Logos Multilingual Portal

6 - Use of corpora

"For example, I have dreamt of a letter, and also of a funeral or the like; I consult a 'dream-book', and I find that 'letter' is to be translated by 'vexation' and 'funeral' by 'engagement'1.

In the previous unit I showed the different theoretical approaches, as far as the investigation of the meaning of a word is concerned, implied in the consulting of a dictionary and in the consulting of a corpus. In this unit my aim is to show the practical aspects of this search. For this reason I will use concrete cases and I'll approach them with the two techniques illustrated to understand the differences and their relative pros and cons.

The translation problem examined concerns this sentence:

I have a mental picture of my father [...] settling down to explain the finer points of Truffaut to her [bold added].

To translate this sentence conscientiously, the translator must know:

  1. if "finer points" has a different meaning from the one that, trivially, you get trying to add the meaning of "fine" to the meaning of "point";
  2. if it is a collocation, therefore the positioning of "finer" near "points" is particularly frequent, to the point of rendering it strange to use a single synonym in the place of the two words.

At first the translator consults a monolingual dictionary and searches full-text the whole string. The dictionary I used for the experiment is the American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition, 2000. Inserting the desisred string, I get this result:<0}








1. Of, relating to, or consisting of muscle: muscular contraction. 2. Having well-developed muscles: a muscular build. 3. Having or suggesting great forcefulness, especially at the expense of subtlety: muscular reasoning that does not bother with the finer points; muscular advocacy groups.


From Latin msculus, muscle.See muscle.


muscu·lari·ty (-lr-t) -NOUN
muscu·lar·ly -ADVERB


muscular, athletic, brawny, burly, sinewy These adjectives mean strong and powerfully built: a muscular build; an athletic swimmer; brawny arms; a burly stevedore; a lean and sinewy frame.

As you may notice, the full-text search was well motivated: if I had searched under the entry "fine" or the entry "point", I wouldn't have found such word combination, since searching the two words together I get only one result, the entry "muscular", that wouldn't come spontaneously to my mind.

Comparing the definition, in which the word "subtlety" is used, I can start guessing that the "finer points" have something to do with the subtlety of a subject, but I still don't get an answer as to the two questions I have to solve to translate, particularly the second one.

Since it is a British English text, it occurs to me that the dictionary I used is not the fittest, since it is a dictionary specifically referred to U.S: English. I try then the same investigation with another dictionary, the Cambridge Advanced Learner's Dictionary (http://dictionary.cambridge.org/). The results I get are:

The three links send me to the three entries, two of which do not contain any relevant information, while the other one contains this material:

fine (EXACT)   [Show phonetics]
adjective [usually before noun]
very exact and delicate, or needing to be done, treated or considered very carefully:
I understood in general what she was talking about, but some of the finer details/points were beyond me.
There's a fine line between love and hate.

As you may notice, here the example contemplates "some of the finer details/points", which makes me think that the two names are interchangeable, and makes me hypothesize that the answer to the second question (is it a collocation?) is no.

Now I try to consult the biggest corpus in the whole internet, the British National Corpus (BNC), containing a hundred million words, much more than can be held in a CD. The address of this precious resource is:


I insert in the search window my string of text. The answer I get is:

Here is a random selection of 50 solutions from the 79 found...

This is due to the fact that I am not a subscriber to the BNC service. BNC comes in two versions. The version for subscribers is complete, the one reserved to people consulting it from without is not and, among other limitations, there is the number of occurrences that can be shown: If a string is present in more than fifty occurrences, the public version software shows only fifty random occurrences.

This is the complete screen that appears in this case:

Results of your search

Your query was

finer points

Here is a random selection of 50 solutions from the 79 found...

A0U 1711 And we are discovering that we are not interested in exploring the finer points of alienation with tea cuppery, but that the theatre can be a bridge of bone between sickness and health --; that our language will somehow always be on the edge of poetry and that image and metaphor are our natural tools --; they best express whole worlds and histories in collision with each other.

A6L 34 This varied experience served to convince Sir Adrian that no top executive can really be successful without an in-depth understanding of the finer points of a company's operations.

A77 526 Having established the finer points, the course moves out to the Barossa training area of gorse, bracken and small pine woods adjacent to the Academy.

A77 1655 Captain Watkins discusses the finer points of farming with a local

A7N 579 (Well, you try explaining the finer points of haircutting to a Russian whose grasp of English, while good, is far from perfect.)

AB5 646 Angie Bowie: `;With the Arts Lab in full swing, Ken Pitt was ironing out the finer points of a new record deal with Mercury Records and in his own way was very lucid about David because he never actually saw him rooted in England or rooted only in rock and roll.

ANK 183 They had learned the finer points from a freebooter at Dover, later buying their own streamlined cutter and running it from Folkestone to the French coast, dealing in brandy and fine lace.

B24 1754 You had to be sure that she had convictions as a prostitute --; first loitering and then prostitution and then finer points came up over suspected persons.

B25 1186 Once the topics are agreed, questions will be asked which will fill in the finer points of the hypotheses.

B2P 249 All this makes it evident and indisputable that the compiler of PS did not understand the finer points of trust wordings: for he announces that the wordings he quotes are ones in which the settlor addresses the beneficiary.

B71 1959 Scattered around in 10 cities, including Stockholm, the medical specialists will spend four hours discussing the finer points of herpes, acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS), hepatitis, meningitis, candida vaginitis and Reye's syndrome.

BLY 1080 The staff available in teachers' colleges consisted in the main of dignified old gentlemen, veritable repositories of folklore and tradition, ever eager to discuss finer points of language with other scholars, but totally unequipped to teach reading methods.

BMF 1032 Usually they are a group from an outdoor centre who are being given a taste of what canoeing can offer them and they have yet to appreciate the finer points of our sport or recreation.

BN3 1604 They may have lacked a proper use of the King's English, and a knowledge of the finer points of etiquette and accepted behaviour in conforming to certain standards.

C8P 1198 This is a good game for teaching budding soccer players some of the finer points of how to head a ball without them being frightened of hurting themselves.

C95 2793 Rather than start by discussing the finer points of the various varieties (covered in an earlier article), let's approach the subject literally: a good starting point is the size of Koi to aim for.

C9E 301 He went on to discuss the finer points of his work: Americans take the deepest divots, he said, the Japanese no divots at all.

CA1 597 We don't really need to know these finer points.

CDN 515 She walked all round his precious beauty and admired its finer points.

CDX 686 The finer points of the differences between being a Christian and a Muslim were rarely discussed between us.

CDX 1463 Though the Youngest Son had an essentially scientific mind and was impatient with the finer points of literature, his pleasure in puzzling over poetry was never ending.

CFT 3480 The finer points of performance and specification (finer being the operative word) should be left to our dealers.

CHU 612 Working on a quality paper, where journalists have more room for the finer points and a more informed audience, is considered to be much less demanding.

CHU 872 Though Pilger was a committed left-winger, he was lacking the finer points of the new feminist-influenced Right-On etiquette.

CJE 251 It should not pause to sniff at the scents of other dogs, at the same time remaining very responsive to its owner's instructions, adjusting its stance slightly, perhaps, to show off its finer points.

CLL 36 Once you are familiar with the basic workings, don't forget to go back to the manual to learn about the program's finer points.

EA7 831 It was within this kind of environment that chivalry flourished, that young men learned to identify, their vassalage towards their lord as a symbol of their honour, that they debated the relative merits of Roland's and Oliver's way of displaying loyalty; and that they learned the finer points of jousting.

ECX 303 It may be unreasonable to expect a civilian to understand the finer points of aerodynamics to degree level, but in the RAF it is something that pilots must learn.

EDP 298 Hodge was frequently criticised by contemporaries for his inability to grasp the finer points of the problems confronting him and for reacting in too blunt a manner.

EE2 55 Defined by early translators as the equivalent of the Japanese term hó0ken used to describe the Tokugawa system, the finer points of distinction between `;feudal system'; and hó0ken seido soon became obscured.

EEM 1517 The moderate Anglicanism for which Wilkins stood is sometimes described as `;latitudinarian,'; to indicate a breadth of mind and an attitude of religious toleration, at variance with the demands of puritan enthusiasts, whose overbearing self-assurance on the finer points of doctrine could be distasteful.

EFG 684 Doctors and nurses are sometimes too busy to worry about the finer points and a woman in labour is in no position to argue.';

EFW 514 Mature Christians were dragged to the more distant of the two wells in the Residency yard and, without discrimination between the finer points of their creeds, thrown in.

FET 1579 The place suddenly had its history of bloodletting to be sniffed, and yet even that was not exciting, maybe because the Nîmois did not roar for blood as the Romans had, but sunned themselves and discussed finer points of capework.

FT8 2388 The documentation provides plenty of general advice about writing letters --; both the general construction and some of the finer points, such as how many lines to leave for a signature.

G00 3429 This is a world where document management and revision tracking are probably more important than the finer points of typography, the ability to pull information out of the corporate data base more vital than a range of typefaces and sizes.

G10 1234 I do not understand the finer points of sorcery,'; said the Wolfqueen, and a brief, suddenly youthful grin lifted her lips, `;but I know a little.

G2E 147 To begin the evening Laurent Perrier will conduct a champagne tasting, educating us all on the finer points in choosing champagne.

H90 3337 Henry VIII cared little about evidence or the finer points of law.

H9C 307 `;I'd pay for a cup of wine and I have dice, though I would love to know the finer points of the game!';

H9C 2656 `;And, who knows, you may teach Ranulf the finer points of dicing!';

HAE 1138 CUED UP Joe Johnson gives Fred some tips on the finer points of snooker and (inset) a beaming Joe and wife Terryll share the moment of triumph when he won the world title in 1986

HJ4 2901 Suki --; `;I hate being called Susannah'; --; will also host a question and answer session and outline the finer points of good stroke discipline.

HR9 689 We could be here all night rapping about the finer points of mediumship.

J56 570 He was a highly educated gentleman, a very well known Varsity athlete, but he came to me with a bad report that he was completely and utterly clueless about some of the finer points of simple take-off and landing procedures.

K21 1484 They were expecting the finer points of drama and theatre management. instead they were introduced to the skills of the big top.

K3A 1026 BRITAIN'S No.2 tennis player of 1992, Andrew Castle, is making a post-Wimbledon trip to Liverpool to coach the finer points of the game to novices who may never have seen a racket.

K97 16887 Sometimes they were right, news crews rarely had the time or the inclination to pursue the finer points.

KE1 2361 the finer points!

KE2 3751 to Coronation Street do not know all the facts of course, we are ignorant of the finer points of the time gone by, but why is Deirdre so lasted to Ken I've yet to catch up with Wednesday night's proceedings on my video contraption , but the last thing that I heard Deirdre say to Ken as he was recovering on a put-u-up in her front room was, I'm stuck with you till you back on your feet and as far as I'm concerned it can't come soon enough for me, Ken lay there immobile, stunned, a cruel carry on, what's the poor chap done, but then I've missed too much


In the next unit we'll go on with this investigation, and we'll see what data we can get from such a result. I advice readers to try to consult the material produced by this query, so that you can the compare your hypotheses with the ones that I formulate in the next unit.


Bibliographical references

FREUD SIGMUND, L'interpretazione dei sogni, in Opere, vol. 3, Torino, Boringhieri, a cura di C. L. Musatti, 1966.

FREUD SIGMUND, The Interpretation Of Dreams, translated by A. A. Brill, London, G. Allen & company, 1913

1 Freud 1900: 95.