Josef Fronek on the "drudgery" and rewards of compiling language dictionaries

When Josef Fronek began working on his Czech-English dictionary in the late 1970s, he embarked on a journey spanning four decades, which still continues to this day. His project had fairly humble beginnings: He began by collecting samples of English usage in shoeboxes. Today, his English-Czech/Czech-English dictionaries could almost be considered "required reading" for any Czech scholars studying English or English-speaking students brave enough to take on the complex Czech language.

His Czech-English dictionary alone now runs to 1600 pages, which is quite an achievement for one person, as most similar dictionaries are compiled by teams of authors.

So what prompted him to take on such a daunting task?

"I have to say something about my own life because I had a lot of problems with the political establishment of the former Czechoslovak communist regime. So I basically spent a couple of decades not being able to fully utilise my potential. When at long last I was able to get a proper job at the University of Glasgow, I was really ready for something big. I was hungry to do something."

When Josef Fronek began working on his project, a Czech-English dictionary was already being compiled by the respected linguist Ivan Poldauf, who was also Josef Fronek's teacher when he was at university. His dictionary is still in print today and is in itself a monumental achievement considering that he had to work under a communist regime, which naturally viewed linguists specialising in English with suspicion.

So why did Josef Fronek embark on a similar enterprise to that pursued by his old mentor?

"Basically, I wanted to do something different. That of course was an important criterion. I wanted to come up with user-friendly dictionaries. Poldauf's dictionaries were very useful tools in many respects, but they were also very difficult for my students to use. I believe that dictionaries should be friends. They shouldn't be too daunting. So that was the start. Now I approached it by collecting examples, because I wanted the dictionary to be user friendly. I didn't want too much symbolisation. I wanted to explain everything by way of examples and tried to make everything as clear to an ordinary person as to a linguist. So that was the strategy. I collected a lot of material in my shoeboxes in the 1970s and I started with a smaller dictionary, so in a way I was learning the methodology. The first dictionary was the worst. It was fairly small -only about 800 pages - but it was the most difficult one in a way. But I did learn from my mistakes. It's a case of planning things so that you don't waste time."

Besides his shoeboxes, Josef Fronek also spent countless hours compiling words from monolingual dictionaries and other sources in both languages.

Surely he must have found this work just a little bit stultifying on occasions.

Josef Fronek
"Writing dictionaries can often be sheer drudgery. My favourite quotation which I cannot resist repeating whenever anyone lets me is from J.J. Scalinger, a 16th and 17th century English lexicographer, who said that 'The worst criminals should neither be executed nor sentenced to hard labour but condemned to compile dictionaries because all the tortures are included in this work'. But of course, lexicography has its rewards. A big bilingual dictionary is like a huge engineering feat. It has to be conceived and then it has to be written. It has to be designed and then constructed like a huge edifice. If you don't do it right, you suffer for it. But if the planning is right - and after twenty years I've got much better at it - then it provides you with a long-term, meaningful intellectual challenge. While it can indeed be very tiring, it is also rewarding because every day you see a little step forward. Something concrete is happening. Basically you see that the edifice is growing very slowly but surely."

Considering that Mr Fronek started his project at the height of the Cold War, he would presumably have found himself working in a fairly specialised field, as Czechoslovakia's isolation from the West would have meant that not too many people in the English-speaking world had an incentive to learn Czech.

Now that the political situation has changed and there are far more people from English-speaking countries such as Britain and the US coming to the Czech lands and learning Czech, is Mr Fronek enjoying more feedback on his work?

"It is now more rewarding because there are lots of English people now who try to learn Czech and who appreciate certain features that I put into the dictionary, which were meant to help English speakers. It should also be useful for Czech speakers with things such as the contextual information in English. That is something I find quite rewarding and I have heard quite a lot back, from American learners especially because they are very forthcoming. So it's not a monologue but a kind of dialogue now. That's quite interesting and helpful."

One English-speaker who is very familiar with Josef Fronek's dictionary is Melvyn Clarke, a Czech-to-English translator who originally hails from Manchester. So what is his professional verdict on Mr Fronek's Czech-English dictionary?

"Very inspiring. It's really a very useful addition to my translation library. But you've always got to bear in mind that you can't have everything in one dictionary. The lexicographer like the artist has to draw the line somewhere, and there's certain things he has to miss out. So it's very useful, but I do also use plenty of specialist dictionaries as well. I certainly haven't thrown Poldauf out, but for idioms and new usages, Fronek is the man - he's really good."

Melvyn says he thinks Fronek has a very good ear for natural English idioms and modern English usage. This is something that is rather lacking in Ivan Poldauf's dictionary, which is now rather dated in this respect. He also praises the clear and detailed grammatical tables contained at the front of the dictionary, which are an absolute godsend to native English speakers learning Czech, who often struggle with the language's complex grammar.

There is also one other feature that Mr Clarke likes about the Fronek dictionary.

"While we're talking about pluses, we should mention the actual layout of the dictionary, which is excellent. He uses various colours, and he uses bold type very well. When your eyes are beginning to sting at three o'clock in the morning, Fronek might be the dictionary that you reach for first of all. It's much easier on the eye."

So is there anything, he doesn't like about Fronek's work?

"For historical material, I think he's drawn the line a bit too harshly. I can give you a couple of examples where Poldauf is pretty good and Fronek has perhaps drawn the line where he shouldn't. Take the word 'varyto' - there's a useful word. It's a fictitious medieval instrument. Poldauf mentions it. He calls it a harp. I'd call it a lyre myself. It's something that you'll find cropping up even nowadays. There's a group called Umelecka Beseda who are an association of writers, artists, and musicians. They actually use this instrument as their symbol. You'll see this symbol on posters of cultural events in Prague. So - you know - it's not totally obsolete. Another nice historical item that Poldauf brings up is 'ujec' - an uncle on your mother's side. It's a nice concept, which we don't have in English. It's archaic. Czechs will laugh at you if you use it, but what a pity to let something like that slide."

This last example is indicative of one the problems facing Czech to English translators. Sometimes concepts that are easy to express in one language can be almost impossible to render in translation.

This could be down to the fact that Czech and English are so fundamentally different from each other. So what does Mr Fronek think are the essential dissimilarities between the two tongues?

"I would say that Czech tends to be more compact. Czech words seem to be more independent. They seem to stand on their own, whereas English words often need a lot of context. Czech tends to use more information 'within' the word. English words very often rely on the other words around them."

Melvyn Clarke agrees that it can be impossible to find English equivalents for single Czech words. This is partially down to the fact that the structure of Czech allows a single compound word to express an often-complex concept:

"Czech can make nice constructive use of its prefixes and suffixes, etc. You can make all kinds of little ad hoc creations that don't have a one-word equivalent in English. We have to make a phrase to translate a nice meaty Czech word like 'nedovtipa' - a person who finds it difficult to take a hint. Do we have a word for that? I don't think so. 'Vybafnout' - 'to jump out and say Boo! You find that comes up in newspaper articles every so often. When they say that this fact really stands out, they say it 'jumps up and says Boo!' There's some nice ones too. 'Knedlikovy' - 'rather partial to dumplings'. When I go home in the evenings there's often a lady standing up on the bus next to the bus river chatting him up. The Czechs have a word for her. They call her a 'tycovka' - 'a woman who hangs on to the pole next to the bus driver and chats him up'. We don't have words like that, do we?"

Mr Fronek is currently working on an updated version of his English-Czech dictionary and he says he also hopes to revise his bi-directional dictionary as well. So what revisions would Melvyn Clarke like to see in this new publication?

"I've heard that Josef Fronek has said that his dictionary work more or less tries to cover the last hundred years of vocabulary usage. I realise that there are limitations in terms of space. If he puts many more words in, he'll need a wheelbarrow to carry them but an extra few hundred historical words would be ideal. I'd say that Czech has changed a lot more over the last hundred years than English has. The language used by Karel Capek is quite different to the language that you'll read nowadays. I'd like to see a dictionary that can cope competently with pre-Second-World-War language. The more historical terms in there the better I'd say."

Although Mr Clarke insists that these are minor quibbles it does indicate that Josef Fronek's task could be never-ending and that there will always be something more for him to do. As the seminal English lexicographer Samuel Johnson once remarked, trying to pin down language was like trying to "lash the wind".

So does Mr Fronek intend to keep plugging away forever or will he eventually pass on the baton to someone else at some stage?

"I thought I would stop when I retired a few years ago. I wanted to finish the Czech-English dictionary. I said that's it, I should do something more interesting. But somehow or other I got involved again and I've got quite enthusiastic now because the electronic versions of dictionaries actually offer some exciting opportunities. You have to sort of 'tend the fields' you know. The bi-directional dictionary will need to be updated as well and probably expanded. So that will take some time. I don't want to die in the middle of one. So I think I will give it another 3 or 4 years, maybe 5. There are other things that I'm interested in as well."

Books for this programme supplied by Shakespeare and Sons.