How to Use a Dictionary to Translate Between Languages

I keep hammering this because I keep seeing people who don't do it.

  1. Look up English to Elvish.
  2. LOOK UP THE ELVISH WORD in the best Elvish dictionary you have, and, preferably, find out the context in Tolkien.
  3. Change the word to suit rules of grammar: singular or plural, mutations, verb tenses, etc.

You cannot leave out any of these steps. If you do, you're almost certain to have errors.

Why you have to do #2:

Languages never match up one-to-one. English and Elvish are closer than usual, but there are still problems. And Engish has odd idioms: why are there no baths or beds in public bathrooms or restrooms? You can't translate literally. You have to understand the meaning behind each word.

In Elvish this is even more true, since our dictionaries contain more or less questionable reconstructions, and words that Tolkien later discarded or replaced. Find the best one you can.

Consider the word "fair". We tend to use it to mean "just". Tolkien tends to use it to mean "beautiful". In Elvish, these are two entirely different words. So when you look up "fair", you'll have to go to the Elvish dictionary to see that you've got the right one.

COE's dictonary is pretty good, but it has a few words that I never see anywhere else, and sometimes there are mistakes caused by tricky words like gelir . By checking an Elvish to English dictionary, one that shows the Elvish word's roots, multiple definitions, similar words around it and (ideally) how Tolkien used it, you can be more assured you've found the meaning you want. I always check D. Willis' Sindarin Dictionary, and I often scour Ardalambion for an example in context.

Consider the nightmare of He left the bar. Is "left" the opposite of "right" (which also has two meanings)? Is "bar" extruded steel, or something to do with law? You have to know what words mean in both languages.

And you'd be amazed at how many people ignore #3, forgetting that language is more than a string of words, and there are rules about how to fit those words together. You can't simply look up the word "I" and use it everywhere. Sometimes you need "me" or "my". There's a reason it takes a while to learn a language: you have to learn the rules.

It drives me utterly batty when people give a questionable translation they insist is right because "it's in the dictionary". A dictionary is a tool, a resource, but its entries should not be mistaken for a finished product. They are raw materials.

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