Waiting for the electronic version of the Robert & Collins: An interview with Martyn-John Back, Director of Bilingual Dictionaries at Le Robert in France.
Françoise Herrmann

FH: Martyn, you are Director of Bilingual Dictionaries at Le Robert in France. Perhaps you could first explain in a little more detail the kind of work that you do, and for the younger generation of readers, your background and how you landed such a wonderful job?

M-J B: I studied modern languages at university in England, but I have no formal training as a lexicographer (in fact, very few institutions offer diplomas in lexicography). When I graduated I moved to Paris and taught English for several years before becoming a freelance translator. In 1990 the publishing house Larousse was looking for junior editors for a large bilingual dictionary project, and I applied for a job. I didn't really know what a lexicographer was then! After several years at Larousse I moved to Le Robert as project manager, and was eventually put in charge of the bilingual department here. One of my favorite words is "serendipity" - partly because I love the word and its history, and partly because it sums up my career!

My job is very varied. I manage the regular updating of our bilingual dictionary range, working closely with our partner and co-publisher Collins in Glasgow. This involves keeping abreast of new words and expressions in both French and English, and taking a fresh look at how our dictionaries deal with problem areas. What I love about working for Le Robert is that our dictionaries are changing all the time, not just in terms of content but in terms of how we approach linguistic problems. My work also involves setting up joint publishing projects with partner publishers, recently for example in Spain and China. And in recent years I have been very busy designing and editing a new bilingual dictionary for young language learners. This has been a huge success in France and we are hoping to export it to other countries soon.

FH: I imagine that with the advent of new communication technologies and the new economy of the turn of the century these are also serendipitous times for dictionary designers. Could you highlight how an institutional giant such as the Robert & Collins manages to keep abreast of what I like to call the terminology frontier, and perhaps even more importantly as you have pointed out, the new approaches to methodology and linguistic problems that have evolved in the course of its development?

M-J B: Perhaps I should point out that at Le Robert we are general lexicographers and not terminologists. The two demand very different skills and resources, and Robert & Collins are not in the business of producing specialist lexicons. But there are technical fields that have a public face, such as computing, economics and even sports, and we do our utmost to keep abreast of the changes taking place there. We do this in two ways.

Firstly, both Le Robert (for French) and Collins (for English) perform continuous lexical monitoring, with staff specially assigned to reading a wide variety of texts and recording what they find in databases. Secondly, we have access to two of the largest lexical databanks in the world, the Bank of English and the Banque du Français Moderne. These regularly updated corpora contain a total of some 600 million words from a wide variety of sources, and are invaluable for monitoring the progress of neologisms and above all for exploring how words behave in relation to one another-a key concept in translating, since the context of a word influences its translation just as much as its meaning. These tools have revolutionized our methodology by making it more scientific and less purely intuitive. If I had to give a single reason why I think the Robert & Collins such a good dictionary, I'd say that it's because it is based on corpus evidence. New technologies are also influencing our overall approach to the dictionary concept. Advances in natural language processing and new media for carrying and displaying data are of great interest to dictionary publishers, as they challenge our traditional methods and encourage us to explore new avenues.

FH: 600 million terms... this sounds like a translator's dream! You mention also that new media for displaying and transporting data transform both the process and product of dictionary publication. Could you explain this in greater detail, especially with regards to the upcoming and long awaited new electronic versions of the Robert & Collins?

M-J B: It's true that we have kept our readers waiting a while! But we think their patience will be rewarded. Le Robert will publish its first major electronic bilingual dictionary in 2003. We set out with the idea that the electronic dictionary should not just be a re-formatting of our data into an electronic medium. We wanted to think about it first and foremost as an electronic tool, making full use of the power, speed and flexibility of digitalization. We are lucky enough to hold all our data in electronically tagged form, which means that the hundreds of types of information the dictionary contains all have meaningful "names" rather than just typographical codes attached to them. In the printed book, these "names" are invisible to the user; but in electronic format we can use them to call up different types of information. An interesting example of the power of this tool is its capacity to look on both sides of the dictionary simultaneously. If you look up the word "entitle'' in a traditional dictionary, you'll only access the entry for "entitle" and the translations given there. But imagine a device that would instantly display not only this, but also all the instances on the other side of the dictionary where "entitle" appears as a translation. It more than doubles the potential of your dictionary, because there may be relevant translations elsewhere than in the entry itself.

FH: It certainly sounds as though the wait will be worth it! Could you give readers a few more pointers to the kinds of new features that they will discover in the upcoming CD-ROM version of the Le Robert & Collins? And perhaps also clarify that this is indeed a brand new 2003 product compared to the available Collins-Robert CD-ROM and the Lexibase version.

M-J B: Yes, this is a new product, and is the first electronic bilingual dictionary to be developed by Le Robert.

Another feature readers may be interested in is the way translations for idiomatic expressions can be accessed. In the paper dictionary, when you look for an idiom you usually look under the key word (so, to grasp the nettle would be under nettle). But the idiom may be presented elsewhere on the English-French side of the dictionary (under grasp), and also come up as a translation on the French-English side, sometimes with different French equivalents. What we have done is indexed thousands of idioms and set structures wherever they appear, making it possible to display ALL the possible translations, not just the one given at the keyword. And we have pre-edited these indexes so that each translation only appears once (to avoid cluttering the display when an idiom is given exactly the same translation in four different places, for example). Translators working (as most of us do) into their own language will find the "synonyms" function invaluable. This gives instant access to a complete list of synonyms for a given word. Though you may be satisfied that the French word "individualité" means "individuality", you will find it useful to choose from a set of related nuances such as "character, discreteness, distinction, distinctiveness, originality, peculiarity, separateness, singularity". The print dictionary cannot give all these nuances and synonyms for reasons of space. Because the space problem disappears in the virtual universe of the electronic dictionary, it is possible to provide this wealth of extra information.

Further help with self-expression-in the target language this time-is given via a hyperlinked "Language in Use" feature. This means that starting from a given concept ("disagreement" for example, with its related verb "disagree") you can access a series of ready-made French sentences that are related to the concept. This extends the boundaries of the dictionary because what you're being given is a thematically grouped set of sentences rather than just a single translation of the word itself. This is a real plus when you have to write structured arguments, essays or letters in French and are unsure of the right way to express things.

FH:All of these new features sound terrific. I love the Language in Use section of the paper Robert & Collins and a hyperlinked version sounds like a super bonus. Martyn, there are quite a few French-English bilingual dictionaries on the market, and many readers and users wonder which one to purchase. You have already pointed out how Le Robert corpus evidence makes the Robert & Collins such a good dictionary. Could you address the forthcoming CD-ROM version in the same way?

M-J B: The features I've mentioned are only as good as the data they allow access to. The real strength of this dictionary, and what sets it apart from the rest, is its treatment of the two languages it sets out to mirror. The mirror metaphor is doubly pertinent: use of up-to-date corpora means that each side of the dictionary reflects real usage, and stringent translation criteria ensure that the two languages mirror each other. An example I enjoy quoting is the word "effréné", which in previous editions (and other dictionaries) is translated "wild, unbridled, unrestrained, frantic" because its collocates are felt to be things like "course effrénée", "passion effrénée" and "luxe effréné". Corpus analysis revealed that effréné is far more likely to qualify words like "spéculation", "consommation", "recherche" and "concurrence". The collocation "luxe effréné" is rare, but the expression "à un rythme effréné" is very common indeed. The new edition has an entry that mirrors reality much more faithfully, with translations such as 'rampant consumerism', 'the reckless pursuit of profit', and 'at a furious pace'. To me this is what bilingual lexicography is all about-it's far more than just including and translating new words.

FH: That's a convincing and insightful example. Research really does make a difference and I see better what you meant elsewhere by truth in lexicography. One more question. The design conversation and your work in bilingual lexicography are on-going. Quantum leaps usually occur from one version to the next, both in printed editions, and spectacularly so in electronic products. Even though the new Le Robert CD-ROM has not yet been launched, you have completed one pioneering cycle of production. I would like to ask you about your plans and envisionments for the future: scheduled updates, or new versions, an interest in using the web for electronic mediation, or plans for tackling some hitherto uncharted territory?

M-J B: We are actively considering the best way to use the Web as a medium, if not a mediator, for our bilingual data. The parameters here are both conceptual and economic; we need to be sure that providing access to a bilingual dictionary on the Web provides a genuine service to our users, and we also need to address the commercial viability of such a move. As you yourself have mentioned elsewhere, the Web provides exciting opportunities for on-the-fly updating and user-publisher interaction; we are currently actively exploring these possibilities at Le Robert.

As for the future of bilingual lexicography, I think aligned bilingual corpora have huge potential for making the dictionary of the future. The idea is simple, its realization more complex. Highly trained and experienced translators all over the world are producing reams of accurately translated text; why not use this as the basis for dictionaries? It really works (I carried out a modest text alignment project some years ago and was able to improve several dictionary entries with the results). But processing the data is very labor-intensive and expensive. Potentially, the Web is the biggest and best multilingual dictionary the world has ever known. But my corpus shows that one of the most common collocates of the word "web" is "tangled". Our new challenge is to untangle the Web.

FH: Thanks, Martyn, for sharing these compelling ideas with us. I think that dictionary designers and translators are true allies. And I wish you good luck unraveling the tangled threads of the Web to further all of our common interests in language. As you know, Godot never shows up, but I am sure that Le Robert's promises will exceed all of our most daring expectations. Thanks again.