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66 of 73 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Flawed flagship, 18 May 2007
This review is from: Oxford Russian Dictionary (Hardcover)
The title under review is a very modestly revised, and slightly expanded, fourth edition of the Oxford Russian Dictionary (ORD), the flagship of OUP's Russian dictionary range, which was first published in 1993, reissued with corrections in 1997, and, with a new editor at the helm, republished in a 'Major New Edition' (ORD 3) in March 2000. In addition to a complete typographical overhaul, ORD 3 incorporated new vocabulary and a number of editorial refinements. Unbeknown to most purchasers, however, in one key respect it marked a huge backward step in the title's development: the work's already paltry A-Z content (i.e. the dictionary proper, as opposed to the non-lexicographical 'extras') - of around 470,000 words, phrases and translations (WPT) - was reduced by tens of thousands of items. More than 6,000 headwords alone were stripped from the Russian-English section of the 1997 edition, often with quite breathtaking disregard for their literary or cultural significance. Curiously, although it had fewer pages, larger type and significantly less A-Z content than its predecessor, ORD 3's jacket copy continued to claim to offer the user 470,000 WPT. ORD 4's WPT claim has been upped to 500,000 items, despite the fact that the number of A-Z pages is once again down on the previous edition and OUP's web site states clearly that the new edition includes only "HUNDREDS of new words, in both Russian and English". Clearly, OUP's WPT claims should be viewed with some scepticism.

Since it is one of a suite of unabridged OUP bilingual dictionaries, ORD 4's exceptionally low WPT count has a striking value-for-money aspect. With an RRP of 35, it is significantly more expensive than all but one of the other unabridged bilingual dictionaries, but offers dramatically less content than any of them. Professional Russian linguists and value-seeking advanced students alike will lament how badly its claimed 500,000 WPT compares with, for example, the claimed 910,000 WPT in the just-published fourth edition of the Oxford-Hachette French Dictionary (RRP: 29.99). In case there are doubters, be assured that the lexical resources of Russian are at least equal to those of French or any other European language. Value-for-money considerations aside, the fact that OUP's flagship Russian dictionary is so vastly inferior to its fellow bilingual offerings and, nothwithstanding WPT claims to the contrary, offers the user less A-Z content in 2007 than it did on its launch in 1993 should be a matter of deep concern to all of those with a serious interest in the development of Russian studies.

Although dwarfed by the huge content deficit, another fundamental shortcoming of ORD 4 is the inadequacy of its pronunciation guidance. Whilst a phonetic transcription is generally provided for English headwords, common variant pronunciations of words like 'contribute', 'controversy' and 'research' are frequently lacking and no transcriptions are provided for the thousands of 'nested' (see below) headwords, such as 'twopenny-halfpenny'. Furthermore, no attempt is made to reflect often sharply differing American usage (as in the words 'clerk', 'derby', 'fertile' and 'vase'). As for in-text pronunciation guidance in the Russian-English section, none whatever is provided, despite the increasing inclusion of such assistance in monolingual Russian dictionaries. Not least because it glosses over important points, the two-page Russian pronunciation guide at the front of the work is no substitute for in-text guidance.

Another fundamental shortcoming is the practice in the English-Russian section of 'nesting' compound headwords at the expense of overall alphabetical order. As a result words like 'cocktail', 'peanut', and 'so-so' are found not in their alphabetical place, but under 'cock', 'pea', and 'so' respectively. Efficient consultation is further hampered by the ill-judged downgrading of many multi-word lexical units to the status of example phrases: e.g. while 'ice floe' and 'hand grenade' ARE treated as headwords, 'Ice Age' and 'hand luggage' are not.

The Preface to ORD 4 states that "it has been updated to include the most important new words and meanings that have entered Russian and English in recent years". Just how scientifically this task has been performed may be judged from the following selection of omissions: 'anorak' (as person), 'bubble wrap', 'carbon footprint', 'celeb', 'chemo', 'civil partnership', 'couch potato', 'CPS', 'dis(s)', 'ER', 'fair trade', 'fatwa', 'geek', 'Green' (as in 'the Green candidate'), 'grunge', 'ICU', 'indie', 'intifada', 'Islamist', 'jihadi', 'jilbab', 'laddish', 'liposuction', 'login', 'madrasa(h)', 'makeover', 'malware', 'MPEG', 'MSP', 'NGO', 'pilates', 'rapper', 'silver surfer', 'slapper', 'smoothie' (as fruit drink), 'spliff', 'suicide bomber', 'USB', 'webcam', 'Wi-Fi', and, of course, 9/11. Lack of space prevents me from even getting started on the vast number of recent newcomers to the Russian language unrecorded in the Russian-English section.

Further evidence of the amateurishness of the work's execution is its wholesale disregard for frequency counts and corpora of both English and Russian. For example, of the 10,000 most common Russian words listed in frequency order in Nicholas Brown's Russian Learners' Dictionary (Routledge, 1996), more than a hundred are unlisted in ORD 4. In the 21st century, decisions on which words and senses belong in a dictionary should be based on scientific criteria, rather than an editorial whim.

Amateurishness is also in evidence in ORD 4's handling of American English, which disadvantages the native Russian user in particular. The riches of American vocabulary are woefully underrepresented (the user will, for example, search in vain for 'busboy', 'goofy', 'movie theater', 'pinkie', 'wetback' or 'zilch') and, as pointed out earlier, American pronunciation is ignored altogether.

The 50-odd pages of 'extras' in ORD 4 are largely recycled, warts and all, from the recent 3rd edition of the Pocket Oxford Russian Dictionary and are, in my opinion, inappropriate in a work aimed at advanced students and professional linguists with ready access to superior treatments of the same material in other sources. The Editor would have done better to use this space to address the fundamental shortcomings of the work and to make more than a token effort to reflect the enormous changes in the vocabulary of both languages in the seven years since the previous edition.
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Showing 1-8 of 8 posts in this discussion
Initial post: 17 Apr 2008 11:15:44 BDT
C. Burnett says:
I own the 2000 edition of this dictionary, and I reached much the same conclusion on its quality. My only question is, does a good, comprehensive Russian-English dictionary even exist? My day to day reference is Langenscheidt's pocket dictionary which I find much more useful than even the larger Oxford dictionaries, although is is necessarily limited by its size.

Posted on 27 Dec 2009 17:35:07 GMT
Fernie says:
Thank you for this detailed review. I have been using ORDs since the late '70s in various editions and was thinking of updating to the most recent edition. I am now wondering if ORD 4 is worth it. I will continue to search.

In reply to an earlier post on 25 Apr 2011 13:54:13 BDT
No publisher in the world has yet brought to market a general-purpose English-Russian-English dictionary, be it large or small, that is genuinely fit for purpose. Lack of vision, commercial cynicism, a 'good enough' mentality, and user apathy are among the many factors contributing to this deplorable state of affairs.

The Langenscheidt work - the slim, petite and genuinely pocketable format of which is admirable - is much more seriously flawed than is obvious to the inexperienced user or when merely skimmed. For example, in neither half will you find 'rossiyskiy' or 'rossiyanin', which are among the most common words in contemporary Russian and, indeed, the ONLY correct translations of 'Russian' in many contexts. The absence of such basic vocabulary is a truly spectacular blunder on the publisher's part.

In reply to an earlier post on 25 Apr 2011 14:21:30 BDT
As I have stated elsewhere, no publisher in the world has yet brought to market a general-purpose English-Russian-English dictionary, be it large or small, that is genuinely fit for purpose. OUP is the worst offender because, trading cynically on the strength of its once-honourable brand to create the illusion of a commitment to excellence, it inflicts the largest range of substandard offerings on vulnerable and credulous users. I (a professional lexicographer), and perhaps others, have pressed it for decades to meet its responsibilities in this field of scholarship, but to absolutely no discernible effect. We must hope that one day the champions of the `good-enough' approach will relinquish the helm, or have it taken from them, and that new people of vision, drive and professional integrity will give the world English-Russian-English dictionaries which are a fitting aid when grappling with the many intricacies of one of the world's most challenging languages.

Posted on 13 Sep 2011 16:13:03 BDT
jenny says:
Really? Downgrading the book because it doesn't have 'jilbab', 'pilates', 'spliff', or 'madrasa'?! And do such really particularly local words as 'laddish', 'anorak', and 'slapper' (British), and 'wetback' (an atrocious American racial slur), have a place in a general English language to Russian language dictionary?! I do not even want to think what you were writing that caused you to look up these words and discover they weren't there. It seems like some sort of pot-smoking, exercise-loving, technophile, Muslim leftist terrorist manifesto! No idea if this dictionary is great or not but this is the weirdest list of complaints I've ever seen.

In reply to an earlier post on 26 Mar 2012 10:53:15 BDT
emma r says:
My thoughts too, Jenny.
Also, what on earth does C.R.Howlett suggest one refer to? The professional lexicographer has nothing but complaints. Send us to the good source! Or the least offending one!

In reply to an earlier post on 27 May 2012 14:12:18 BDT
Last edited by the author on 18 Jul 2012 22:16:06 BDT
Bruce Wilson says:
Although not a student of Russian (yet), I would like to note that this lack of learning resources is not universal. In my own studies I have found that I am increasingly reliant on German and, perhaps surprisingly, Czech sources. As far as the latter is concerned, the publisher LEDA publishes dictionaries which I consider to be of a high quality. More to the point, as of 2010 they have published a 245 thousand word Russian - Czech dictionary. If C.R. Howlett is familiar with the Czech language, he might consider buying one of these. I certainly will.

It may be due to the attitude of successive governments to language learning that this field of study is dying in the English world.

Posted on 13 Nov 2012 01:54:28 GMT
Stickler says:
Thank you for your exhaustive review. While agreeing with several of your complaints, I don't find this dictionary quite the disaster you would have us believe it is. "The lady doth complain too much, methinks"; you aren't by any chance in some way connected to the Howlett, who was involved with the 1993 edition of the Oxford Russian Dictionary?
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