Look It Up In The Dicker: Bilingual Dictionaries
Some of our family’s favorite bedtime books, by E. Nesbitt, are about the Bastable children. Set in England in the late 1800’s, the series follows six siblings through a string of often hilarious adventures. Oswald, the oldest boy, says it is so sickening to have words you don’t know in a story, and to be told to look it up in the dicker. (The Would Be Goods)
We explained to our children that the British used dicker as slang for dictionary. It was a good lead-in to a discussion about how to learn new words and check on their spelling. We always included the story of my mother who wanted to write me about the neighbor’s new dog. “It’s a little wiener dog,” she wrote. “ You know, a …..” And there she got stuck. She couldn’t spell the name and later told me the dictionary didn’t help at all. “How can you look up something when you don’t know how to spell it,” she later told me in exasperation. Her solution: a children’s book about animals where she found not only an illustration but also the correct spelling for Chihuahua.
I’ve always loved dictionaries and the similar unique reference books such as The Order of Things (Barbara Ann Kipfer). As I first began my language studies with my grandfather, I learned about a different breed: the bilingual dictionary.
These remarkable volumes provide the equivalent for each of their entries in a different language. One can, for example, look up arithmetic in a German-English dictionary and find Rechnen. In the other half of the volume, the process is reversed. Looking up Rechnen will yield arithmetic. The parts of speech, declension (if applicable) and examples of use are all listed.
The examples of use are, in my opinion, one of the most valuable aspects of these dictionaries. They are usually listed by topic and provide priceless information. For example, looking up plug in a German-English dictionary results in 7 possible meanings for the noun in English followed by the German equivalent for each along with an example of use.
Today communication is helped by numerous on-line dictionaries. Often, however, they only provide a single translation for a term. The reader must evaluate the context and reach deeper. In fact, one way we recognize the work of amateur translators is that they have picked the very first definition and used it regardless of whether it fits the sentence.
Professional translators add studies in grammar, phonology and semantics in addition to courses relating to the fields in which they work. And they are also voluminous readers in both source and target languages.
When I was working as a translator I had numerous specialized dictionaries for the legal, medical, technical, scientific and telecommunications industries. Although I did not handle texts in all those areas, they were necessary to understand some of the reference materials surrounding my translations.
Today my bookshelf has bilingual volumes for German, Russian, Japanese, Chinese, French, Spanish, Swahili and others. I learn just by paging through them. Stop by the dictionary section in a book store and leaf through a volume. I guarantee you’ll find it fascinating!