Information abounds. In translation, as in lay life, the immense volume of it means that the trick is to find accurate information quickly without sinking into the morass of its excess. Back in the day, dictionaries and libraries were a translator’s best friends. Now our best (though often treacherous) friend is Google. To put it and other research tools to best use, first consider the nature of your ignorance.
So, what do you need to know?
What a single word means. This most basic problem is also the least frequent for experienced translators and the easiest to solve. Say you come across the Italian word “bradipo” for the first time. Of course, a dictionary would work, but just putting it straight into Google is faster and more effective. You get the English translation (“three-toed sloth”), images, the Wikipedia entry, and lots of other information you can use to choose the best translation for your context. However, beware of homophones, including cross-lingual ones. If you find “scotch” on an Italian back-to-school list, a simple Google search will lead you far astray! The fastest, most effective option is a Google search with the word and a context-defining word, such as “scotch + scuola” (“school” in Italian).
What something looks like. Fashion and industrial design get quite fanciful with color and treatment descriptions. Popular Italian color terms are “cipria” (literally, face powder) and “petrolio” (literally, petroleum). The fastest way to see exactly what a color or treatment looks like is a quick Google Image search with, for instance, “color cipria.” Then, just check if your translation, such as “powder pink,” visually matches up.
Alternate meanings. Italian is full of tricky words with alternate meanings or ones by imaginative extension. A much-mistranslated example is “declinare.” Sansoni gives eleven definitions. None of which reflects this usage (about architectural design):
Tutto è pensato in una visione sistemica e la sostenibilità è declinata in ogni aspetto.
When confused by an unusual usage of a word, I turn first to the monolingual Treccani, which gives lengthy explanations and is especially good for archaic usage. But, in this case, we’d just get lost in a forest of other meanings.
Linguee.com comes to the rescue. Drawing on bilingual online texts to show in-context human translations, it gives many options (“to cover,” “to take the form of,” “to interpret,” “to give a…meaning,” “to translate”). I often opt for “to express,” which is nice and squishy in its usage, like declinare. The sense here is actually borrowing from the 12th definition in Sansoni [2 (Gramm) to decline.], referring to word declensions, and stretching its meaning.
What we actually say. The question translators ask much more than what something means in the source language is what we would actually say in the target in a given context. We look for ideas rather than invariably right answers. This was the origin of my Pesky Words. The meaning of a common word like “artigiano” is clear, but it is less obvious when and where the use of “artisan” versus “craftsman” versus “craftsperson.” Here Google can be as marvelous as it can be misleading. Calques of Romance-language usage can be so numerous that they might look correct. You can narrow the search to “.com” or, perhaps better, “.uk” sites to weed out non-native writing. For example, a Google search of “The company is a point of reference” (in Italian, calling a company a “punto di riferimento” is a favorite pastime) yields three pages of results, but Italian fingerprints are all over them; the companies described are all Italian or Spanish and the surrounding language is awkward. All signs that native English writers are unlikely to say it.
What an expression means. Idiomatic expressions can be a special challenge. If the expression is common enough, say “in bocca al lupo,” Google will immediately tell you all you need to know. Wordreference.com forums are great for scaring up ideas to solve idioms and getting a good grasp of the range of usage, especially for the many phrases (“piove sul bagnato,” literally, “it rains on the soaked”) that have no close cousins in the target language. The forum discussions will give you grist for the mill to come up with your own solution.
Technical terms. Even in officially non-technical translations, tough technical terminology can show up. Kudoz from Proz.com (just use Google by putting your term in quotes and Proz) will give you multiple suggestions and discussions among translators about them. You can look up online glossaries in the field. The “look inside” feature on Amazon and Google Books is great if you find a print technical dictionary or glossary. Or you can start your glossary search at Glossarissimo.
Historical names, plant/animal species, and place names. Wikipedia’s multilingual sidebar links are lovely starting points for these kinds of questions. What was Alexander the Great called in Italian? For species names, it always helpfully gives the Latin name to help you through the forest of alternate common names. Ponderosa Pine, anyone? Always double check Wikipedia’s suggestions as the wiki format can usher in inaccuracy.
And the ever-necessary word to the wise: just because it’s written doesn’t mean it’s true. Doubt, double check, and cross check.