In 1966, when Collins, the publishers, started on a new English-French French-English dictionary, they offered a Scottish housewife named Sue Atkins the letter H for 100 pounds. Six months later she returned with H in a box and got C. She took a degree in linguistics and soon found herself editing the entire dictionary, aided by an Anglo-French team of seven and by lexicographersfrom Francehs respected Robert dictionary, co-publishers of the project. After 12 years, the completed work is just out, bearing no signs of the peculiar strains it involved.
As everyone knows, English has a much bigger vocabulary: There is, for example, no French word for "shallow" (they make do with peu profond , or "not very deep"). "There is also no French word for 'poise,'" Mrs. Atkins said, "and sometimes we just gave up and left the word out, as in 'child-guidance clinic,' which is an alien concept to them.
"'Nut' is another interesting one. You can't say 'I want a bag of nuts' in French. 'Police' took the longest for one single word and we had terrible trouble with 'skywriting' and 'microdot.'"
"Skywriting" emerged rather leadenwinged as publicite tracee (dans le ciel) par un avion . To learn the translation for "microdot," Mrs. Atkins called the military attache at the French Embassy, who was both suspicious of her motives and offended by the suggestion that French intelligence would have any truck (avoir affaire a ) with such a device. Finally, one of the French team met someone at a cocktail party who knew somebody who worked in a photographic lab and quick as a wink (en un clin d'oeil ) he came up with a reply. French for "microdot" is microimage .
"Sensitive" and "sensible" posed predictable problems. "There is no one French word for 'safe,'" Mrs. Atkins added, "you say sauf if something is out of danger, but sauf implies that something has been in danger. You cannot say 'your money is sauf here.' You would say it is en securite ."
Then there are the French words used in English with a meaning different from the original French, such as "nom de plume" (pseudonyme in French) and "table d'hote," which in French is prix fixe . On the other hand, there is Franglais.
"Le weekend , for example, is okay -- we consider it will become French," Mrs. Atkins said. "We used speakerine ["announcer"] although official French would prefer something else. And we put in le smoking for dinner jacket -- we try to reflect the language as it is used; if it is lousy usage, that doesn't matter. We reflect the language as it is spoken and written: we try to be descriptive, not prescribtive."
Through a carefully worked-out system of style labels and indicators, just about all the odd positions a word can get into are described. French Canadian and American usage are noted (the poor French reader having just learned, to his relief, that the word "local" is also a pub in Britain and a slow train in the United States). Idioms are listed as pragmatically as possible.
"To break somebody's heart" and "to break a record" are both listed under "break," while "to lend somebody a hand" is under "hand" because it is equally possible to say "give somebody a hand." "For raining cats and dogs we wondered if it should go under "raining or 'cats' or 'dogs,'" Mrs. Atkins said. "We decided it was easier under 'raining.'" (In France, the rain falls in cordes , or cords).
While the English lexicographers worked as a team, each of the French suffered mightily from each Frenchman's belief that no one but himself speaks French properly. "They were always criticizing each other. We had a terrible time with 'romantic,' and the three French people simply could not agree on 'to get in on the ground floor.' We finally used the translation of the person who worked on it last -- il est la depuis le debut , a very ordinary translation, I think."
Symbols such as a dagger or a double dagger indicate words that are old-fashioned or obsolete. Rude words are ranked by one, two or three asterisks suggesting the degree of care a foreigner should use in employing them. "All the reviewers wrote about the dirty words and slang," Mrs. Atkins says. "We are going to be known as the dirty-word dictionary, while in fact there are only about 10 words I wouldn't want my children to use."
Mrs. Atkins has lived in France and used to think she spoke the language quite well. "The shock I had a few years ago when I learned that c'est terrible means "it's super!'" she said. The fact that the dictionary took so long didn't help. "'Smashing' was okay when we started. Now we would consider it old-fashioned. Even 'groovy' would be old-fashioned."
The point of the dictionary is to give more than a flat translation: "It is a dictionary for literate people, for people who want to read Le Figaro or write letters."
Letter-writing raises the bugbear of complimentary closings: a problem that no two French people can agree on and that foreigners can only avoid by sending telegrams or by telephoning. Whether the French sentiments distingues is best rendered as "yours faithfully," while "yours truly" calls for sentiments respectueux , can be debated until the cows come home or, as the French put it, jusqu'a la Trinite .
Sometimes Mrs. Atkins' pile of dictionaries failed her and she resorted to manufacturers' catalogues to find out, for example, the different French and English meanings of the word "duvet." For "foam rubber" she simply stuck a sample on a card and sent it to Paris with the query, "What do you call this?" (The answer: mousse .)
The words were written on small file cards. Mrs. Atkins once lost a shoebox containing one-third of T, and she also dropped the box of B, which took 10 days to get back in order. The dictionary has had an effect on her own atitude toward language, she said.
"I found toward the end that I was listening to the words people were using without noticing what the sense was. My daughter once came in and said Miss So-and-So is a fat old cow. I didn't tell her she shouldn't say that; I just thought cow isn't a word I would use of anyone, I wonder if it should be in the dictionary." It is, with a single asterisk to indicate a slight degree of rudeness. And by the way, you can of course only call a woman a fat old cow. The French equivalent for a man is a camel, or chameau .