How dull to have a gun and not shoot. Guns should be fired.

Fu Yuli / Nicky Harman

Tools of the Trade

return to translators resources
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 Collins 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

A relatively unknown but highly useful website is the OneLook Reverse Dictionary. The idea 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".

Nciku/N词酷 is a popular, free, convenient and frustratingly basic online dictionary.

Translation Software


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.

Hanzim - at $34.95 USD, an affordable alternative to Wenlin

Geeks will be thrilled to find the cjklib library, a 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.

Chinese-Chinese Dictionaries

辞海, literally "Sea/Ocean of Words", is a must for any serious translator. It's the OED of Mandarin Chinese.


# 1.   

I've found ( to be a more robust alternative to And for speedy, simple word look-ups Google's Chinese dictionary ( is my favorite.

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

# 2.   

Seconding -- it has more entries than nciku. Also 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.


Your email will not be published
Raw HTML will be removed
Try using Markdown:
[link text](
End line with two spaces for a single line break.