“You’re stepping on my shadow, please back off,” she said.

Sun Yisheng / Nicky Harman

Tools of the Trade

return to resources

Over the last few decades the availability of aids to the translator on the internet has revolutionised the task of translation. Set out below are some of the online Chinese/Chinese resources that one particular translator has found useful (and sometimes indispensable) over the last five years. Nevertheless, paper resources still have their place and should never be ignored. The gold standard paper resource is the Cihai (辞海) first published in 1936 and revised over the years which can also be used as an encyclopedia. Endymion Wilkinson's Chinese History: A Manual is also a useful companion as a historical and cultural backstop for those whose grasp of the detail of Chinese history and its sources is not as complete as they might wish.

The following entries come from multiple translators, the majority provided by Tony Blishen

Chinese-English Dictionaries

The standard workhorse dictionary seems to be the revised edition of the Chinese-English Dictionary put out by the Foreign Language Teaching and Research Press (外研社). It's fat, relatively inexpensive, and has a fair number of good sample sentences, basic chengyu, and the names of rare diseases.

The two-volume, 3500-page 汉英大辞典 published by 上海交通大学出版社 is a decent addition to the reference shelf.


There's no shame in using a thesaurus when you're translating – how else are you going to come up with four synonyms for "expansive" in the space of three minutes? A particularly nice one is the Rogets Thesaurus, notable for grouping words under thematic categories – you first look your word up in a disambiguation index in the back, and once you've got the proper meaning of the word, you're off to a full page or two of likely-related words. Very satisfying.

Online Resources

Han Dian (汉典)
A Chinese/Chinese online dictionary and more with definitions of 75,983 single characters and 361,998 compounds and phrases, together with 32,868 chengyu. Will search a number of different ways including pinyin and by number of strokes overall. It provides useful example sentences drawn from historical and modern texts (e.g. dongxi in Hong Lou Meng) and shows and lists alternative meanings. It also includes a comprehensive library of classical texts arranged under their traditional genre as well as editions of the Kangxi, and the early Shuowen Jiezi dictionaries. In all, a very complete and reliable resource that could become a translator's mainstay. Unfortunately, it now adds English definitions, a retrograde act that rather defeats the purpose of using this dictionary in the first place. One of the functions of using a Chinese/Chinese dictionary is to make you think in context.
Zaixian Xinhua Zidian (在线新华字典)
A comprehensively developed and analytical online version of the best selling pocket Chinese/Chinese dictionary published in many editions over many years by the Commercial Press Shanghai. Searchable by pinyin and six other methods. Multiple meanings (e.g. 14 for ). Compounds, classical and literary examples, basic English definitions, chengyu and much else. On a level with Han Dian.
MDBG Dictionary
A flexible, not to say multifaceted resource that appears to be based on CC-Cdict. Search by pinyin or English. The latter will produce associated terms. For example 'nation' will produce 国家 and as well as 发大国 and others.
Hanyu Cidian (汉语词典)
Part of a complex of reference sites that are congregated under the 911cha.com banner. Chinese/Chinese. Best searched by entering characters in the search box or cut and paste. Produces definitions, associated compounds and literary examples.
Glossary of Chinese Internet Terms
Part of a website called ChinaSmack. A fairly comprehensive glossary of common, not to say vulgar terms used by Chinese netizens. It demonstrates the flexibility of colloquial Chinese and contains many characters not found in polite usage.
OneLook Reverse Dictionary
The idea of a "reverse dictionary" is that you're translating along, and you suddenly realize that there's a perfect word for the thing you're trying to render into English, but just won't come to you. So you go to the Reverse Dictionary, type in some words describing the word you can't remember ("the hard outside of cheese"), and the Reverse Dictionary gives you 100 words, most of which are garbage, the first of which is "rind".
A popular, free, convenient and frustratingly basic online dictionary.
Apparently more useful than Nciku.cn.


Pleco seems to be the gold-standard for Chinese translation apps. It is geared more towards Chinese-English, though can be used the other way around. The free version already comes with a whole bunch of features, or you can use their pretty reasonable upgrade paths to get features like OCR, etc.

Offline/Translation Software

Moedict Desktop
Moe means cute in Japanese as the logo indicates. It also stands for the Taiwan Ministry of Education whose extremely extensive Chong Bian Guoyu Cidian Xiudingben (重編國語辭典修訂本) is the principal source together with dictionaries of the Min and Hakka dialects. This desktop dictionary which is not as extensive as the Han Dian can be consulted without recourse to the internet. Search by pinyin which will produce English and German definitions linked to the Chinese definition or direct by character. A useful feature is a built-in mouse-over facility for the Chinese definitions which will save you looking up those characters in the definition that you may not know. Download here.
Wenlin, featuring 10,000 Chinese characters and nearly 200,000 words and phrases, is the most flexible C-E dictionary/translation software I have encountered. For beginning users, the stroke-order guides and easy transition between traditional and simplified characters are invaluable; for advanced users, the ability to add to and customize dictionary entries is pure joy. Well worth the $199 USD sticker price.
At $34.95 USD, an affordable alternative to Wenlin
Pera Pera Kun
This is a mouse-over resource that is an add-on to Mozilla's Firefox browser. It is also available on Google Chrome. The quality of mouse-over resources depends upon the incorporated dictionary. Pera Pera uses the CC-Cedict Chinese dictionary. It is more extensive than you might think and includes some idiomatic phrases and titles of classical works. There is also a very good Japanese version. Pera Pera Kun is useful reminder of the characters or compounds that you have always known but that have somehow slipped the memory. It is not as complete as other non mouse-over resources and should never be relied upon as the final answer. Download for Firefox or find it in the Chrome Web Store.
Geeks will be thrilled to find this Python-based set of databases and lookup functions that allow you to do pretty much anything you'd like to with a Chinese character: discover its stroke order, decompose it into parts, treat it as a radical and find out what characters are made from it, learn how to pronounce in pinyin/Wade-Giles/Korean/Shanghainese… And, of course, do all that backwards.

No single resource can include everything. The last (or even first) resort is to just google a character, compound or sentence and see what comes up. Fragments of poetry will often throw up the complete text and lead to an erudite and informative blog. The same for chengyu. The best online resource for looking up people and events is baidubaike (百度百科), an online encyclopedia which provides extensive biographies of everybody from poets to politicians as well as entries for artists, authors and their works.


# 1.   

I've found Dict.cn (http://dict.cn/) to be a more robust alternative to nciku.com. And for speedy, simple word look-ups Google's Chinese dictionary (http://www.google.cn/dictionary?hl=zh-CN) is my favorite.

Dave, May 14, 2010, 11:42p.m.

# 2.   

Seconding dict.cn -- it has more entries than nciku. Also zdic.net has a very large Chinese/Chinese dictionary that often has a couple of English translation options in its entries -- make sure you're in the 词典 rather than the 字典, though.

Charles, May 17, 2010, 7:11a.m.

# 3.   

Re: 辞海, is there an online version, or must one purchase the printed version?

 Bruce, May 17, 2010, 8:23p.m.

# 4.   

I've never seen it online, but who knows. I find that apart from proper names, the 辞海 is not really better than the 汉语大辞典, and I almost exclusively use Wikipedia for proper names nowadays anyways (b/c of the Chinese-English crosslinks, which occasionally save a lot of time).

The biggest Ch/Ch dictionary I've seen online is the 国语辞典 here, which is 繁体字 only.

Charles, May 18, 2010, 1:37a.m.

# 5.   

While we're asking questions, does anybody have a line on what handheld translators have good/robust dictionaries? I've heard that the 步步高 is better than others in its price range, but I'd be curious to know what others use, or if they use them at all.

Charles, May 22, 2010, 2:06a.m.

# 6.   

I'm in contact with a Chinese author who is requesting that I create a letter of permission that she can sign to allow me to translate her short story. She wants to know the name of the publication and its affiliated organizations where I will be sharing the story and for the letter to contain all my intentions for the story. Does anyone know of a site with or have a sample letter in Chinese that I could model?


Mei Li, September 29, 2014, 1:25a.m.

# 7.   

Hi Mei Li,

It should be up to the publication to produce some sort of publication contract for the author to sign (though you might need to translate it into Chinese). Many magazines will have a copyright contract to sign, even for shorter pieces -- try asking them. If you aren't the one actually publishing the piece, it shouldn't be you setting the terms of that agreement!


 Eric Abrahamsen, September 29, 2014, 2:40a.m.


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