My very first professional dictionary was the trusty Simon & Schuster, the “great white whale”. I got it for my first translation practicum back in undergraduate school, when we turned in handwritten translation exams and carried our backbreaking dictionaries to the classroom. A few years after that, I am embarrassed to admit I thought wordreference.com was the next best thing after Wikipedia, before time and graduate school taught me the hard lessons about finding real sources.
These days, if you were to ask me what my favorite tool is, what I cannot translate without, I would have to say hands down that is the thesaurus. It is surprising how rarely it is mentioned, even by translation educators, who seem to prefer corpora for fancy tools beyond your usual bilingual dictionary. I do not know if that is because it is obvious (“of course the thesaurus is an indispensable tool, that goes without saying, my little grasshopper!”) or whether people just don’t use it that much.
The process is simple: you see the word in your source language and, if you cannot think of a translation in the target language immediately, consider a synonym of the source word off the top of your head. Translate that. A variation of this is to think of a word that comes close to your source word in your target language but is not quite what you’re looking for, then look it up in the thesaurus. This is usually a rewarding solution when that trusty dictionary is not turning out any interesting results. It becomes especially necessary when dealing with challenging concepts densely packed into one or two words and coated with all sorts of historical and psychological associations in the source language culture –as is so often the case with English. For example, enhance and engage are sometimes difficult to deal with in Spanish, as the first one’s more direct translation, mejorar, is far too general for most contexts and there is no clear, direct, everyday solution to the second one. In both cases, I can take whatever the dictionary offered as a translation and put it in the thesaurus. That way, I can adapt the general concept to the context.
One final advantage of the thesaurus that just cannot be overlooked is that it allows your mind to think of certain words in different ways instead of the very limited possibilities returned by many dictionaries; that is, thinking in semantic or conceptual blocks instead of individual words. This will also give your target language prose a bit more personality by making it more varied and lexically rich.
This is the trustworthy thesaurus that has gotten me out of many a bind in the past.