Translators use dictionaries in the same way that doctors use the PDF (Physicians’ Desk Reference) and lawyers consult law libraries. There is always more information available than what is stored in the human brain. Sometimes you even just need a gentle reminder. 🙂
A translator fluent in two languages may never need to consult a dictionary to translate a simple text: a letter, a web page, etc. However, most good translators will ponder and rethink a few words on the page, especially key words and adjectives that appear in a text, in order to get the “best” choice. Interestingly, translators consult the thesaurus almost as much as the dictionary. Often we know what a word means, but we’re looking for just the right connotation in the target language. A thesaurus, in this case, can be even more invaluable than a dictionary. After all, which word would you choose to describe a sunset? Wonderful, magnificent, delightful, pleasing, brilliant, superb, fantastic, marvelous? Sometimes it’s helpful to consider your options for those final touches to convey the author’s style and intention more than relying solely on dictionary definition number one.
There are other tools that modern translators use. These include “translation memories” — glossaries built upon previous translations, as well as online sources. Modern translators tend to be “plugged in” to the Internet. There are websites such as proz.com and wordreference.com where translators discuss difficult or country-specific terminology. The sum of all these discussions is an invaluable treasure trove of language information that is often more useful than a standardized dictionary.
I am fond of saying that a good translator knows what he or she doesn’t know. You need to be able to spot phrases that might have a double meaning or an idiomatic reference so that you can consult the dictionary, the Internet and native speakers in order to find just the right meaning.
If you see a dictionary in a translator’s hand, it doesn’t mean trouble. It means the translation is about to get one step closer to success.