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The English-German/German-English dictionaries and references which I have seen all mix similar meanings together and provide few clues regarding the differences in meanings. If I wish to translate the English word "curiosity", e.g., from a sentence in Asimov's, "I, Robot":

The Co-ordinator, in his private study, had that medieval curiosity, a fireplace.

what I find is Neugier, Neugierde, Kuriosität, etc. But the reference does not tell me that Neugier is the feeling of curiosity and Kuriosität is a thing that is curious. So I must go to another German reference to sort through these possibilities. Can anyone recommend a reference source that provides translations according to meaning, instead of word-for-word?

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  • Kann ein Feuerplatz Neugier, gar eine mittelalterliche Neugier haben? Schließt Du Neugier(de) aus, bleibt Kuriosität übrig. Jul 24, 2023 at 11:41

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A German-English or English-German dictionary can target either German speakers or English speakers. If you get a good one targeted at English speakers then you should be fine.

Just to illustrate what I mean, I have an old “Langenscheidts Taschenwörterbuch Englisch”, which of course targets German speakers. On the cover it says “rund 80.000 Stichwörter auf 1280 Seiten”, so one should not expect too much.

If I look up “curiosity”, I get what you describe: “Neugier; Rarität; Seltenheit; Seltsamkeit“. And that is perfectly fine, because as a German speaker I do of course recognize that these are very different meanings. If I look up a German word, then I get the help that I need, though. For example “Träger: carrier (a. Medizin Krankheits~); (Gepäck~) porter; (Inhaber) holder, bearer, eines Kleides: wearer; (am Damenhemd usw.) shoulder strap; Technik support; Architektur girder; Elektrotechnik carrier; Chemie vehicle.” (The categories which I have rendered in italics are actually given by symbols.) This gives me enough information to choose a translation from the correct category.

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I don't have a dictionary for you, but a technique:

When a dictionary presents many translations, I check those translations by asking for a reverse translation back into the source language.

For instance, if I type "curiosity" into dict.leo.org, and then do reverse translations, I get:

  • Neugier: curiosity, nosiness, curiousness, inquisitiveness
  • Kuriosum: curiosity
  • Merkwürdigkeit: oddity, curiosity, extraordinariness, unusualness, queerness
  • Seltenheit: rarity, ...

so even though the individual translations are given with little context, the reverse translation usually reveals which meaning has been translated.

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I have a hard time to imagine the kind of dictionary you desire. Most dictionaries are sorted by keyword and a keyword is lacking the context required for disambiguation. While some, especially thematically sorted ones (either providing pictures for a thematic complex, or sections for situations, such as travel dictionaries) use a different approach, they fail as soon as the topic gets complex or abstract.

Here we start with the problem, that English uses the same noun for two wildly different things, curiosity being a homonym. I don't recognize, what method allows sorting by meaning in that situation.

The combination of a two-language dictionary for doing the mapping to potential counterparts, and a single-language reference providing sufficient description to chose one or the only matching one of the set offered, works in my opinion.

My proposal for the latter refence is Pons Großwörterbuch Deutsch als Fremdsprache, but it seems to be out of print. Here one finds:

Kuriosität: 1) Merkwürdige Begebenheit [...] 2) kurioser Gegenstand

Possibly the Langenscheid counterpart would be an alternative.

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  • I'm pretty sure that multiple meanings for the same word is a feature of all natural languages, not just English. In the case of "curiosity" it's a case of the meaning drifting in different directions over time, but there is a single origin for both meanings so it's not a homonym.
    – RDBury
    Jul 23, 2023 at 21:27
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In my experience, no single reference is going to have all the information you're going to need. In the case you're talking about, I think Wiktionary does a pretty good job. It has a translations section in the "curiosity" entry, and a subsection for each common meaning. But Wiktionary is very much a work in progress and I almost always verify what I find there in DWDS. I also use dict.cc and various other sites depending on the situation. If you have a dictionary that just gives a few possible translations and calls it a day then that is not one I'd start with. You could get away with that level of quality when dictionaries were all on paper and publishers saved paper by keeping the entries as terse as possible. But now, when you can access the entire internet from your phone, there are certainly better options.

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