When dictionaries fail -- WIkipedia

The multi-language nature of Wikipedia can help in some cases where dictionaries or machine translators fall short, particularly where some cultural context is needed for understanding. Here’s one recent example from my experience.

I’m reading the Russian novel “Laurus” (Лавр) by Evgueny Vodolazkin. It is set in the middle ages, and the author intersperses a fair amount of archaic words and phrases, some of which I figure out, some of which I don’t, but it is still an interesting read.

The chapter in the fist book labeled “Ѳ” (yes, he even uses archaic letters to number chapters) starts with “На Покров Христофор решил причаститься в Кирилловом монастыре.” (Christopher decided to take communion at St. Cyrill’s Monastery on Pokrov) and “В ночь перед Покровом …” (The night before Pokrov). What’s “Покров” (Pokrov)? It’s not one of those archaic words, but the hints in Lingq – cover, covering, cloak, shroud – were of no help. I could have gone forward with just the assumption that it’s a church feast day of some sort, but I wanted a fuller understanding of the context.

There are a multiple ways to tackle this with Wikipedia. Taking the long way around, I went to the English site, searched for “Orthodox feast days” and found the article “Eastern Orthodox liturgical calendar”. That article is in English, of course, and does not contain the word “покров”. But here’s the real utility in Wikipedia – there is a link on the left to the corresponding article in the Russian language Wikipedia, “Православный календарь” (Orthodox calendar). And found in the list of feasts there is “Покров Пресвятой Богородицы” which links to the like-titled article.

I read a bit of the Russian article, and then to make sure I had a full understanding I used the cross-language links again to read the English article “Intercession of the Theotokos”. Aha! A cloak or covering can give protection. Detail in the text explains that the celebrated event involved an apparition of Mary spreading her veil over the people in a church for protection. The article also explains how this feast is celebrated throughout Eastern Orthodoxy, but most fervently in Russia, Belarus, and Ukraine. Yet more context.

A shorter journey to the same conclusion would have been to start with a search for “покров” on the Russian-language Wikipedia. That leads to a disambiguation page with links to many articles associated with the word. The first link is to the same article named above. There’s also a link to an article titled “Покров день” (Pokrov day) which gives more cultural context, such as it traditionally signifying the transition from fall to winter. The novel very evocatively describes the cold ride to the monastery.

After the fact I also find that in this particular case the transliterated word is found in a search on the English Wikipedia, leading to a disambiguation page that includes the Intercession of the Thotokos. I wouldn’t normally start a search for a Russian word on the English WP, though.

This whole process is a lot longer than clicking on a blue word and having the definition pop up on the right, and there are enough unfamiliar words in this book that I really need that speed and ease. Sometimes when that fails you can use the dictionary lookup successfully, and sometimes you can just accept a less-than-perfect hint. Sometimes you can just move on. But other times, especially if the word or phrase is crucial to understanding the passage, effort like this is worth it.

In this particular case it was not critical. But I am enjoying the feel of time and place in this novel, and spending a little bit of time to add more context to the reading was enjoyable.


Благодарю за пост. Воодушевляющий пример того, насколько внимательно подходит к деталям человек во время изучения иностранного языка. Настоящий исследователь! Я, например, знала, что" Покров" - это православный праздник. но никогда не вдавалась в подробности. Очередной раз убеждаюсь, что контекст часто играет немаловажную роль. Буду учитывать этот факт в изучении английского и других языков.
Go ahead!