Are you a translator, or looking to get something translated? Sure, maybe you have some rudimentary knowledge of the target language; perhaps you were even that bilingual whiz kid that wowed everyone with your spectacular flourishes. But no matter your level of talent or experience, if you believe in quality work, chances are you’re looking for translation references.

Everyone can pride themselves on how much they know. It can either be a fatal flaw or a mark of self-respect, like many things in life. But knowledge has limits even for the most capable, pliable minds. As humans, we’re limited by the fallibility of our memory and understanding. Not everyone has an eidetic memory — and even that has limitations.

What are the rest of us mortals to do under this sad state of affairs? Well, for one, we can use every tool at our disposal to up our chances of becoming both productive and knowledgeable. That means that translation references are a necessary ingredient of any capable translator’s pantry. If that metaphor went a bit too far and you’re now craving for something carb-y, sorry. Hope you’re in a city with good bakeries.

So, care to take a metaphorical walk and check out some resources that make translators’ lives easier? It’s ok, you can even have a croissant or two while you read this article. Just make sure your coffee’s black as midnight on a moonless night.

But if you prefer to watch a video instead, click here:

Tell me more about this translation gig

With pleasure!

Translation is the act of converting written content from one language into another.

(i) The source language is the original. Let’s say Japanese in this case. That is what the translator is going to be translating from.

(ii) The target language is what the translator’s going to be converting the text into. This is normally — but not limited to — the translator’s native language.

The translation process also entails three steps:

  • The submission of the document. This is a final, pre-approved copy that the client deems sufficiently completed. Ideally, we’re looking at a document that’s as error-free as possible.
  • The translation itself. Long, sleepless night sitting by coffee and dictionaries.
  • Proofreading and editing, the final frontier. This is where the translator, or a knowledgeable editor, reviews the text and corrects any grammatical or structural errors. The editing process itself also ensures that the tone of the translated document correctly matches the original.

You can read more about the translation process in our article about it. It’s short and sweet!

What do we need translation references for?

Not all translators are super-specialized. That means that, while great at general knowledge, there will always be gaps, especially when researching new subjects. This may not apply as much for those translators that work in one field constantly, but most have to be ready to tackle any document.

translation references for language translating

A document can be defined as “(…) a written, drawn, presented, or memorialized representation of thought.” (Wikipedia) If this sounds like it can be anything, as we’re a society obsessed with registering every minutia of our lives, you’re right.

Thus, translation can be broadly defined (according to Cultures Connection) into these fields:

  • Technical translation
  • Scientific translation
  • Financial Translation
  • Legal Translation
  • Judicial Translation
  • Juridical Translation
  • Certified Translation
  • Literary Translation

Find more info about document translation in our specialized article. For now, the broad strokes will suffice!

What’s important to understand is that with so many branches, a translator will rarely draw from the same knowledge base. Specialized dictionaries, translation references, and more are needed. It’s not the same to draw on a database of medical terminology than legal. Sure, court proceedings may make you feel like you’re undergoing invasive spine surgery, but they’re not the same thing.

That’s when those pesky little references come in.

Translation references

As I mentioned above, sometimes translations entail approaching extremely technical subjects. Some translators are absolutely stellar at specific fields; there’s always the over-specializer who can list legal terminology from 5 countries front-to-back and upside down whilst on fire. Alas, there’s always a time when our knowledge, however deep, runs out.

Imagine you ask a translator to translate a complicated factory manual. Maybe you’ve got some legal documents or court papers for them; what about jargon-filled internal documents that need to be taken to another branch? One can’t reasonably expect a translator to approach a new subject with a perfect understanding.

Sometimes the translator will have to use technical glossaries or dictionaries to be able to fulfill their task. In other cases, specialized websites or databases will be required. If all the planets align and the light shaft comes down just-so at a specific time of the year, a miracle may even occur; a client could even offer a translator the correct reference materials to make their life easier!

I don’t know if the universe can take the monumental shifts in energy from such an event, but it has happened. I know who was behind everything.


The translator often has to supplement whatever’s on hand with the correct reference materials. This means that some translations encourage deeper dives into a subject area than others. If you’re thinking about the cliché of late-night reads with endless cups of coffee, it’s true. Well, I guess it could happen in the morning too, but it takes away some of the lonely, romantic iconographies.

So, a translator is not a living encyclopedia. A good translator, especially, is a master at researching what they don’t know. They’ll be able to locate specialized glossaries and resources; they’ll be able to pinpoint other databases that match the subject to be translated; most importantly, they’ll tailor their findings to the specific tone and demographic the document calls for.

Often, glossaries or terminology databases can throw more than one result for the same thing. This means that they work as de-facto open-source translation memories (TMs).

Translation memories are usually a part of a translator’s toolkit. They allow them to have an account of what’s been translated before for a particular sentence or term. But translation memories are individual, and databases are collective undertakings. They will allow a translator to see multiple translation options for the same phrase. This can also potentially aid them in finding one that’s more demographic-specific.

These little forays into the unknown are part and parcel of any translator’s life. Not only do translators need to be great writers into the target language, but they also need immaculate research skills. Writing on any subject you don’t have in-depth knowledge of requires a crash-course on whatever’s necessary, usually under time constraints.

This makes translators ideal subjects to shoot the breeze about multiple subjects! Ask a translator what the weirdest topic they’ve had to research is, and you have a talk for the ages!

Moving on

So, when it comes to reference material and glossaries, One Hour Translations offers the following definitions:

  • Reference material refers to any previously translated material that’s similar in style and/or content; and
  • A glossary is a detailed list of terms selected by the translation agency or the client. A glossary helps the translator maintain accuracy and consistency during the translation and editing processes. If a client chooses not to offer a glossary, one can be created by the translation agency, or the translator, subject to the client’s approval. It’s true that the creation of a glossary does take extra time which converts into additional costs; however, the payoffs far exceed the outlay, particularly if there are future translation projects.

A small caveat to this is that translations don’t always have to be so costly, nor the translation references so detailed. Translators can make use of free resources like Linguee to check out previously translated terms, and see if good matches come up for those sticky terms.

translation references for translators

A couple of free translation references for when you’re in a bind

Now, this by no means a complete list. These are just a couple I and many translators I know consider to be good free translation resources. Sometimes technical glossaries or manuals just won’t cut it. As sure as I’m sitting here (sorry, I don’t have a standing desk yet), some slang term or colloquialism will baffle you.

Places like WordReference or Linguee are magical for when you’ve got those sticky terms that just refuse to be translated.

In WordReference, you don’t just get glossary, but a deep forum where hard-to-translate terms are often discussed. If you look for your hard term with a “+ WordReference” on Google, chances are you’ll come upon a thread started 15 years ago with just the answer you were looking for. Another great thing is that it’s multilingual — awesome!

Linguee is a bit more specific, as it just covers Spanish-English and vice-versa. It works a sort of collective TM (translation memory, I know you weren’t reading that closely); the database returns the best attempts over thousands of translations for a single term.

Say you want to look for the best approximation of “rain or shine” in Spanish. You’ll get a ton of results by many translators who’ve gone through the same trial and have ventured their answer. Linguee curates answers from many sources across the spectrum of translation fields. Be mindful, though, that having a variety of options doesn’t mean that most, or any at all will be accurate.

Exercise judgment and discernment, my young padawan.

Summing up

In conclusion, I think we’ve gone over how translation references are an integral part of any translator’s work. They’re as necessary as any other tool of the trade, and reveal the importance of research.

If you’re hiring a translator for a job, it behooves them to have their own set of translation references on hand, and to find the ones that are necessary. It will also be of massive help if you can throw them a bone and help out with this. Trust me, they’ll thank you for it.

If you want pros that have the right tools and know their stuff, you already have our number. Make it easy for yourself and leave your translation project in our hands. You’ll be glad you did!