This is a cautionary tale.
The last time I went to Norway, one of the things on my shopping list–along with dance shoes, a sweater, and a thermos–was a new dictionary. My most recent Norwegian dictionary was one I had bought at the Oslo University bookstore in 1997, when I arrived for an intensive Norwegian language class. It was fine. But it was for high schoolers, and I’d gone beyond its vocabulary.
I went to Norway armed with a list of words I’d come across while reading that weren’t in my other dictionary. One afternoon in Bergen I went into Norli, a big chain bookstore, found the language section, and started looking up words.
I settled on a dictionary that had all the words on my list. It hooked me up with definitions of “halvannen” (one and a half), ørliten (tiny), and “henrykt” (delighted). It had a serious-looking matte black cover. It weighed 2.5 pounds. It cost 198 kroner, about $34, which is a serious price.
I thought I’d found the perfect Norwegian dictionary.
I was wrong.
Dictionaries that translate between two languages do not necessarily work for the speakers of both languages. For example, a native English speaker already knows that “mice” is the plural of “mouse” and thus does not really need “mice” as its own entry in the dictionary.
(Actually, the French/English and German/English dictionaries I just grabbed off the shelf, both published in English-speaking countries, do have “mice” in there, between “mica” and “mickey,” but you can see how they wouldn’t have to. Fun fact: you can translate “to take the mickey out of someone” to a German phrase meaning “to pull someone through the cocoa.”)
Here’s an example of the way the dictionary doesn’t work for me: gender.
Norwegian nouns can be feminine, masculine, or neuter. As a non-native speaker, I have next to no intuition about gender, so I alternate between masculine and neuter. (Feminine is sort of optional.) This dictionary isn’t making my life any easier. If I look up, say, “spear,” I learn that it can be translated as “spyd” or “lanse.” And that it is a noun. If you are a Norwegian person, this is plenty of information. But if I want to know the gender–and I do, because you need it to form grammatical sentences–I have to flip to the Norwegian side of the dictionary to learn that “spyd” is neuter and “lanse” is masculine.
Another example: the aforementioned German and French dictionaries both have an entry for “were”–they direct you to “be.” The Norwegian dictionary has two entries for “var,” which is the Norwegian word for “were.” But neither entry points you to “er” (“be”). It just so happens that the word “var” has a couple of other meanings, and those are the ones in the dictionary.
Basically, the publisher didn’t consider the possibility that non-native speakers of Norwegian would use their dictionary. Of course, they’re focusing on the right market. The number of Norwegians who speak English is way bigger than the number of non-Norwegians who speak Norwegian.
So learn from my $34 mistake. If you’re not a native Norwegian speaker, don’t buy this dictionary. And, if you’re ever buying a dictionary in a country where English is not the native language, study it carefully first.
Dictionary Stats: Engelsk Ordbok
author’s delightful name: Herbert Svenkerud
publisher: J.W. Cappellens Forlag AS, Oslo
length: 990 pages
guide words on p. 789: opplive vb 1 (oppmuntre) cheer, encourage 2 (stimulerende) stimulating; opprør sb n 1 (oppstand) rebellion, revolt; (især mindre) rising 2 (sterk bevegelse) commotion, excitement
introduction: Honestly, it’s in Norwegian and I can’t be bothered to read it. Like many bilingual dictionaries, this one has material between the two halves of the book, like a miniature English grammar and a list of irregular verbs. There’s also a list of boys’ and girls’ names–you can check in here to learn that Andrew is a boys’ name and Andrea is for girls. Another way this dictionary isn’t really helping me…although I have to admit that I didn’t know Aneurin was male. Have you ever met anyone named Aneurin?
obscenities: Yes. Interesting, though: I looked one up in English, then went to look up the definition in the Norwegian side, and it wasn’t there. So, they’re going to let you look up the dirty words you hear in English, but they aren’t going to help you translate them from Norwegian.