there are also a number of volunteer dictionary projects that deserve mention. One is the Eijiro project hosted on the Japanese Internet service provider @Nifty. The volunteers have produced massive Japanese-English and English-Japanese files. The quality is mixed, but the files' sheer size makes them very useful for translators. Here's an excerpt from the Japanese-English file (called 和英辞郎):

■初心の : green as grass●inexperienced●uninitiated
■初心を貫く : carry out one's original intention
■初心を捨てる : abandon one's first resolve
■初心者 : Lilley and Skinner●abecedarian●abecedary●apple knocker●beginner●buckwheater●bunny●busher●catechumen●cherry●first timer●greenhorn●neophyte●new chum●newbie●novice●rookey●rookie●tenderfoot●threshold worker●tyro●uninitiated●youngling
■初心者にとっての難問題 : pons asinorum
■初心者に適した本 : book suitable for beginners
■初心者に伴うつき : beginner's luck
■初心者に伴う幸運 : beginner's luck
■初心者のドライバー : beginning driver
■初心者の緊張感 : first time jitters
■初心者の初当たり : beginner's luck
■初心者コース : beginner's course
■初心者マーク;(自動車に付ける) : symbol of a newly-licensed driver
■初心者レベルの仕事 : entry-level job
■初心者向きである : be suitable for beginners

Though created largely by and for Japanese, it would take exceptional English skills for a native Japanese speaker to be able to choose the proper--and avoid the ridiculous--options given in an entry like that for 初心者.

Another important free dictionary is EDICT. Though much smaller than Eijiro, the average quality of EDICT is higher and in many ways it is more appropriate for nonnative users of Japanese. Its definitions are very similar to those in Nelson, Kenkyusha, and other standard Japanese-English references. Here is an excerpt:

油田 [ゆでん] /oil field/
油揚げ [あぶらあげ] /fried tofu/
癒える [いえる] /to recover/to be healed/
癒す [いやす] /to heal/to cure/
癒着 [ゆちゃく] /adhesion/
諭す [さとす] /to admonish/to persuade/to warn/to remonstrate/
諭旨 [ゆし] /explanation/reasoning/
諭示 [ゆし] /official suggestion/instruction (to subordinate)/
輸液 [ゆえき] /transfusion/
輸血 [ゆけつ] /(vs) blood transfusion/
輸出 [ゆしゅつ] /(vs) export/
輸出規制 [ゆしゅつきせい] /export controls/
輸出入 [ゆしゅつにゅう] /export and import/
輸送 [ゆそう] /(vs) transport/transportation/
輸送機 [ゆそうき] /transport/
輸入 [ゆにゅう] /(vs) importation/import/introduction/
輸入額 [ゆにゅうがく] /level of imports/

One outstanding part of the EDICT project is the multi-radical selection function for finding kanji by any of their constituent parts. The function can be used online here, and there are software packages for accessing it locally, including UniDict for the Macintosh. Here is a screen shot of UniDict:

You just click on two or more components on the left, and immediately all of the JIS kanji that contain all of those components appear on the right. You can then find the readings and other basic information about those kanji in a separate window. Thanks to this software, there's almost no need anymore to search laboriously through the indexes of character dictionaries.

And Beyond

At IJET in Kyoto, I closed my talk with a proposal for new volunteer Japanese-English dictionary project, one that would emphasize explanatory definitions and real-life examples. Several people expressed interest in the project, and a few days later it was begun. You can find out more about the jeKai project here.