Finding the right words every time

As the Collins-Robert dictionary turns 30, we speak to editorial director Dominique Le Fur.

29 October 2008

The Collins-Robert, Britain and France's favourite French-English dictionary, turns 30 this year. Oliver Rowland speaks to editorial director Dominique Le Fur.

Is a new edition coming out to mark the anniversary?
Yes, a new seventh edition has just been published, as well as a new version of our two-volume French-English dictionary and a new electronic version of that. The Collins-Robert is the top-selling one-volume dictionary, and it is aimed at a wide public. The two-volume one is used more by translators and university libraries. In France our biggest competitor is Harrap's and in the UK Oxford-Hachette, but we are still the leader, which is always nice.

What was so unique about the Collins-Robert?
The history of the Collins-Robert starts in the 1960s when two big publishers agreed to work together to create a new kind of bilingual dictionary - written and edited by teams on each side of the channel.

The traditional approach was that, for example, a dictionary would be made in the UK for the UK market - perhaps with French people on the team, but with everyone immersed in English. With a cross-channel approach each side benefits from the other's mother tongue expertise and their experience of working on monolingual dictionaries.

The old approach was to base a bilingual dictionary on an existing monolingual one - translating each term - which could make them old-fashioned. We try to see how the language is really spoken and written - in the street, in advertising, in contemporary literature - texts are studied in a systematic way with powerful tools to see the multiplicity of contexts in which a word can be used.

We don't just say "X means Y," but try to show its nuances in different situations. We use indicators of sense and context and many examples. We were spurred on by work done in the 1950s on automatic translation, which showed word-for-word translation often failed lamentably.

For example - effréné (literally ‘un-braked’) can apply to course (race), luxe (luxury), spéculation, rythme, and suitable translations might include rampant, furious, wild.

Traditional dictionaries gave rather flat translations like ‘very fast’ or ‘unrestrained’. Each team translates into their native tongue as they master it best - if there is an idiomatic expression in French, the English translator can think of a suitable equivalent.

With information on usage and register and communication with the other team, there is no reason for the translation not to be good. I once worked for another publisher in London and they asked me to translate from French to English. I would tend to translate into those English words I master well, which is going to be more limited than my mastery of French. That used to happen a lot with earlier dictionaries.

Are there innovations in the new edition?
The one-volume dictionary has several hundred new words and expressions. We have improved the presentation by putting key words in colour. The electronic dictionary is much more comprehensive, with the addition of annexes that were in the paper version.

One of the traditions is stars for slang words, depending on their offensiveness. When I was younger I looked for the three star ones!
That's very common! It's a good way to get a feel for the language! We at Le Robert have always taken a no-taboos approach - if a word is part of the everyday language it goes in. We clarify how vulgar a word is and if it has sexual connotations - if its got three stars you don't use it when speaking to the French ambassador.

Each time we have a new edition we go star hunting - a word like ‘con’ (originally meaning ‘vagina’ but now usually meaning ‘stupid’) was seen as very vulgar 30 years ago and had three stars.

I am shocked to hear how often it is now used, for example on the radio, and we have now given it two. Perhaps it will soon have one, and none in another 30 years.

What are some of the new words or expressions?
One is partir en live (to go live) - referring to a person or a project. It is used in a lot of different ways. We have also made more use of cultural references - picked out in boxes.

In the old days, it was thought they were more suitable to an encyclopedia but we feel they are important - they are keys to getting into a culture.

Take la rentrée des classes - an English speaker may not be aware of the associations. Apart from the fact of children going back to school, it is an active period associated with street protests and strikes.

Another would be le bizutage - where first year students at institutions like the grandes écoles get made to do embarrassing stunts as a sort of initiation, like having to walk round Paris dressed as a clown, or the other students put them through some sort of mild ordeal.

In the English section we tell people what The Archers is, or pantomime - it's an important cultural element.

For neologisms [newly-invented words] we often go by what has been accepted into the latest edition of the (monolingual) Petit Robert. This time we have vlog (from the English, for video web log), and defragmenter.

We have biobanque (a collection of plant samples) and obèsogène (something that makes you fat). We don't mind if something is an anglicism and sometimes there are false anglicisms - the form has been borrowed but with a different meaning, like the word people referring to celebrities.

There have always been borrowings from English into French - and vice versa. We don't put in every new word you hear on the radio. We wait to see if a lot of people are saying it, writing it - not just on blogs, which are ephemeral.

Sometime it's hard to decide - we rarely regret putting something in but sometimes regret not including some trendy new word earlier.
We only update the dictionary every few years - we wait to see how the use of words evolves and, usually, if we take a bet on a word it is not such a risky one.

I take it you have read the whole thing? Do you recommend that?
Several times but I don't know it by heart - that would be great! Just reading it A to Z would be a bit boring, it is better to tailor your research. Learning page by page is very old-fashioned. We keep adding new teaching tools - information on things like common traps and false friends - not just the obvious ones, but subtle ones, where the equivalent word is in a different register or is not so commonly used.

Electronic dictionaries are becoming popular - they can be integrated into a person's working life very easily. We have had CD ROMs but now you will also be able to download your dictionary from the internet. You can click to hear a word pronounced - as many people are not familiar with the phonetic alphabet, which we use in the paper dictionaries.

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