Ilan Kernerman heads K DICTIONARIES (KD), an international dictionary company based in Tel Aviv. It develops dictionary content and software covering well over 40 languages, and cooperates with publishing houses, technology firms, universities, lexicography associations, language experts and translators all over the world. In Brazil, KD has been cooperating for the last 20 years with Martins Fontes on the Password dictionary.
Through Martins Fontes (and some help from my colleague Cristina Melo, marketing analyst at Companhia de Idiomas) I sent this interview to Ilan who kindly answered me via email. Ilan will be here in São Paulo in July, for the Braz-Tesol Convention.
Tell us something about your background, education and experience:
Ilan - I grew up in Israel and left the country when I was quite young. First I went to Canada, then lived in England, and then in France. I moved from London to Paris in order to study mime with Etienne Decroux, and eventually took other theatrical studies as well. After returning to Israel I worked in the theatre, mainly as an actor, and finally as the director and producer of my adaptation of William Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew.
How did you start working with dictionaries? What was the first one you've editted?
Ilan - W
Ilan - When I decided to leave the theatre, I was fortunate to be able to join my father’s publishing house, which specialized in ELT and became strongly involved in English learners’ dictionaries. I learnt about lexicography, publishing and business administration, and handled the contact with publishing partners in other countries who undertook local language versions of our semi-bilingual English learner’s dictionary (such as Martins Fontes, with the Brazilian Portuguese edition of Password).
I have no formal background in linguistics, am not a lexicographer and do not compile dictionary entries myself, but I did initiate and supervise various dictionary projects. The first ones were to coordinate the first substantial editorial revision of Password dictionary and the development of its first desktop application (both around 1996-1997).
What's the process of writing a dictionary like? How many people are usually involved? What are the steps? What softwares are used?
Ilan - The answers may vary considerably since there are many types of dictionaries and each undergoes a different compilation process, caters for different users, for different media, etc. A new project usually goes through a gradual creative period of planning, including a lot of study and analysis, brainstorming, samples, and trials and errors. Today, rather than “writing a dictionary” what we do is more like “compiling a dictionary database” that consists of various lexicographic data components that can eventually be put together in different ways for each specific dictionary in order to suit different purposes.
You begin by defining the target audience, the goals to attain and the resources that are available – then the dictionary is going to be designed accordingly. Our policy is to prepare an editorial styleguide, which describes the macro-structure of the dictionary and outlines the micro-structure of the entries, providing the wide overview of the project and going into detail on each and every aspect of the entry. The styleguide includes samples of the entries, and it also explains to the lexicographer how to use the editing software accordingly. In addition, the chief editor prepares a list of the headwords that the dictionary entries are going to consist of.
All of our dictionary compilation is done in XML format, which implies configuring an XML Editor to suit each project. Accordingly, we provide relevant documentation and technical support to the editors to help to install the software and manipulate it.
We work on many dictionary projects, involving lexicographers and translators in many parts of the world. The number of persons can vary, from very few to several dozens, depending on the project.
When is it better for students to use a bilingual or a monolingual dictionary? Why?
Ilan - As a generalization I would say a monolingual dictionary is best suitable for your native language, whereas for help with studying a foreign language you are better off using a learner’s dictionary of that language that takes your own mother tongue and cultural charge into account – i.e. a bilingual learner’s dictionary.
The reason is the need to accommodate to the vital role of the native language (and culture) as an integral part of the foreign language learning process. Thus, the more considerate you are of this, the better tuned your dictionary will be. A monolingual dictionary for learning a foreign language, no matter how fine and smart it may be, is by default incapable of attending to the subtleties and impacts of your “native language interference” and cultural background, but is obliged by its nature to be a one-size-fits-all product that aims to satisfy much wider user groups than just your own particular needs.
How to choose the best dictionary for your needs?
Ilan - You should be clear about what these needs are (e.g. production? reception? academic purposes?), what your learning level is (beginner, inermediate, advanced, etc), if are you interested in learning the language in general, in obtaining translations, in encyclopaedic information, in a specific topic (e.g. computers, economics, law, medicine), and how can each of the dictionaries that are available best satisfy these needs.
How to get the best out of dictionaries so that you improve even more your English (or any other language)?
Ilan - Good dictionaries usually contain rich and complex information, some of which may be coded or is not very intuitive. It is advisable to invest some time in mastering the dictionary’s user guide and in learning about all the types of information the dictionary includes and how they are displayed. It is necessary to read the full entry, not suffice with the first sense – which might not be the one you need. Cross-referencing entries can be useful for expanding your horizons about the initial word or phrase you looked up. Besides, the media the dictionary is in might offer more insight, such as vocal pronunciation or hyperlinking in electronic dictionaries.
Will the Braz-Tesol Convention be your first time in Brazil? What do you know about our country?
Ilan - I was first in Brazil a couple of years ago, and am much looking forward to this next visit. As a child, my first notion of Brazil was connected to its wonderful football, and later on to its ingenious music. These last few years I listen especially to Caetano Veloso, and am even getting to learn some words from his songs (as of from Vinicius de Moraes). I am fascinated by Brazilian pronunciation and the musicality of your language. I am deeply intrigued by the similarities and differences between our countries – such as the mixture of different people, sounds and colors, sun and sea – which are both highly sensual in essence and worlds apart in so many ways. It is exciting to see how Brazil is developing and the shift in its global status. Although I will now spend over two weeks in your country, this is basically a working visit in three main cities (São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, Belo Horizonte), so I hope to eventually be able to return to visit other parts as well.