• Dictionaries past and present
• Five basic steps to writing a bilingual dictionary
Compilation of a framework
Translation of the framework entries
Final edit and proofreading
If I had a pound for every time I’ve been asked that question,
I could probably stop writing them. I don’t think I’ve ever given anyone
who has asked a straight answer though. It’s a process that not that long
ago took about a decade, so how do you go about describing that at a dinner
party, on a bus journey or indeed in a short article?
The very first bilingual dictionary I worked on, which passed through
several publishers’ hands before ending up on the market, was the work
of over 100 people and took around 13 years to put together. In those
days, it was a painstaking manual process and computer use was limited
to the IT people and keyboarders capturing the lexicographers’ work.
The whole business of dictionary writing – especially
the timescale – has changed enormously since those days, as indeed have
the dictionaries themselves, which in part answers the second most common
question you’re asked when you reveal you’re a lexicographer: Why
do we need any more dictionaries? My reply to that is usually
simpler: Would they expect schools to still be using textbooks from the
1950s? A dictionary is a tool that reflects language and its use and must
therefore keep abreast of developments and the times as well as increasingly
meet the specific needs of particular user groups. Dictionaries need to
be pitched to maximize their benefits. A dictionary aimed at young learners
of English, for example, will differ significantly from one intended for
university students or professionals. There are general dictionaries,
business dictionaries, legal dictionaries; an endless list of types and
permutations. Content aside, technological developments – most dictionaries
these days are simultaneously published in print and electronic format
– as well as the look and feel of products we choose to buy all contribute
to the need for publishers to regularly update their products as well
as occasionally aim to come up with ground-breaking new angles or distinguishing
features that will further help and interest each new generation of dictionary
The essential process of compiling a bilingual dictionary
remains basically the same although technological advances have improved
and dramatically shortened the process. Whereas once you could have got
away with just working on two or three major projects for your entire
lexicographic career, these days a project can last from as little as
six months to a couple of years, depending on how much data a publisher
already holds in its databanks and how sophisticated their data-processing
systems are to get at a targeted starting point for a new product.
One thing to remember about bilingual dictionaries that
cannot be underestimated in the planning, is that a bilingual dictionary
has two sides, each involving the source and target language
with the basic process having to be worked through for each side by native
speakers of both languages.
of a framework
Two teams of lexicographers each produce a framework in their own
language in which they categorize data into meanings and give examples
of use as well as any helpful background information and comments. There
are several steps to this initial process:
Gather linguistic evidence
The gathering of material needs to be in line with the publisher’s specification
which nowadays usually has a pretty well-defined target market in mind.
For example, the range of words selected as well as the detail of information
to be covered and the examples chosen to illustrate the language in
use, all need to be relevant to the age, level and purpose of the user
that the publisher intends to sell the product to.
Whereas in my early days, this process involved a couple
of afternoons a week leafing through publications ranging from The
Economist to Hello, armed with a highlighter pen, a set of
index cards for recording finds, and an all-important cup of tea and
a biscuit, these days the use of a corpus, with millions of words
captured and numerous search and query tools at the lexicographer’s
disposal, takes out a lot of the effort (and fun!) as well as offering
a more scientific and representative map of the language to start out
Painstakingly analyze and
Once the list of words to be covered is selected, lexicographers trawl
through the evidence for those words to identify the most common structures
and patterns that they usually appear in. They then start categorizing
the different meanings and uses into separate senses and select natural
examples and contexts to illustrate those meanings. In bilingual dictionary
compilation, you have to go a step further and add several contexts
that you know will not be published in the finished product but that
aim to give the translator a fuller picture of the word and how it is
used so that they can test out the most appropriate general translation
that can be offered as an all-purpose equivalent.
Construct a framework
All this slowly builds up into a framework for an entry. With bilingual
compilation, the framework is only half the story as you cannot decide
exactly what will go into the final entry until the other language is
in place and a lot of teasing and tweaking is required along the way.
Now that framework compilation is computerized, there
are complex tagging structures to categorize the data down to the last
detail. Everything from the headword to the punctuation is controlled
by different tags and this makes the output and manipulation of data
a lot easier and more cost-effective than in the old days of long-hand
compilation and keying.
of the framework entries
With the frameworks in place, translators can begin to translate the entries,
sometimes working through several screens of data to arrive at a publishable
two-line entry. Dictionary translation is a fine art as, no matter how
many times you have previously worked through the same A-Z text, the perfect
translation can still elude you as language is not an exact science and
different languages relate to each other better on some levels than others.
Concrete things do not tend to present too many problems but it’s the
conceptual or cultural aspects of a language that can have translators
immersing themselves in the evidence, looking up existing dictionaries,
following a whole series of related entries and clues all promising something
closer and better, sometimes to find that they’ve just been on a wild-goose
With the bilingual text in place, the editing can begin. Screens of information
have to be boiled down to tight but comprehensive entries that capture
the key elements of the word without taking up any unnecessary space.
This part is a delicate balancing act full of compromise.
Much of the data in a dictionary is compiled systematically following
product-specific rules and guidelines that could themselves fill another
tome. Computers and tagging structures which allow extractions of the
different types of information in entries have made checking things like
groups of related entries, coverage of specific types of information as
well as statistics on length and elements within entries a lot simpler
and more efficient.
5 Final edit
When every part of the process is officially finished, you need to go
through the work one last time when the focus turns to assessing the quality
of the finished product and approving it for publication. Once that is
done, it can finally be proofread to eliminate any typos and remaining
errors before passing on the finished text for printing.
That’s more or less it in a proverbial nutshell, as far
as the A-Z text is concerned at least. Any special features throughout
or supplementary pages are each a mini-project in their own right.
So, whenever I get asked the same old question again,
I can just whip out a copy of this article and that should make anyone
sorry they ever asked! On the few occasions I’ve mistaken someone’s passing
curiosity as genuine interest and engaged with their opening question,
another question invariably follows: But doesn’t it get boring?
Well, yes, sometimes it does as no doubt aspects of every job do. The
point is that nothing much is that interesting until you’re immersed in
it and you have to struggle to make sense of it and get the job done.
A bilingual dictionary is like an enormous jigsaw puzzle where you’ve
got to keep trying the different pieces – although unlike a jigsaw puzzle,
there are many possible combinations and pictures those pieces could make.
That struggle, together with different language combinations, product
specifications and the chosen angle, keep the process alive and bring
a new dimension to the work each time.