The Sorrow of the Lost Examples

Today I bring you some possibly useful facts if you work in Japanese, and a passionate eulogy you don’t need any Japanese to understand.

I think many people will agree with me when I say that it’s not always the definitions which are the most useful part of a dictionary: more often, the real treasure trove is the usage examples.

True, that’s apparently not always what people look for: About five years ago some non-translator coworkers at my company were over the moon about a new online English<->Japanese dictionary they’d found. I was new at the time, and I was the first translator the company’d had in house. We were all still learning about each other, really. And eventually someone asked me what I thought about this “great” dictionary.

A teaching moment! I thought. Hoping my new friends would not be offended, I told the truth: I hated it.

When you looked up a word in either language, it simply gave you a list of words that might show up as its translation in the other language, with no context, no sorting into different base meanings, and no usage examples, as if there were no differences between any of the (often conflicting) choices, and it was really all a matter of what you fancied that day. Worse than useless! If you really want to see how to use a word—and if, as a translator, you really want to brainstorm ideas and then be able to actually evaluate them—you need the actual definitions, yes, but even more than that, you need to see them in action. You need usage examples. (And not just any examples! You need quality professional ones. My students are routinely forbidden from relying on any dictionary that relies on the Tanaka corpus, which was compiled by students.)

Which is all to say that right now, I am in mourning. One of the two high-quality online dictionary services I’ve used for years now has lost half of its usage examples, and I feel it keenly. The thinning of the Yahoo! Japan dictionary is a blow to the Japanese-English translator.

I have a paid subscription to the Kenkyusha Online Dictionary, which is actually a collection of Kenkyusha J-E and E-J dictionaries (plus a Sanseido Japanese-Japanese dictionary) that I can search all at once. Three times the usage examples! It’s easily worth the money for the quality illustrations and usable ideas it regularly gives me. But I am greedy, and sometimes three dictionaries’ worth of examples is just not enough! I must have more! At those times, I’ve always gone to the free Yahoo! Japan dictionary to get my fix. It boasted two J-E dictionaries, neither of which were on KOD, and two J-J dictionaries, one of which overlapped KOD and the other of which contrasted interestingly.

But at the end of July 2013, variety died. The two Sanseido dictionaries on Yahoo! Japan, 大辞林 and ニューセンチュリー和英辞典, are no longer there. Essentially, that means there is now only one J-E and one J-J. Happily the remaining J-J is the contrasting one, but as for the loss of that second J-E dictionary… Well, it’s been three months now, and I’m not over it. My sorrow is unending.

Sanseido currently has their own paid web service; their “Daily Concise” dictionaries can be accessed for free, but the rest of its dictionaries require paid access. I believe the ウィズダム和英辞典 there is considered the ニューセンチュリー和英辞典’s successor.

I have no desire to pay for two dictionary subscriptions at once, so I won’t be purchasing the Sanseido service. However, anyone in the market for a paid subscription may want to check out both KOD and the Sanseido service to see which they might prefer. Me, I’ll probably stick to my KOD + Yahoo! Japan formula and sigh a bit each time.

I’ll tell you one cool discovery, though: I find looks great on my iPhone and is a lot more functional than Yahoo! Japan’s mobile site. To test, I looked up 襟首 (the nape of the neck) on both sites on my phone, and Yahoo! Japan’s dictionary didn’t even get any hits, though it finds the word immediately when I look it up on my PC’s web browser. Next time I need a quick online lookup on my smart phone, I’ll be heading over to Sanseido’s free offerings rather than Yahoo! Japan’s service.


…And that’s a wrap. Thanks for listening to my tale of woe, and feel free to leave a note or drop me a line about any dictionaries you’re in love with! I keep a list of them in every language for the incidental “There’s German mixed in with this Japanese!” moments.