HarperCollins Spanish Unabridged Dictionary, 8th Edition Hardcover – Aug 31 2005
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I find the leaders in the field to be Collins (HarperCollins), Larousse, and Oxford. Each publisher appears to be trying to one-up the others with the newest and best edition. The real winner is the consumer. My joint review of these three dictionaries is found here and duplicated under both of its competitors.
Here are a few of the factors which distinguish a good bilingual dictionary from a bad one.
To begin with, ignore certain publishers' marketing ploys such as entry and translation counts. They says nothing about the value of the words chosen. Likewise, ignore the word "unabridged" in the title. No work is truly unabridged except the monumental monolingual Oxford English Dictionary.
The first valid factor to consider is lexicographic technique. A bad dictionary simply lists translations. Take, for example, the entry in the Cassell's Spanish Dictionary under the English headword loop: "lazo, gaza, nudo; ojal, presilla, alamar; anillo; recodo, comba, curva, vuelta," etc. For the English reader writing in Spanish, this is hopelessly inadequate, as the dictionary provides no clue as to which translation to use in which situation.
Compare the treatment of the same word in the far superior American Heritage Spanish Dictionary. "(length of line) lazo; (coil) vuelta; (bend) curva; (circular path) vuelta, circuito; (fastener) presilla" etc. Here, the user is given glosses in the native language to assist in identifying the right word for the context. Example sentences are also a tremendous help. The Collins, Larousse, and Oxford are all excellent in this respect, presenting a wealth of practical information to guide users through the semantic and syntactic complexities.
The second factor is organization, which is important in large desk dictionaries. In an entry for a complex word like "get," a bad dictionary may force users to lose time searching for their translation through unbroken columns that can extend for more than a page. This was a problem--now corrected--in previous versions of the large Larousse dictionary. Today, the current editions of the Larousse, Collins and Oxford divide long entries by meaning into well-titled paragraphs. This scheme makes these dictionaries a joy to use.
Third, a good dictionary should maintain an up-to-date lexicon, including such cultural and technological additions to the language as "baby sitter," "FAQ's," "hostile takeover," "software," "flash drive." Larousse, Collins and Oxford are leaders in this respect; their frequent revisions are more than mere window dressing and do a creditable job of covering the most recent additions to the language.
Fourth, idioms, slang, and cusswords can present real problems to the language learner, and a dictionary needs to handle them in a clear and frank fashion. All three dictionaries get it right, giving stylistic equivalents for translations as well as clear advice to the user.
One complaint about the Collins is that it often presents Britishisms without labeling them as such. Revisions have only partially corrected the problem. For this reason, I would not recommend this dictionary to native Spanish speakers in the US.
Oxford and Collins contain excellent "language in use" sections which give formulas for language functions such as asking for information, agreeing, disagreeing, etc., as well as formulas for letters and documents.
The bottom line on large dictionaries? Avoid Vox, Velasquez, Langenscheidt, and Cassell's. Simon & Schuster's is unsuitable as a user's only dictionary but may serve some use as part of an advanced collection. I will report on the large Harrap's when I examine it, but my opinion of their other dictionaries is quite favorable. While not perfect, Collins, Oxford, and Larousse are the best large Spanish-English dictionaries I have examined. Except as noted here, most users would be well served by any of the three.
The headwords are in blue ink as well as being bold-faced and in a sanserif font, while the text of the entry is indented, mostly in black, and in a serifed font, which makes it easy to scan the headwords and quickly find the one you're looking for.
The entries frequently give words that are typically are used with the headwords. For example, the word for "bottom" is different in Spanish when used to refer to the bottom of a box vs. the bottom of a page vs. the bottom of the class, and the entry lets you know which word is used in each case. In addition, synonyms are shown. The entries give numerous sentences that illustrate the usage of the headword as well as idiomatic expressions that use it.
There are always going to be some words that don't seem to be in the dictionary, but I figure that any dictionary of over 2100 pages that has Spanish translations for "chutzpah" (a Yiddish word that has insinuated itself into English) and "auld lang syne" (a Scottish phrase that is sung every new year but whose meaning in English almost no one knows) must be pretty complete. And modern words like "Google" appear in the dictionary (as a headword in the English side of the dictionary as both a noun and a verb).
There is a bit of a bias in favor of British English. Both British and American spellings, as well as British and American usages, are given (usually with an indication of which is which). But a number of the translations (particularly of expressions) are into British English alone, some of which may be incomprehensible to a Yank. For instance, I had to Google "talking nineteen to the dozen" to find out what that English translation of a Spanish phrase meant.
As a native speaker of American English, I immediately know when a word or phrase is British English (since I either recognize it as such or can't understand it), but a native speaker of Spanish could be led to use a Britishism that is no more comprehensible to the American listener or reader than the Spanish! In reality, however, this is unlikely. Relatively few entries have that kind of Britishism as the translation.
Unlike some other dual-language dictionaries I've used, the English section is in the second half of the book, which makes it easier for me to leaf through the Spanish section, which is in front. And unlike another reviewer, I've not had any difficulty with the book staying open to the page I was reading without having to hold it down.
In my opinion, this dictionary is an unbelievable value given the amount of work to design and compile it. I haven't compared the dictionary to other unabridged works, so I can't say that this one is better than all the rest. But I can say that I have been very happy with this one, and I recommend it with the confidence that anyone using it will find it satisfactory.
Collins and Oxford offer a wide selection of words and much useful information about senses of words, prepositions used with verbs and nouns, and idioms. S&S does not offers as much information about appropriate prepositions and idioms, but its vocabulary is larger. The Oxford dictionary is more oriented toward users of American English. Collins tries to be American oriented, but its underlying British bias is unmistakable. Even so, sometimes it has just the idiomatic expression I am looking for, which is lacking in Oxford. A fourth bilingual dictionary, Larousse Gran Diccionario: Espanol Ingles : English Spanish Dictionary (Spanish Edition), is very extensive, but almost exclusively biased toward British English and Peninsular Spanish. This is fine for European users, but not as helpful for those of us west of the Atlantic.
Advanced Spanish users should also have one or two good monolingual Spanish dictionaries in their collection. At the top of my list is El Pequeno Larousse Ilustrado 2008 (Spanish Edition), and next to it is the Diccionario de la Lengua Espanola de la Real Academia (Spanish Edition). Both of these excellent dictionaries are now, thankfully, readily available in the U.S. at affordable prices.
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