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In this post I’d like to provide further basis for the discredit of the grammar-translation method through looking at the possibility of misinterpretation based on dictionaries.

Lots of English linguists insist that there are actually no precise synonyms in a language, and I can just copy that in my mother tongue too, but even if we allow for synonyms encompassing words meaning almost the same as another word, no wonder that dictionary translations to another language rarely meet the criteria necessary to achieve successful word-to-word translations. Unfortunately, I’m not skilled enough in Dutch so that I can give you convincing examples in the field of meanings, but I face the problem daily if I get near a Dutch person who I could ask. “Yes, what you say/write is ok, I understand more-or-less what you mean, but this is not exactly how we would put it in Dutch.”

Besides this fact, there are probably hundreds and hundreds of cases when the meaning of a word can be completely misinterpreted using the exact foreign equivalent a dictionary uses. This is simply the result when dictionaries don’t bother to give details for exact meaning of the foreign equivalent, and sometimes even failing to mention which part of speech they are quoting. Often there is a mistake to the extent that the purported foreign equivalent doesn’t even exist.

My examples come from two bilingual dictionaries I have, the ‘Kramers handwoordenboek/Engels-Nederlands/Nederlands-Engels’ and the ‘Van Dale Studiewoordenboek/Nederlands-Engels’. When necessary, I check the real meaning of the words with the help of ‘Kramers woordenboek Nederlands’, where English is not used. I know for a fact that smaller dictionaries in the Netherlands are just as often void and useless as in Hungary – I’ve tried to use one or two, then quickly got rid of them. I don’t suppose that the lot of other two-language dictionaries found in abundance in the country are any better – the small Hungarian dictionary is definitely not better, why should the Farsi-Dutch, or Russian-Dutch dictionary be any better? So, here is a bunch of problems I’ve discovered over the last few months in the two large dictionaries, where Dutch learners of English are also likely to look up meanings of Dutch words.

Het weer is omgeslagenthe weather has broken, or Het weer slaat omthe weather is breaking? The clouds, but not the weather. Medemens is frivolously turned to be a fellow man, which would be a fellow creature if used at all by Englishmen. Handelen over iets is correctly given to mean deal with, but to treat (of)? What were the makers thinking of?

Bonenkruid is given as savoury, which is fine if one notices that it’s a noun. Most learners wouldn’t notice the small ‘o’ after the headword, which means it is a genderless, so-called ‘het-word’, and because ‘savoury’ is very rarely used as a noun in English, an unsuspecting learner-translator would be likely to use ‘bonenkruid’ as an adjective, or ‘savoury’ as a noun after encountering the word.

I owe gratitude to the dual-language ‘Kramers handwoordenboek’ that it doesn’t include ‘beamer’ in either the English, or in the Dutch section. This widely-used Dutch word represents the wide-spread misunderstanding that it is an English word, which the ‘Van Dale’ includes, but which the single-language ‘Kramers Woordenboek Nederlands’ excludes. Rightly so.

It can also happen that after the foreign equivalent is given, the headword is put into phrases as examples of use. This should always be part of a good dictionary, though, sadly, it never makes into smaller dictionaries. However, what can a learner do with entries like the following:

eigen 1 own, private, personal met de hem eigen bescheidenheid with his characteristic modesty; dat is hem eigen that is typical of him, (inf) that’s him all over; zich iets eigen maken (ook m.b.y. taal) make o.s. familiar with sth., (m.b.t. taal ook) master, pick up …

I personally appreciate the effort that the makers of the dictionary took pains in this case as in numerous others to supply an appropriate translation to the whole phrase. But shouldn’t there be at least one example where the translation conforms to the given English headwords? In all the three expressions with ‘eigen’, there’s not one which contains the three originally given translations. How is the student supposed to learn the meaning in English if he is to use the grammar-translation method for his own sake? Besides, I can also call it typical that, for the sake of a foreigner studying Dutch, the necessary preposition in the Dutch phrase equivalent with ‘familiar with’ is blissfully missing: “zich iets eigen maken” – van? met? aan? over?

In some cases the translations in the two dictionaries don’t match enough for a learner. ‘het gedrang’ is correctly interpreted as jostling, pushing from the original meaning of the stem-word, dringen, but it’s very likely that the other dictionary is closer to normal use translating it to be crowd, throng. However, even this second one creates problems with giving crush, which lots of young learners must be all too familiar with here from British soaps. Further, if one needs the meaning of in het gedrang komen in his translation, which meaning shall he/she choose: 1. get in a crowd 2. fig. be hard pressed, suffer from one, or (fig) get into a tight corner or be liable to be pushed aside/to be postponed (???)/to suffer from the other dictionary?

In other cases there is simply the danger that the learner can’t find which meaning quoted under the headword is the one he/she needs at the place and moment required.

Bent is given as set, clique, party, which together may vaguely indicate what the word means. Still, one keeps wondering, what if the meanings are apart? Then which meaning of set, or party is to be understood out of many?

Het voorbehoud is translated as reservation; which meaning of reservation? It is a bit hidden among other information that this is not about booking a flight, but about partial disbelief, a restriction.

Summier is defined as summary, brief , and only bn(=bijvoeglijk naamwoord) shows that these are meant to be adjectives (and summier is also an adverb according to the big ‘Kramers’), although ‘brief’ is often used as a noun or a verb, ‘summary’ is mostly used as a noun in English, and neither can function as adverbs.

Het vermoeden means suspicion, surmise, supposition, presumption, still, this word doesn’t mean mistrust as we could also deduct from suspicion. It’s not really a synonym of argwaan as the synonym section in the big ‘Kramer’ lets us believe.

There are similar problems with words like boorijzer bit (which meaning?), zijgen strain (which sort?), solutie solution (to a problem, or chemical?), soos club (a meeting-place, or a bat?), spaander chip (a piece of wood given for a silicon chip in the computer age?), keuvelaarij and keuvelen given as chat (in the internet age, when the meaning is restricted to broken speech of toddlers?), most given as must (when neither culture is used to what steps grapevine-making goes through until wine, the odd learner may be enticed to take it to be a form of the auxiliary – this translation misleads even a wine-savvy Hungarian where the exact same word must is used, with a difference of pronunciation).

I’m not sure that very many Dutch teachers of English are capable of explaining the subtle differences in the fields of meaning of English words in English – one can’t really suppose they can maintain their level of English high without speaking English in class to their students in the first place. Then, if they manage to maintain their English, they can mostly do it with dictionaries. They don’t have so much time to immerse themselves in life in Britain with all those teaching hours over the year. But they should remain the main source of vocabulary input, what with the quality of dictionaries as we’ve seen it, and the probably short hours students invest in studying outside class.

I’m not saying that all my examples play a big part in learners’ experience either. But there are lots of similar examples wherever I look. One can meet these problems in Hungarian, Sino-English or other dictionaries as well. But to do it only in Dutch seems to be just as weird as it is in Chinese or in Hungarian. Sometimes it may lead to situations similar to having to explain to a Beduin what ‘snow’ is like in Arabic, or to a North-Korean what ‘democracy’ means. Or to explain to a Chinese, or a Dutch, for that matter, what the difference between adjective and adverb is. There’s no distinction between the two in those languages …

by P.S.