Friday, May 14, 2010

Expert and Native Lexicographers

Last week, before I had yet another computer problem, I wrote that I would have something to say about dictionaries.

Man is by nature a tool making and tool using animal. Foremost among the tools for translators, whether Expert or Native, is the bilingual dictionary. I used to work with a bookcase of them and within walking distance of a library with even more. Nowadays I only use four on paper: one each for Arabic, French, Spanish and Valencian. The rest have been replaced by CD and Internet versions of the general dictionaries, and by the many technical glossaries and term banks likewise available on the Web.

Dictionary making – lexicography – has developed over the centuries into a complex and highly conventionalised competence. The front matter of Collins Spanish Dictionary needs 18 pages to explain ‘Using the Dictionary’. Probably very few users plough through all that, but the Expert Lexicographer must know it and must apply it consistently. Surprisingly, there are very few courses on bilingual or any kind of lexicography other than on its specialised sub-area of technical terminology. However, the leading dictionary publishers like Oxford University Press, Collins, Robert or Langenscheidt employ staffs of Professional Lexicographers, and there the apprentice lexicographers may learn their trade.

Already at school I was introduced to some of the great bilingual lexicographers of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. For Latin, Lewis and Short; for German, Karl Breul; and for French, J. E. Mansion, a pioneer of corpus-based lexicography two decades before the invention of computers (see TERM below). At university, I got to know the monumental Arabic-English Lexicon of Classical Arabic in 8 volumes by Edward Lane, who was himself a translator (see December 24 post); and for Modern Arabic, the Arabisches Wörterbuch für die Schriftsprache der Gegenwart (Dictionary of Modern Written Arabic) by Hans Wehr, another pioneer of corpus-based lexicography in pre-computer times. This last I now use in J. Milton Cowan’s superb English translation of it – yes, the dictionaries for translators are sometimes themselves translations! Much later, in the 1970s, I encountered Colin Smith’s Collins Spanish-English English-Spanish Dictionary, which set a new standard in its field; and Eugen Wüster’s The Machine Tool: An Interlingual Dictionary of Basic Concepts.

All of the above qualify as Expert Lexicographers. You can tell it from the quality of their dictionaries. In Wüster’s case, he can be classed as an Expert not only for his dictionary but also for his theoretical approach, which put a methodological foundation under the work of the technical terminologists.

However, just as there are Expert (trained) and Native (self-taught) translators, so too there also bilingual Native Lexicographers, bilinguals who are not trained lexicographers but who imbibe lexicography from the dictionaries they use. And just as a Native Translator who is a subject specialist in the area of a technical text may have an advantage over an Expert Translator who is not, so too Native Lexicographers may be the best people to compile dictionaries in their own specialities. A good example would be the Emir Moustapha Chéhabi, a Lebanese agronomist, whose Dictionaire français-arabe des termes agricoles is a standard reference that has been translated into English under the title Chihabi's Dictionary of Agricultural and Allied Terminology.

But what drew my attention this week to Native Lexicographers was an article in Le Courrier de Vietnam (The Vietnam Courrier). One of the top tourist destinations in Vietnam is Hue, the old Royal City. The people there speak a Central Vietnam dialect of Vietnamese. Vietnamese is a tone language, and Huean is said to sound “light, melodious, rich in D minor notes... like singing” and to be extremely rich semantically. For years Dr. Bùi Minh Duc (see photo), a native son of Hue, has been working on a dictionary of its dialect and has published three editions of it, the second already with 1,052 pages. It’s not a bilingual dictionary; it’s written in Vietnamese. What struck me, however, is that the author is not primarily a lexicologist; he’s an otorhinolaryngologist with a successful practice in the United States, where he’s been living for decades. It has meant his having to shuttle between America and Hue to do the dictionary fieldwork. That he’s not an Expert Lexicologist, and is not constrained by the experts’ conventions, is indicated by some of the criticisms that have been levelled at his work:

a) He mixes dialect words and words of general Vietnamese
b) He doesn’t observe the distinction between a language dictionary and an encyclopaedic dictionary.

Yet who cares? It makes his dictionary a dictionary of Hue and Vietnamese culture too.

This story confirms what I have often felt about Native Lexicographers: they are fascinated by language and for them lexicography is a true labour of love that inspires in them great devotion.

More to come on bilingual dictionaries.

The Lewis and Short Latin Dictionary, first published at Oxford in 1879, is now available free online at
thanks to support from the National Foundation for the Humanities.

Karl Breul (Cambridge University Reader in Germanic). A New German and English Dictionary / Compiled from the best authorities in both languages. Revised. and considerably enlarged. London: Cassell and New York: Funk and Wagnalls, 1906.

J. E. Mansion. Harrap’s Standard French and English Dictionary. London: Harrap, 1933-1939. The introduction describes the corpus.

Edward William Lane. An Arabic-English lexicon, derived from the best and the most copious Eastern sources; comprising a very large collection of words and significations omitted in the Qámoos, with supplements to its abridged and defective explanations, ample grammatical and critical comments, and examples in prose and verse: composed by means of the munificence of the most noble Algernon, Duke of Northumberland, K.G., etc. etc. etc, and the bounty of the British government. In two books: the first containing all the classical words and significations commonly known to the learned among the Arabs: the second, those that are of rare occurrence and not commonly known. London and Edinburgh: Williams and Norgate, 1863-1893. This too is now available free online, at Lane died before he could complete it.

Hans Wehr. Arabisches Wörterbuch für die Schriftsprache der Gegenwart. 1952. Wehr started on it in the 1930s, but publication was delayed because his files were destroyed in an air raid on Germany.

Hans Wehr. A Dictionary of Modern Written Arabic. Translated and edited by J. Milton Cowan. Sponsored by the American Council of Learned Societies, ARAMCO, and Cornell University. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1966. There have been paperback reprints. The Introduction describes the history of the dictionary, its methodology, sources, and the difficulties of modern Arabic lexicography.

Colin Smith et al. Collins Spanish-English English-Spanish Dictionary. London & Glasgow: Collins, 1971. Many later editions and editors.

Emir Moustapha Chihabi (or Chéhabi). Dictionary of Agricultural and Allied Terminology: English-Arabic with an Arabic-English Glossary. Translated from French and edited by Ahmed Sh. Al-Khatib. Beirut: Librairie du Liban, 1978. Still in print.

Le Dr Bùi Minh Duc, un oto-rhino épris du parler huéen. Le Courrier du Vietnam, May 13, 2010.

Corpus-based lexicography: compiling dictionaries from analyses of large computer-stored databases of text and not from the lexicographer’s own memory and personal opinions. Forerunners like Mansion, Wehr and James Murray (the first editor of the great Oxford English Dictionary) used corpora that were on paper and had to rely on manpower to search through them.

Photo: Le Courrier du Vietnam

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