Site review: Linguee (an online bilingual dictionary)

By | August 8, 2022

Doing a lot of translations these days, I come across a bunch of sites related to word meanings. One site of particular note that I would like to give a brief review of is Linguee (http://www.linguee.com). This site supports meaning lookup for twenty-some languages, although I have only used it for Japanese to English. 

For the purpose of this article I tried a few words in the Japanese->English dictionary and found the results somewhat disappointing. In particular, searching for ”は” came up with “well”, “what?” and “school” as the top three entries, and “topic marker” and “tooth” were listed under “less common” with a lot of other stuff. Similarly, for “かみ” the top three (apparently more common) entries were “deity”, “kami”, and “god”. One of the “less common” entries was “upper half”, and when I clicked it showed 上半 (“jouhan”), which is only indirectly connected to “kami” due to the kanji 上 which can also be read as “kami”. I don’t think “kami” can be said to mean “upper half”.

While the meanings that are presented can potentially still be useful, personally I use Dictionary Goo as well as some local dictionaries as my primary sources for meaning lookup. But the special part about Linguee is how it presents examples of the word in context in both the source and target language. For example, if I am looking up a Japanese word in English, it will show a bunch of instances, each with a paragraph or so of text in Japanese on one side and the corresponding text in English on the other. The word (or words) is highlighted in yellow on both sides, which is a nice feature.

The texts are pulled from a variety of websites, and while you can click links to these sites I have frequently found that the site or the page is no longer there, which makes it harder to see the broader context. Sometimes you can get a good feeling what they are talking about from the short excerpt, but other times it’s a bit of a puzzle.

But the biggest problem is that Linguee doesn’t know how these sites were translated, and whether they are accurate or not. Each might be done by professional human translators, or (perhaps more likely) by some machine translation algorithm. Linguee does explicitly mention “not reviewed” above these external results so it is clear what you are getting.

Another annoying thing about this site is how multi word searches don’t work very well, even if you put the words in quotes. For example, I searched for ”彼の名前は”  (in quotes) and while there was a few valid hits, there was a bunch where the words in my phrase were all over the place in an example phrase, hence useless.

Despite the drawbacks of this data, I still find Linguee useful once in a while for especially tricky words, and being able to scroll through the results quickly is convenient, since even if most of the examples are bad, all I need is a single one to provide a key insight about the word in question.

Ultimately I think this site is similar to many of the automated tools out there online (such as Grammarly, which is also a tool I sometimes use). If you know what you are doing, it can provide valuable feedback, but when used without proper validation and background knowledge you can end up being more confused than before you started researching.

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