In search of the right word;Reviews;Modern Languages

27th March 1998 at 00:00
Gillie Macdonald looks at the booming bilingual dictionary business

Putting the cart before the horse has always been a problem, particularly for writers of modern language dictionaries. Compilers of these tomes used to have to go to one filing cabinet to look up "cart" and another to find "horse", then start checking all the cross-references.

But just as horses and carts have passed into history, so have the bulging cabinets that once occupied the Glasgow offices of HarperCollins, one of the leading dictionary publishers in the UK. Sitting at a single desktop computer, it is now possible to call up the entire "Bank of English" with its 320 million words. From this one home-grown database, with its vast range of contexts for any word in the language, have emerged bilingual dictionaries in 17 languages, from French and German to Irish and Malay. Worldwide sales account for millions of pounds.

Dictionaries are a boom industry. Not only because of the ease with which they can now be revised and updated, but thanks also to a school examinations system that permits them in exam rooms.

Some teachers may rue the day dictionaries were first allowed in, but it has taken the pressure off pupils. "I don't need to learn the vocabulary," said one relieved lad, "I can just look it up." And so he can, though perhaps he has missed the point about language learning - and knowing how to use the information is another matter.

"Je see tu ville amer un jean," wrote one struggling young dictionary user when writing to her pen friend in the mock exam for last year's Standard grade, the Scottish equivalent of GCSE. "See" was the first word she encountered when she looked up "went" - "see 'to go'" explained the dictionary helpfully. But to inexperienced translators without grammatical foundations, abbreviations such as "amer" and "aux prep" look like good French words ("Je aux prep a visite ami," wrote her friend. "Faire per pron travaill pour sommes?" Work these out if you can).

Tackling these problems - and in a sense deconstructing their own dictionaries - is now one of the main tasks at Collins. Hence the bestselling Pocket version for the classroom, with 40,000 references and colour for the words you look up, has been stripped down to 33-34,000 references in a new Easy Learning range for 12 to 16-year-olds, based on the GCSE and Standard grade syllabuses. The layout is more spacious. Phonetics has gone. Translations - always on a new line - have been underscored and each meaning numbered. Feminine and plural endings are no longer given cryptically as (e) or (s) in brackets, but spelt out. The equivalent has just been done in German and is almost completed in Spanish.

Stripping down the number of references is a challenge in itself. Out go any words that are overly technical, formal or literary and in come new lifestyle, scientific or computer terms, from "mega-rich" to "e-mail".

Nothing could be easier - or could it? Well, what about a children's dictionary? The growth in primary language teaching is creating its own demand for bilingual dictionaries, says Michela Clari, editorial director at Collins. "Words would have to be bigger. Pictures would help. And we would have to build in exercises to stimulate the children. Once we make the decision, editorially it doesn't take too long."

Easy Learning French and German dictionaries. Collins pound;5.99 each (paperback) pound;7.99 each (vinyl). Spanish to be published in May

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