Compiling New 150,000-entry Tibetan Dictionary: Any Role for the Tibetan Diaspora?

1902 Tibetan-English Dictionary: Compiled by an Indian spy for the British Empire
1902 Tibetan-English Dictionary: Compiled by an Indian spy for the British Empire

Xinhua reports that the first 3 volumes of a new all-Tibetan dictionary will be published within 2015, with another 27 to be gradually launched through the end of 2018 (新版《藏文大辞典》). The aim seems to be to create the Tibetan equivalent of the much respected《辞海》(Cihai), the large-scale dictionary and encyclopedia of the Chinese language.

Anyone who follows the PRC’s dictionary scene knows that the Chinese authorities can be more than a tad political about these reference tools – which script they employ, which words make the cut (or don’t), and crucially, who actually edits them.

The news item informs us that there are some 8 million potential end-users out there in China, Bhutan, Nepal and India. Given that about 120,000 Tibetan refugees are located in India (source: Wikipedia), many of whom have been educated in English and have unfettered access to the Internet (unlike their compatriots who live behind the Great Firewall of China), one might imagine some ethnic Tibetan scholars in India have been invited to take part in the compilation. Or academics worldwide, for that matter.

There was nothing in the news item about whether anyone outside mainland China would play a part in the massive project. Over the years I have used and/or reviewed many dictionaries compiled in China (see Turkish-Chinese Dictionary or Vaporware), and the prevailing spirit is well captured in an old Chinese idiom: Fabricating a cart behind closed doors (闭门造车). In fact, it wasn’t until recently that Taiwan-based scholars began to be officially consulted about all-Chinese dictionaries, a development that has helped to make them more inclusive and representative of Chinese as it is actually used worldwide.

Just take a look at one of China’s leading works, The Chinese-English Dictionary (《汉英大辞典》,吴光华主编) published in 2010: Well over 500 names of compilers/editors are listed for the past and current three editions, but not one is in English, and none of the names look faintly non-Chinese, i.e., have more than 3 syllables, etc.

Granted, many of these experts may be native English speakers, or very fluent English speakers living in the West, but I think you get my meaning — the publisher obviously wanted to suggest that this 2,288-page classic was Made-in-China. Frankly speaking, most any native English speaker would know this without poring over the editorial board list, because a good portion of the English in the dictionary is just plain . . . weird.

Enough of that. A few neat factoids about the new Tibetan dictionary:

  • It will be entirely in Tibetan. Most earlier efforts were Chinese-Tibetan, English-Tibetan or Chinese-Tibetan-English editions.
  • One of the earliest and most popular dictionaries,  A Tibetan-English Dictionary with Sanskrit Synonyms, published in 1902 , was compiled by Indian scholar (and reputed British spy) Sarat Chandra Das.
  • Despite the fact that they were completed quite some time ago, 《藏汉大辞典》 (1985, edited by a dozen or so scholars in China) and 《东嘎藏学大辞典》 (2002, the fruit of over a period of half century of work by 东嘎·洛桑赤烈) are reportedly still popular highly regarded by China-based scholars today.

2 thoughts on “Compiling New 150,000-entry Tibetan Dictionary: Any Role for the Tibetan Diaspora?

  1. New dictionaries are always good news. The problem as ever may come from neologisms. According to Xinhua news brief: ” WeChat, the most popular instant messaging tool in China, will be called trinqiong in Tibetan in the dictionary. Broadband will be called tayang and robot will be called trimen, said Gyangkar” [an editor at the China Ethnic Publishing House]. The original Tibetan is somehow hard to retrieve through the odd spelling given here (triqiong, tayang, trimen). Still, the word suggested for “WeChat” surely does not look like སྐད་འཕྲིན་ /kätrin/ which is now commonly used for it. Actually, “trinqiong” looks like འཕྲིང་ཐུང་ /thrinthung/, which is used for “SMS”.

    Tibetan language has to process many neologisms but many Tibetans have been trying to come up with them, be it in Tibet (see for instance Tsultrim Lodro’s famous illustrated dictionary and posters, which have a huge impact in Amdo – north-eastern Tibet) or exile (the exile administration has launched a series of dictionaries too). As a consequence, and just to give one example, there are now 3 or 4 words for “documentary film”, so standardization lies still ahead. If this dictionary adds more neologisms yet, it only postpones the perspective of reaching the stage of standardization.

    Also, will this new dictionary include such words as Facebook (ངོ་དེབ་ in Tibetan, a direct translation of the English original), since Facebook is banned in China? Will it include words that are meaningful for the exile community, such as government-related terms (to begin with “Tibetan government in exile”, for instance)?

    The suggestion that scholars from exile could have been included for the production of such a dictionary is nice but totally unrealistic in the present situation: in international events where they could meet on theory, Tibetans officials from China are advised against talking to their exile counterparts – or are plainly barred from joining the event if it is feared that they will meet ‘bad elements’ from exile. Political cadres accompany and watch carefully Tibetans who are sent as part of a Tibetology teams on tours abroad, and they brief them on what to say, what to do. Those Tibetan officials, upon their return to China, are often summoned to report what they have heard and seen and who they have met. The handful of Tibetan students from the TAR who study in the West never attend the Dalai Lama’s teachings or speeches if he happens to visit the country they study in, however much they wish to, for fear of being seen and denounced. As far as I know, no scientific or academic project has ever included Tibetans from both sides of the Himalayas. Suspicion about exile among the PRC authorities reaches levels which few people outside the Tibet realm can fathom.


    1. Great to hear from a bona fide Tibetologist, Françoise. But to paraphrase you, “new dictionaries are always good fun.” Dictionaries with Chinese characteristics evenmoreso as they are generally ridiculously political, and that can result in many a good chuckle. I hope we can get the first 3 volumes to you when they are published later this year — I look forward to your review!

      I’d assume some of the terms you don’t expect to see will, in fact, be included. Facebook access is banned in China, but use of the word in the media is common. Definitions can be a bit weird, but many sensitive words still show up in 21st-century Chinese dictionaries. China has an oversupply of clever spin doctors who are just right for this sort of thing.

      The day when Tibetan experts inside and outside the PRC can both contribute to such a dictionary is no doubt a ways off. But when you write that “suspicion about exile among the PRC authorities reaches levels which few people outside the Tibet realm can fathom,” it seems like déjà vu to me. I was a student in Taipei in the late 70s, and I believe the paranoia levels exhibited by the Communist bandits in the Motherland and the KMT running dogs over in Taiwan was quite similar. I was visited by a couple whose son, then studying at the U of Pennsylvania, had simply befriended a student from the PRC, and been blacklisted as a result; he was to be arrested the moment he set foot again in Taiwan — if he dared. We met furtively in a dimly lit café so I could update them on their poor estranged son, but they left after just a few minutes, utterly petrified at the thought that the omnipresent security forces would realize what we were up to.

      Yet by the mid-90s, scholars from Taiwan and the mainland were meeting and interacting, if awkwardly, at international conferences, and by the early 2000s, official Chinese dictionaries became noticeably more informative about “dialects” of Chinese living in Singapore, Hong Kong, Taiwan and elsewhere overseas. This was obviously due to increased cross-straits cooperation.

      It seems inevitable that at some point in the next several years there will emerge some Tibetan linguistic experts outside of China who are seen as sufficiently “neutral” to be allowed to collaborate on projects such as this colossal and very useful dictionary/encyclopedia.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s