A few thoughts on dictionaries

A few thoughts on dictionaries
Elliott batTzedek

     Translating, and reading about translation, has made me hyper-aware of dictionaries. There are, in turns out, many different kinds, each with its own purpose and usefulness.

     The “dictionary” most of us know is a book that is a collection of words with information about those words. It is monolingual (or intralingual), and it exists to explain words to people who already understand the language. While most pretend to be neutral, they are not – to explore the editorial policy of a dictionary, look up any controversial cultural term – lesbian, abortion, sex, or any racial or sexual insults. Does the definition satisfy you or just make you angry? One linguist I know, the radical lesbian feminist writer Julia Penelope, once had a job as the “offensive usage” editor for a dictionary, deciding and marking which words were sexist, racist, age-ist, etc. Imagine using THAT dictionary, what values it would express! I only wish I could remember what dictionary it was….

     And, of course, we all know how dictionary definitions can be infuriatingly obtuse or self-referential. Look up a word like “afraid,” for example, and you might find “the state of being in fear.” All fine and well, IF you know what “fear” means. If you don’t, you’ve learned nothing. There is an amazing dictionary for adults learning English, the Oxford American Dictionary for learners of English, which defines words clearly and simply, and never uses a word in the definition of itself. It has photos, illustrations, and guides to types of language, such as which kinds of words are used in a resume vs a casual email. I had one, once, and spent hours leafing through, delighted with what I was learning about my own language, but gave it away to someone trying to refine his English enough to look for a better job. (I really wish I could find a similar dictionary for modern Hebrew, for I need the information about the qualities and contexts of words, not just their “definitions.”)

     Dictionaries also define only one word at a time, or at most a short phrase that carries a single unit of meaning. They are, in this way, like looking through a microscope, trying to get a sense of an animal by searching a single cell at a time.

     Bilingual (interlingual) dictionaries are a beast of a completely different nature. They are actually more a lexicon than a dictionary, in that they exist to map one word to another and not really to define words. They are based, in the words of Jorge Luis Borges, “on the hypothesis – obviously an unproven one – that languages are made of equivalent synonyms.” And of course languages aren’t, which is why using a bilingual dictionary is only barely related to understanding or translating a language. If I look up the word “run,” for example, it will list several Hebrew words, nouns and verbs. If I look up each of those, it may say only “run.” (With a pronunciation guide, and, for Hebrew words, the gender of the nouns and class of the verbs.) But what do I then know? Does the word mean to run, to jog, to sprint, to flee for one’s life, to give someone the run around, to run for cover?

     And, within those limitations, bilingual dictionaries, like monolingual dictionaries, have editorial policies. My Hebrew/English dictionary doesn’t have the word “fuck” in English or Hebrew, and that’s a word my poet uses, as well as related concepts also missing. I probably need a Hebrew slang dictionary, if such a thing exists, as well as a Hebrew for speakers of other languages dictionary. Online interlingual translation sites help fill some of those gaps for me, although I’ve not yet found a Hebrew equivalent of an “urban” dictionary with all the pop culture references and slang terms and usages.

     Contemplating all of this is only the background to actually translating! Some days, staring at a word that ought to make sense and doesn’t, and being unable to figure out why, I do wonder what I’ve gotten myself into. Translating is incredibly hard. It is also incredibly rewarding, the same “ahhh” as dropping the right piece of a jigsaw puzzle into place and having a whole section become clear. Well, it’s like that if what you have is a pile of puzzle pieces but no picture of  what you are building, only a title that gives you a general sense and lots of shapes that look familiar.

A few more thoughts on dictionaries, from the translator’s best friend, Willis Barnstone, in his The Poetics of Translation:

A dictionary is monolingual or bilingual in format and intralingual or interlingual in purpose. With it one confronts the unknown.

An interlingual dictionary is a bible for the translator, containing official law for transferring meaning between languages. Laws, however, even holy ones, are not always perfect. An interlingual dictionary enlightens and deceives.

An interlingual dictionary provides a mirror image of the unknown in a known language, but for there to be a meaning, to be semiosis, the translator must intervene with her interpreting mind, actively choosing what amid the new data provides equivalence.

A monolingual (or intralingual) dictionary defines by explanation and synonymity. A bilingual (or interlingual) dictionary seeks equivalence and does not primarily define. It tries to translate. It tries to do so faithfully and literally, but leaves the decision of the right choice to the translator.

A bilingual dictionary is not prepared to handle sentences, since it has no memory of syntax and cares nothing about grammar. A dictionary has a multitude of cyclopses looking out from its pages. When a lexical cyclops takes on a second or third eye right in the middle of its brow, the hybrid monster is so cross-eyed it cannot see or be seen unless one focuses in one eye alone.


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