Monday, September 10, 2007

On choosing the right word

There's a particular event which recurs as you learn a language (assuming that one takes the learning seriously), which reminds you that you continue to learn and improve: Every now and then, you have to buy a new dictionary.

My first German-English dictionary was purchased in October 1984 in London, as I started taking evening courses in German. It wasn't a real dictionary in the Johnsonian sense but simply a list of equivalents: Pferd = Horse, Dog = Hund and so on. 20,000 entries per language, small enough to fit in a large pocket.

A few years after moving here, I found that I had outgrown that first book. My German had improved to the point that I needed a real dictionary, one that explained the meaning and usage of words rather than just translating them. I chose Langenscheidt's "Großwörterbuch Deutsch als Fremdsprache," a dictionary specifically for foreigners learning German, with well-written, lengthy explanations and many illustrations. 66,000 entries, too big to fit in any pocket. Foolishly, I didn't note when I bought it (I usually write the date and place on the flyleaf of my books); I believe it was around 1999 or 2000.

Seven years (call it that) later, as a result of translating these pieces for Princess, I realize that I have outgrown the GDF: too many of the words that I didn't know in German weren't listed in it, or were inadequately explained. The realization was triggered when the author used the phrase "wehrlos und schutzlos." According to my dictionaries, these words both mean "helpless" or "defenceless," but that's not true. "Wehrlos" is active and means "without means of defence:" unarmed, unable to fend off or counter an attack. "Schutzlos" is passive and means "undefended:" unsheltered, unprotected, vulnerable to attack. Neither of them means "helpless:" If you strip a man and tie his arms behind his back, he is vulnerable and unable to defend himself, but only if you also tie his legs is he helpless.

If you want to measure the quality of a dictionary, look up synonymous words—because there are no synonyms. Humans are lazy: if a culture invented two nearly-identical words, it is because the distinction between them was felt to be important, however slight that difference might now seem.

So I walked downtown this morning, stopping for a cappuccino at the Café Eberhard, to buy a new dictionary. I chose the Duden, the dictionary. Word-nerds use the name "Duden" as a generic term for "dictionary" in the way that thirsty people use the brand-name "Coke" as a generic term for "sweet soft drink." 150,000 entries, too big and heavy to hold on your lap. (I also bought a new one-way translator, German to English; 165,000 entries but quite a bit smaller than the Duden because the explanations are missing.)

The pair of them cost a quarter of what I earned from this job. Hopefully they'll keep me going until 2014 or so.

You would be right to infer that I'm going to try to do more translations. It's relatively good money, as an hourly rate it comes halfway between architecture and programming. We shall see.

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Blogger zhoen said...

if a culture invented two nearly-identical words, it is because the distinction between them was felt to be important

This is frightening, when I think of English, and the OED. Shades within shades. Also reminds me of this.

"The problem with defending the purity of the English language is that the English language is as pure as a crib-house whore. It not only borrows words from other languages; it has on occasion chased other languages down dark alley-ways, clubbed them unconscious and rifled their pockets for new vocabulary. "
- James Nicoll

September 10, 2007 at 2:24:00 p.m. GMT+2  
Blogger Diana said...

I absolutely loved reading this. Why? I cannot adequately say. Clearly I need a new dictionary.

September 10, 2007 at 4:07:00 p.m. GMT+2  
Blogger Pacian said...

I was thinking this just the other day. I'll often think of a synonym for a repeated word in something I've written and then think, "Yeah, that's the same thing, but in a completely different way."

September 10, 2007 at 11:04:00 p.m. GMT+2  
Blogger Udge said...

Zhoen: I loved the James Nicoll quote! To me, arriving at the point of being able to appreciate the shades-within-shades-of-meaning is a great part of the joy of learning languages.

Diana: heheh.

Pacian: true. Despite your extreme youth, we appear to have had similarly good teachers of English.

September 11, 2007 at 11:24:00 a.m. GMT+2  
Anonymous barbex said...

I remember being extremely happy when I realized that I had outgrown my standard "Langenscheidt" and had to order a "Großwörterbuch". Ahh, proof of progress.
Loved what you said about synonyms, there is so much more in a language that make translating so challenging.

September 13, 2007 at 8:51:00 p.m. GMT+2  
Blogger Udge said...

Hello Barbex, nice to see you here. The richness of languages is indeed a great joy, I love the challenge of finding exactly the right word (though in my blogging I am often too lazy to do so).

September 14, 2007 at 11:53:00 a.m. GMT+2  

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