In the spring of 2001, I spent a few months living in Rome studying Italian. Upon coming across the word ghiro, I opened my handy dictionary and was given the translation “a great tit”. My jaw hit the floor. Only after further searching through other dictionaries and even English dictionaries, was I finally able to determine that a ghiro is actually just a titmouse — a small field rodent. Move ahead a few years where Mandarin Chinese now takes up most of my time, and a good dictionary is more critical than ever. Fortunately, in today’s world of online dictionaries and powerful Internet applications, there is a lot of help available. But the question is: with such a wide selection of resources, which dictionary should one use?
I conducted a 2-3 week long experiment, where every single time I needed to look up a Chinese-English or English-Chinese translation, I would actually look it up four times. I used the following dictionaries:
I then took notes of all the terms I looked up, which dictionary gave the best results, and how easy it was to get the results from each of them. In addition to the quality of results, I was interested in the “URL programmability” of the individual sites — would I have to load each site up, wait until it’s done, and then type in the search term, or could I directly type in the term to search for in the address bar along with the URL. I was also interested in translations that are more than just translations, but indeed proper localisations of terms. For example, a dictionary that tells me 绿帽 is a green hat is only a partial winner. A dictionary that mentions that this refers to being cuckolded gets full points.
URL Programmability (otherwise known as API)
Iciba and dict.cn lead in the ease of use category hands down. If you are looking for a translation for the word gardening, you can just type the following into the address bar of your browser:
Nciku and youdao are both weaker here in that they have more complicated URL schemes and require you to keep these in your history so you can come back and just replace the term to search for. Both can be remembered, but just take too long to type:
User Interface Notes
Iciba has a pretty unattractive user interface, with dated looking interface elements and the most annoying flash-y ads of all the sites. It does have a good catalogue of sentences and corpora in which it searches for words, often coming with the exact context you were looking for. There are also some neat UI elements to hear the words and sounds that you looked for (when looking up English words, it will give these to you in both British and American English). Finally, the site always shows you a search history, so if you’re like me and forget a word 20 seconds after you looked it up, you can just click to go right back there.
Dict.cn has a much cleaner and more pleasant looking interface, with the content well presented in the middle and colours that aren’t jarring to the eye. It also has audio playback of words, although only in what seems to be American English, and implemented in a manner that makes it slower than _Iciba_’s audio playback. Dict.cn does have one extremely cool feature that none of the others have, and that is a small mouth next to the word. Hover over this and click on it, and you’ll see a mouth showing movement of the teeth, lips, tongue, and jaw as the word is pronounced. As a former student of linguistics, I find this unbelievably cool. There is also a word search history.
Nciku definitely has the best user interface. It is clean, well thought out, and really quite pleasant to look at, with lots of blank space punctuated by content in a way to make everything easy to find. They want you to sign up to their site, and then give you vocab lists you can build and store, and they have a great details view when you hover the mouse over a Chinese character. There is audio playback of words, although again not in multiple dialects of English, and there are also playbacks of stroking through characters and hover-for-detail views of words and characters, although I’ve had problems getting all of these to reliably work on non-Internet Explorer browsers. Nciku also has reliability problems. Their website can become unbearably slow or unresponsive for a while, which is annoying.
Youdao wins the prize for most spartan interface. There are only the results of your search in the middle, and a few menu items and history items on the left. It’s simple, not unattractive, and with very little in the way of distraction. The downside to this is that, apart from single-dialect playback of words, there are no bells and whistles on this site, at all.
As I wrap up this section, it is worth noting that I use a browser plug-in for Firefox that lets me hover the mouse over any Chinese or Japanese character to see its pronunciation and meaning(s), so I never actually used any of the forementioned bells and whistles. I came to the sites to find translations and that was it.
Over the course of a few weeks sitting at my desk at work, I searched for about 75 different terms, in English and Chinese. Sometimes these were simple words (fish), sometimes grammatical structures (If I were …, I would …), and other times sayings or phrases (there is no hope for mankind). Here is a summary of my results:
Youdao rocks. It consistently has the best translations — from both English to Chinese and Chinese to English — and these translations almost always have the appropriate contexts as well. Searching for function in one of the other dicitionaries might return something similar to a gala or important dinner, but Youdao would definitely also be sure to give you the meaning in a programming context. Iciba would frequently have this as well, but it would be so buried in depths of characters and messy text that it would be hard to find (in its defense, Iciba is targeted at local English learners).
Nciku is unparalleled for simple lookups. If you want to know what a pretty common character or Chinese word means, or a reasonably common and unambiguous English word, Nciku does extremely well in this. One nice touch that made me smile and for which it deserves mad props was that it even will include Getty images tagged with what you’re looking for. When I search for 灯箱 (dengxiang), all the other dictionaries floundered, whereas not only did Nciku tell me what it was, but also gave me some sweet pictures of it too.
Nciku also had the neat feature of being very actively maintained. I found on multiple occasions that a word that Nciku completely failed to find on my first search would suddenly have a translation and full description when I came back a week later and looked for the same thing. Nciku’s ultimate undoing, however, is that it falls pretty flat as you get beyond simple searches. It struggled with things in particular contexts, and would come up empty for some not-too complicated words.
Dict.cn was one of my early favourites before finding Youdao, but looking back at the results, there’s very little reason to go to it any more. The Youdao results are consistently much better, and the user interface doesn’t offer significant bells and whistles that would compel me to com back to it. It fails surprisinly on some simple results, but then does exceedingly well for some complicated searches. I attribute a lot of this to it having a large corpus of text from which it can draw results, but not having a huge investment in simple use for beginners. This to me suggests a company run by few people, but with clever brains and lots of computing power.
Iciba was my first — we had some good times together, and I’ll never forget it for that, but sadly… it simply doesn’t compete. Hands down the most difficult to find results for most of the things I searched for among the clutter of the user interface, and just generally mediocre generic results. Now, it’s fair to say these aren’t way behind the other dictionaries (it really is a pefectly fine dictionary), but the combination of unattractive UI and mediocre results make it uncompelling. As mentioned above, however, I suspect that this is because the site is really targeted at local Chinese people trying to learn English. It has lots of “sentences of the day” and similar features that look like they’d be invaluable to English learners.
A “win” is defined as “giving me a result or results that appear to be most what I was looking for and were subsequently confirmed by native speakers understanding exactly what I meant to stay”. It’s not a 100% precise measure, but then in spoken language, little is.
There were times when all four dictionaries would fail to find results for something I was looking for. For thoses cases where the thing I wanted translated was Chinese, I found two additional tools were surprisingly useful:
- Google Images. Sometimes I could just type the words into a google box, click 图片 (for pictures), and see exactly what I was trying to translate.
- Google Translate. I use the GTalk interface for Google Translate. You can friend firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com and then just send words via your favourite IM client, to get the translated results nearly instantly as the reply.
Neither of these two were good enough to see regular use, but they were helpful on occasion.
The net result of this experiment is that there is no clear 100% winner in the battle of the online Chinese dictionaries. Some are clearly better than others, but none can claim to be the “Gold Standard” of dictionaries.
I now always look up all my words words only twice using:
Nciku has an iPhone app which is my most frequently used application, but, again, tends to break down pretty quickly beyond the basics. There are also other iPhone dictionaries that I did not look at all for this article (since it is for online web apps only), but that’s a story for another time.[Read Rest of Article]