Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Lexical Euphoria: Good News on Dictionaries

A lot is happening of late in Tibetan lexicography. It can be hard to keep your head above water, but there is much good news for dictionary lovers. On the one hand we have the electronic dictionaries that can even be downloaded as apps for your smart phone, like what is now the standard of its kind: the Monlam Dictionary.  I suppose the most popular reference these days among students would be the Tibetan-to-English Translation Tool at The Tibetan and Himalayan Library (look here). There is no "Google translate" automated translation program for Tibetan yet. In the mean time this is the closest thing there is.*
(*If you or your children are just beginning to learn Tibetan letters, you may want to try the brand new “Tibetan Kid” or a similar app. I understand there is now an android app for THL’s translation tool, but I can’t tell you any more about that right now. If you want to install Monlam Dictionary with its Bodyig fonts on your Mac, see this video.)

Most young translators of Tibetan texts keep folders full of scanned dictionaries on their laptops. And they collect them like young people once used to collect baseball cards and phone tokens, swapping them with other collectors they happen to meet. This is just a fact I’ve often observed. If you can’t remember the times when Jäschke and Das were basically all there was, you can be sure you can count yourself among the young translators. Me? I don’t use smart phones, and I remember like it was just yesterday how we used to bitch and moan about Jäschke and Das and dream of a better time to come, so you know what that makes me.

Today I’m going to type in some minimally helpful words about print dictionaries.  You know what I mean, the old fashioned kinds that haven’t as yet had their content splashed up all over the internet (as far as I know).

I remember how we used to talk about “the three-volume dictionary,” but that name got rapidly outdated by being reprinted first in two volumes and finally in just one.  For a long time now its content has been made available to the world in digital form, and practically everyone I know of is using it that way. The print book just sits there unused, although if you are so fortunate as to have the particular version (of the first part of the dictionary only) in English form, it can come in very handy.*
(*Zhang Yisun (1893-1983), et al., Bod rgya tshig mdzod chen mo, Mi-rigs Dpe-skrun-khang (Beijing 1985), reprinted several times.  The English version got off to a good start with An Encyclopaedic Tibetan-English Dictionary (Bod dbyin tshig mdzod chen mo), The Nationalities Publishing House in association with The School of Oriental and African Studies (Beijing & London 2001), in 1384 pages, covering the first 8 letters of the Tibetan alphabet, ending with the word bsnyol-ba.  The project directors were Tadeusz Skorupski and Dondrub Dorje, while the translators were Gyurme Dorje and Tudeng Nima. For a somewhat critical review by Stephen Hodge, who worked on the project in its earlier stages, look here.)

Now, as if meant to confuse us, there is a new three-volume dictionary that is not (yet) so well known. It is a dictionary of literary Tibetan. The details are as follows:
Bod yig tshig gter rgya mtsho, compiled by a committee and edited by Thub-bstan-phun-tshogs (b. 1955), Si-khron Mi-rigs Dpe-skrun-khang (Chengdu 2012), in 3 vols., page nos. continuous, in 4013 pages. 
You can see what a hefty set it is in this photo:

I do recommend this other three-volume dictionary, and my main reason is that so many of its entries are original ones, not simply copied — as so often happens — from previous dictionaries. It may be difficult to locate it without making a special effort, and these days the mailing cost alone may be only slightly less than prohibitive. Still, I think it will prove its worth enough times you will be happy with the decision to get it. 

A few points to observe: It bears traces it was created in Eastern Tibet. The system of alphabetization is not of the standard kind.* It includes a lot of proper names, medical terms and the like.** 
(*Superscripts come before subscripts, if you can believe that! Then combinations including both superscripts and subscripts... I guess you get the picture if you are meant to.)  (**I'm sorry, but I don’t think I’ll get into the new medical dictionaries that are coming out, although I suppose I might get around to that someday. For now I’ll just say that there are some good ones.)

Teams of Tibetologists in Munich have been working for many decades on a Tibetan-German dictionary project, illustrated in our frontispiece. The title is Wörterbuch der tibetischen Schriftsprache. The good news is that it’s easy to use and full of examples of usage. No simple lexicon, it is indeed a citation dictionary, with bibliographical references to the sources used. It includes a good selection of place and personal names as well. 

So far, only good. The somewhat less good news is that not all the fascicles have come out yet, although they seem to be appearing with some regularity. I count myself fortunate to have fascicles 1 through 26 (I count a total of 1678 pages), covering the first eight letters of the Tibetan alphabet, and quite a bit of the ninth letter  ཏ་  ending with the word lto-stong, meaning hungry.  

Those years you spent trying to learn German will pay off here, while you will regret those other years you were forgetting what you learned. Some will be heartened by the idea that this is supposed to become a Tibetan-English dictionary at some point in the future, although I’m not sure if my information on that point is up to date or not. 

The history of the making of this dictionary is told in the introduction to the first volume. It started in the 1950’s and has continued ever since. When you see how many fine Tibetanists contributed to it during a half century of labor, and when you see what care has gone into its production, you know it is going to be at the top of everyone’s dictionary list when it will at long last reach completion. And when it finally is all there, my calculations indicate it ought to be about 4834 pages in length. That’s awesome.

And finally:  You may wonder why a Tibetanist who has basically locked himself up in the 12th century would even care. But one of the dictionaries I am most looking forward to seeing is this one:
Roland Bielmeier (1943-2013), Comparative Dictionary of Tibetan Dialects (CDTD) in five volumes: Introduction, Noun, Verb, Index and Syntax.
Go here and here and here for more information about it.

The truth is, many words from the pre-Mongol period of history that became obsolete or quite rare in later Tibetan writings are still in use in regional dialects (or Tibeto-Burman languages; the distinction between the two is far from clear) in our day. At the very least, knowledge of contemporary dialect terms can supply us with evidence for early meanings. I know some people are fundamentally opposed to the very idea of using present evidence to document the past, but I think we can go ahead and do it if done with honesty and care, as part of a discussion taking in wider realms of evidence. After all, we have to do something when, as happens to Tibetan-language translators with some regularity, we feel the need to find ways to crack the hardest of eggs.

More resources

For a great set of links to various dictionaries (both Sanskrit and Tibetan), look hereAlso, try this.  And this.  There are a number we haven’t mentioned in this blog that you can find using these just-linked resources.

Although I haven’t had a chance to read it yet, I noticed Jue Liang wrote a review of the above-mentioned Tibetan-German dictionary in the Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies, vol. 78, no. 2 (2015), pp. 405-408.

You are welcome to drop a line in the comments box if you have suggestions of your own about good dictionaries. We would be glad to hear them, and perhaps other people would like to compare notes and share experiences.

I guess most of my friends already know of my longterm fondness for the “Btsan-lha.” It is especially helpful for the earlier periods of Tibetan vocabulary, including words that people tend not to know anymore:

Btsan-lha Ngag-dbang-tshul-khrims, Brda dkrol gser gyi me long, Mi-rigs Dpe-skrun-khang (Beijing 1997).*
(*It may be impossible to find or purchase this dictionary, although I expect a reprint any year now. The Padma Karpo Translation Committee has created a digital version, so if this interests you you can go to their site. Be aware that their digital dictionaries are for sale, not for free.)

I just picked this next one up on my latest travels to the east, so I don’t have much to say about it yet. Still, here is another big dictionary in 786 pages:
Sgom-sde Lha-rams-pa Dge-bshes Thub-bstan-bsam-grub, Mdo sngags kyi gzhung chen mo'i tshig mdzod ris med mkhas pa'i zhal lung, Sherig Parkhang (Delhi 2011).  My copy is a 2nd edition, the 1st edition being from 2005. 
As the title suggests, the vocabulary is largely from Buddhist works, it does indeed include quite a few terms from the tantras, and the entries are often quite substantial ones, making it somewhat encyclopedic in nature.

There is also a new Vinaya dictionary that has proven of crucial importance to me a number of times:
'Bras Blo-gling Nyag-re Lha-rams Dge-bshes Tshe-dbang-nyi-ma, Dam chos 'dul ba gtso gyur gyi gzhung sne mang las btus pa'i tshig mdzod mun sel sgron me, Norbulingka Institute (Dharamsala 2009).  
The printing was subsidized by The Corporate Body of the Buddha Educational Foundation of Taipei (it is no. T1476 in their series) which means it is intended for free distribution only. Their generosity only compounds our difficulty in finding copies of this very valuable lexicon. It may be possible to download the book from the Taiwan website. I suppose you might give it a try, but I failed to locate no. T1476 in their download list. (I suggest going there anyway, since there are many other things of great worth.)

Did you know you can download a huge PDF of Melvyn Goldstein & Ngawangthondup Narkyid's English-Tibetan Dictionary of Modern Tibetan (1984) from the prof's own website at Case Western?  Well, you can — by going here.


  1. Dear F.H.,

    I don't think you need advice about writing. You wrote this comment, didn't you? And you also write blogs? If it only takes you 10 or 15 minutes to get started, that's fantastic! Don't try and center or clear your head. Those are wrong ideas. If you're troubled and confused, can't get your thoughts in order, that's an excellent starting point.

    And if the blog leads you in a direction you didn't predict? This is normal. As soon as you reach a conclusion, go back and rewrite the beginning, especially in case you expressed a thesis you didn't actually end up advancing or defending... Not knowing how to begin is like not knowing where you are. The only cure is to look around and get started doing what you have the idea to do. Just sitting there doing nothing ensures you'll just stay lost.

    Anyway, starting from a position of not knowing is ideal. Go with that and try to find out something. And as you are finding it out, write it down using wording close to your natural way of speaking. No outlines... Easy! Then you have the (more) hard part of editing, fact-checking and making sure everything is good enough for you and for your imagined readers* before pressing the "publish" button.
    (* My imagined readers are always friendly sympathetic and inquisitive readers. I never write with hostile readers in mind. Imagine you're writing a letter to a friend you'd like to see again after a long separation. That is bound to make your way of writing more sympathetic, I think.)

    If you are like me, you have a lot more ideas for blogs than you have the time to write them. When that happens just make a 'dummy' blog and leave it in draft. Weeks or years later you'll open it up and finish it off in no time. I've got a dozen in draft right now. This blog was one of them until recently.

    To sum up, my best advice is not to look for advice.


  2. That last comment was a response to the following message (I removed the name of the writer with its backlink, seeing that there was an attempt to promote internet and game software products. I do not allow commercial backlinks in the comments section. Why? Because I am fundamentally opposed to the takeover of the internet by commercial interests. We have to resist in every way we can):

    First off I want to say awesome blog! I had a quick question that I’d like to ask if you don’t mind.

    I was interested to know how you center yourself and clear your mind before writing. I have had a hard time clearing my thoughts in getting my ideas out there.

    I do enjoy writing however it just seems like the first 10 to 15 minutes tend to be lost just trying to figure out how to begin. Any suggestions
    or hints? Thank you!

  3. Interesting, but after a few minutes of investigation I found that F.H. did *not* in fact write his comment. He copy-pasted it. You can find it in comment sections all over the internet. Oh well, I've been hoodwinked before. I'll get over it.
    To reiterate: Powerful forces are at work to turn the WWW 100% into an MMM (money-making machine), and this is all the more reason why those of us who have a different vision of the internet's potentials must zealously resist.

  4. On the subject of dictionaries (and dictionary creation), I'd suggest Hill's "The contribution of corpus linguistics to lexicography and
    the future of Tibetan dictionaries" (available here: http://eprints.soas.ac.uk/19777/) if you haven't already read it.

  5. Thanks, Dirk. That's one of the things I overlooked and shouldn't have. I do recommend it. -D

  6. Belated many thanks for this blogpost, in particular the link to the The Corporate Body of the Buddha Educational Foundation website. I was Googling around for the Ris med mkhas pa'i zhal lung dictionary (one of the three indispensable dictionaries according to Gene Smith), arrived here, browsed the links and then found on the Foundation's site a newer, expanded edition of the work called sGom sde'i tshig mdzod chen mo in four volumes (I, II, III,IV). Fantastic!

  7. Dear Rinchen, Oh my, that IS fantastic! Took awhile to download all four files, but so worth it. I tried searching for the title on Google, and only found a few mentions of this work. I wasn't aware of its existence, even. Now if we could only make it searchable. Hmmm, perhaps somebody can... Yours, D

  8. Dear Ratna, Come to think of it, I do have the older version in print form. And somebody did an OCR version of the older shorter version that came out with more or less the degree of imperfection that we're accustomed to in such cases. Not too bad, though.
    Take care, and thanks for writing. -D

  9. Well, technically the files are in fact searchable, they're not scans. But they seem to use inconsistent encodings -- for example, I am able to search the first volume (in Adobe Reader) but not in the other volumes.
    It should be technically possible to extract the text from the PDF directly -- without OCR error -- and then convert it to Unicode, Wylie or something else. But I don't know what encoding they're using.

  10. Dear D,

    As I recently read your blog post on Tibetan dictionaries (Lexical Euphoria), I thought perhaps you (and maybe your readers) might be interested in the following dictionaries, which I have been finding useful (though you may have already come across them):

    rNam-rgyal tshe-ring (ed.), Bod-yig brda-rnying tshig-mdzod, Beijing: Krung-go’i bod-rig-pa dpe-skrun-khang, 2001.
    (For the old terms I find it nicely complements the bTsan-lha!)

    Negi, J.S., Tibetan-Sanskrit Dictionary, 16 Volumes, Sarnath: CIHTS, 1993-2005.
    (Of great use for looking for Sanskrit equivalents of Tibetan terms.)

    Nor-brang o-rgyan (ed.), Chos-rnam kun-btus, 3 Volumes, Beijing: Krung-go’i bod-rig-pa dpe-skrun-khang, 2008.
    (Useful for numerical categories.)

    Tanzin, Lopon P. Ogyan, Tshangs-lha’i tshig-mdzod/ Bod-skad shan-sbyar: Tshanglha Dictionary, Sarnath: Ogyan Chokhor-Ling Foundation, 2015.
    (On the Tshangs-lha dialect; as you say in your blog, the dialects can sometimes preserve words/expressions useful to working with more archaic material; a somewhat critical review by Tim Bodt was published in the October issue of the RET.)

    Thank you for your very useful blog posts!
    And best wishes for 2017!

    PS: Negi, J.S., Dharmasaṅgraha-Kośaḥ, Sarnath: CIHTS, 2006.


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