How to quickly translate words with OS X’s built-in Dictionary

DictionaryIconXThere are a number of online translation services that you can use to translate words, phrases, or even entire bodies of text into another language; however, if you need to do so in OS X then there is a quick way to do so by using the Dictionary utility.

The Dictionary is Apple’s built-in word look-up tool that offers word definitions and thesaurus capabilities, along with access to Apple knowledgebase documentation and Wikipedia articles. It is the tool that the system uses when you right-click a word and choose the option to look it up.

While this tool generally is used for looking up definitions and similar words in the current system language, the dictionary does support a few languages for which it will display information about a selected word in another language. This is not the intended use of the Dictionary, so it is a somewhat crude and limited approach; however, it will give you a number of translated words, and being a contextual option makes it rather convenient.

Translation is available for Spanish, Japanese, Chinese (simplified), and Korean, and can be enabled in the Dictionary app’s preferences:

  1. Open the Dictionary App.
  2. Go to the program’s preferences.
  3. Check one of the four available “Language-English” options that is relevant for you.
  4. Optionally re-order the checked entries (this is the order that they will appear in the contextual panel).

When done, close the Dictionary and then three-finger tap a word in a program like Safari, Pages, or TextEdit, or right-click the word and choose the Look Up option. Then you should see it translated into the selected language somewhere in the panel that appears. This should work both ways, so words in English should appear in the non-English language, and vice versa.

Dictionary translation in OS X

With your dictionary enabled, words in one language should show up in the selected one.

11 thoughts on “How to quickly translate words with OS X’s built-in Dictionary

  1. Strod

    Hmmm… Those must be bilingual dictionaries included with Yosemite because I have never seen them in Mavericks or earlier versions of OS X.

    For Mavericks and earlier versions, you can install additional dictionaries. This page contains several dozens, perhaps even hundreds of dictionaries, most of them bilingual (and not just “English –> something else” and vice-versa!):

    I haven’t tested them with Yosemite as I haven’t upgraded yet, but my guess is that they should work.

    1. Strod

      Whoa, wrong link. The homepage is this one:

  2. Vern Klukas

    The only languages I seem to have two variations of English. Only in the Wikipedia section do I get language choices, and they don;t show up in the “look up” mode in a document. Not sure what I’m missing. Yosemite & Dictionary 2.2.1

    1. Vern Klukas

      Nope, maybe not. No french-english, and I can’t get the behaviour shown in the look up screen shot.

  3. Scott Bayes

    Good tip, but I did notice one thing you don’t seem to have mentioned: the contextual pop-up (3-finger tap, right-click, etc) only seem to provide access to the first 4 dictionaries enabled in Dictionary Prefs, so be sure to sort the desired translation dictionaries to near the top if you have more than 4 dictionaries enabled in total. I have 11 enabled.

    Using the full Dictionary app, all enabled dictionaries are visible when looking up a word.

    1. ChrisM

      Okay, I found the Spanish one. The pick list only shows four dictionaries at first. There are other dictionaries below but I don’t see a scroll bar to scroll down. However you can go down using the down arrow.

      1. Strod

        Alternatively, you can place the mouse cursor on the list, and then scroll by using the double-finger scrolling on your trackpad, or the scroll wheel/trackball of your mouse, or the “scrolling” gesture if you have a Magic Mouse.

        You can also place the mouse on the border of the Preferences window and drag to make it taller, thus increasing the number of rows in the list.

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