July 19, 2005

Book Review: Five Language Visual Dictionary

Book Review
Five Language Visual Dictionary
ISBN: 9867744624
400 pp.

If you know a word that no one else knows, does it mean anything? That is the question that you will ask yourself when reading any kind of English-Chinese reference book. You finally figure out how to say that word in Chinese that you have always wanted to know, and then you find that no one else has heard of the word.

Picture dictionaries have to get the right amount of detail. A dictionary with too few words is fairly useless, but if there are too many words, the useful words get buried. You don't want to know the names of thirty kinds of citrus fruits, you want to know the names of the ones that you recognize. The Visual Dictionary is not a translator's reference book. It provides a good level of detail for a dictionary that will be used for browsing.

The book's best feature is its pictures. They manage to sneak in a drawing of a raccoon and a blue whale, but almost all illustrations in the book are high-quality color photographs. To illustrate the human body, photos of clay models are used (but you won't find much detail about body parts).

Each entry is given in English, French, German, Japanese, and traditional Chinese. The English is England's English, and the Chinese was written by Taiwanese translators. The entries in a visual dictionary are primarily nouns—concrete things such as an apple, a bicycle, or a zebra. Not much room for confusion there, right? Not so. The dictionary does not know sure whether the Chinese text should be describing the pictures or translating the English. You have to figure that out for yourself. There is a photo of a child performing a flying jump kick. The first four languages indicate a jump, while the Chinese indicates a flying kick. Another picture has the English description, “actor.” The Chinese entry also indicates that it is an actor, then indicates “male” in parentheses.

Some Chinese entries leave me wondering whether the translators made up the Chinese words. The Chinese for “raspberry” is given as mumei (木莓). After searching on the internet, I find that mumei is acceptable, but it is not as common as fupenzi (覆盆子) or fupenmei (覆盆莓). I also find that shumei (樹莓) is another option. This leads me to believe that the “strange” Chinese translations are probably technically correct, but perhaps not the best choice in daily conversation. However, at least a couple of the entries are plain wrong. In a picture of a man fishing, the English describes the man's pants as “waders.” The Chinese entry describes someone who is wading. An English phrase for use at a butcher’s shop is “Take a number, please.” The off-base Chinese entry is “我要一些,謝謝! (I'll take a number [of those]. Thank you!) Would it break their budget to have someone check their work?

This original edition of this visual dictionary was written for English speakers learning European languages (French, German, Spanish, and Italian). For those languages, pronunciation can be understood from the spelling. For the Taiwanese edition of the dictionary, Chinese speakers will use it primarily to study English and Japanese. For English and Japanese, pronunciation cannot necessarily be guessed from the spelling, so including pronunciation is essential. The editors miss out on opportunity to make this dictionary truly useful by not including pronunciation of any of the languages. Including Mandarin pronunciation would also allow them to market the dictionary to young children. If they had wanted to be even more innovative, they could have added Taiwanese for each entry. That would have been difficult, but it would have made for a very interesting dictionary. As it stands, the dictionary is a great collection of pictures that will be of only modest usefulness for language study.


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