Archive for September 2008

The latest must-have bilingual Spanish and English dictionary

20 September 2008

The fourth edition of the superlative bilingual Oxford Spanish Dictionary (edited by Nicholas Rollin and Carol Styles Carvajal and a formidable team of lexicographers and editors) was published a few months ago. Since the previous edition was in 2003, the dictionary will have received an enthusiastic welcome by those already familiar with the breadth of usage covered and the excellence of the research and the carefully engineered reader-friendly presentation. For the past fourteen years, this Oxford University Press product has been an essential reference work not only for any English speaker seriously interested in Spanish but any Spanish speaker seriously interested in English. For translators it is a particularly indispensable. Enthusiastic academic reviews will surely begin to appear in the coming months.

This is the top of the line in a wide range of Oxford Spanish dictionaries for different readerships. It is large in format (26 x 19 centimetres) and weighs 2.8 kilos (6 lbs). With its three-columns per page, this allows an enormous amount of concise information to be presented. Although expensive to produce, the cost is a very reasonable $US 55 (or 30 GBP).

Although the prestige of Oxford University Press as a publisher of dictionaries is unrivalled, this new product may be viewed, at least in part, as the latest fruit of the work of a pioneering Hispanist and lexicographer who practically single-handedly produced the first of a new generation of bilingual Spanish and English dictionaries in 1971 (published by William Collins, another venerable publisher of British dictionaries since 1874). After many years of work on this project (as well as his other academic interests, which were literary), the late Professor Colin Smith of Cambridge University astonished the Hispanic world with his Collins Spanish-English / English/Spanish Dictionary (consisting of about 1200 pages). At the time I wrote a ‘rave’ comparative review of this exciting ground-breaking dictionary: ‘A Landmark in Bilingual Lexicography’, Hispania, 56 (1973), 511-521. It really was a landmark, and I am still at ease with what I concluded then: “No one else has set out with such a clearly defined aim or with such determination to give all available information on current usage; […] Smith’s version of current English and Spanish is far fuller and more reliable than any other that we have seen.” (A few American Hispanists were not very happy with my assessment, probably because I chose the then favourite but very out of date American bilingual dictionary for comparison with samples of Smith’s offerings.)

The justification for this resounding endorsement was basically that other bilingual dictionaries of that era were full of lexical ‘dead wood’ and were deficient in contemporary colloquial language, coverage of Latin American Spanish and accuracy of translations offered. Colin Smith had utilised new selection criteria (first applied to his Langenscheidt Spanish dictionary and then refined) in order to offer “the typical ‘parole’ or personal language of the average educated English speaker of 1970 and that of the corresponding speaker of Spanish” – which enabled him to cut out what he termed “lexicographical lumber”. Professor Smith also took notice of frequency of usage, so that the more important lexical items received fuller coverage.

Since 1971 there have been seven updated versions of this essential reference work, the first directed by Colin Smith, and the others (as part of the HarperCollins conglomerate) by teams of lexicographers and consultants (of which for a short period in the 1990s I was a minor one, mainly for Latin American Spanish). The latest edition is the Collins Spanish Dictionary. (Complete and Unabridged), 8th ed., HarperCollins, London, 2005 (short ‘Amazonian’ reader reviews, and secondhand copies, are available on – but not, when I looked today, on The current unabridged Collins dictionary is almost exactly the same size, length and weight as the Oxford and also deserves to be considered an essential reference tool for Hispanists and Hispanophiles. (The only general distinctions between the two works I would point out are the special layout and page-appeal of the Oxford material, the superior quality of the OUP online marketing and the realistic deference by the Oxford lexicographers to American English for a worldwide market, without neglecting British English. On its website, Oxford University Press even offers free language resources:

In the world of bilingual English and Spanish dictionaries, no serious competition has emerged to challenge these two outstanding works and the rival teams which produce them.

I shall enjoy and profit from this latest addition to my library until the next update appears from one of these dependable sources – or from a new publisher – unless such massive print dictionaries are superseded by much less expensive online dictionaries, in which case I shall treasure the print versions.