Legal dictionaries are a big part of what legal translators do. Legal dictionaries have usually been problematic in various ways. Perhaps technology holds the key for better legal dictionaries in the future:
The old days
In the days before computers, writing a dictionary was a laborious job. Lexicographers worked from boxes of handwritten paper slips on which were written suggestions for revising existing definitions, adding new entries or senses, or making corrections. If you needed to consult another dictionary entry in order to check something, you had to get the book off the shelf and look it up, or rifle through piles of paper proofs.
Computers changed all this. Dictionaries are now stored in complex, highly structured databases which enable lexicographers to work much more quickly and efficiently, with access not only to the text on which they are working, but to multiple other dictionaries at the same time.
Our software also allows editors to work remotely: an editor in the USA, for example, can make changes to a definition which are instantly accessible to colleagues in the UK. And as well as the actual words and definitions, modern dictionaries contain other electronic data which a reader doesn’t see, data which enables the dictionary content to be developed in many different ways, for example as a download for a handheld application or as a basis for the word suggestions in predictive texting on mobile phones.
Computers have also changed the way we conduct our language research. We now have access to vast electronic databases of real English, known as corpora, which enable us to see how the language is actually being used by people in all parts of the English-speaking world. Our analysis of these databases forms the basis of all our dictionary writing today: it allows us to track the emergence of new words, it shows us how patterns of use are changing and developing, and it provides us with evidence about the currency of words – whether they becoming more or less popular, for example, or whether they are used predominantly in one particular variety of English.
The way forward
More and more dictionaries are being offered in electronic form, either online or as downloads for handheld devices. This will remove one of the great constraints on dictionary writing in the past: that of size. We will be able to include more words, phrases, and senses and we will be able to add them more frequently. We can also add other features, for example sound recordings of words being pronounced, links to other texts, such as thesauruses, or lists of words related to a main entry (for example a list of wild cats at the entry for tiger). We can also build in sophisticated searching facilities which allow a user to browse within specific linguistic or semantic categories or personalize their experience by creating ‘subdictionaries’ of their own.