A publisher recently roped me in, with a team of other translators, to produce a bilingual version of a well-known dictionary. The eventual product, when it is published in a few years’ time, will be targeted at learners of both Chinese and English.

Truth be told, I cannot remember the last time I used a hard copy of a dictionary or a thesaurus. I prefer online versions, finding them more compre­hensive and convenient. It takes a fraction of the time taken to flip through the pages of an unwieldy tome to look up a word online, which, given its nature, contains a great deal more content than a physical book.

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For translation purposes, the much-maligned Google Translate is actually a useful tool if it is used for the right purpose – to look up equivalents in another language for single words or short phrases. Even then, users must use their judgment. Embarrassing errors and incomprehensible gibberish occur when they do not question the results or when entire paragraphs are dumped on the translation tool.

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One of the most influential dictionaries in ancient China was Shuowen Jiezi (literally “Explaining Graphs and Analysing Characters”), compiled by Xu Shen during the Eastern Han dynasty (AD25-220). Xu finished editing it in AD100 but waited for about 20 years before presenting it to the imperial court. Containing words of ancient origin, arcane even for Xu’s contemporaries, the dictionary’s contribution to scholarship and linguistics has been immeasurable.

Another enduring legacy of Shuowen Jiezi is its arrangement of characters based on “radicals”, or special groups of written strokes, a system that is still used in Chinese dictionaries today.