Release early, release often: Hindi-English StarDict dictionary

January 20, 2008, [MD]

I’ve always loved dictionaries, and especially the mouse-over ones - I did a brief screencast of Wenlin, and hacked up my own little Indonesian dictionary when learning Indonesian. Currently I am learning Hindi, so of course I had to go out and investigate the tools available. Turns out that there’s not that much. Shabdkosh is a great online dictionary, being continually improved by users, however you have to actually go to the site to conduct a search. What I really wanted was a mouseover dictionary.

I found TranslateIt!, a program similar to StarDict that works on Mac, and integrates very well with all Cocoa applications, enabling you to both do normal searches, but also mouseover. Because it is compatible with the StarDict dictionary format, there is a huge array of dictionaries available for use. TranslateIt! itself seems to be made by a Russian company, and comes with very good dictionaries for Russian - and it even does inflections (since most Russian words tend to be heavily conjugated, this is key). This solved one long-standing need of mine - I speak some Russian, after having travelled there several times, and even attended the Russian People’s Friendship University (Университету дружбы народов) in Moscow for a month, and I often thought that if I had such an application and could actually read Wikipedia, Russian blogs etc, I’d get back into it.

So the hunt was on for a Hindi-English dictionary in StarDict format. Turns out all I could turn up were English-Hindi dictionaries, and in different formats. Finally, I took three English-Hindi dictionary files, all under an open license: one that I received from a friend doing research in machine translation, one generated from, and Shabdanjali. Shabdanjali had to be converted first from ISCII using a Python script. Then I wrote a hackish Ruby script (Ruby just excels at these quick one-off scripting jobs) that read the files that each had different (text-)file formats and reversed them into Hindi-English.

Reversal is absolutely non-trivial. At the simple side, you might have a file listing a bunch of simple word-word concurrances:


etc. In this case, it’s quite easy to turn around. But more commonly, a simple word will have either a definition (Zulu - a people in Southern Africa), or several different options, or a sentence fragment (Schreiben - to write), which is unhelpful because we are looking to make a dictionary that will actually match specific words in a text. One of the things I did was splitting up the listings in the target language (which became the source language), so that

boy - knabe; junge

would generate two entries

knabe: boy
junge: boy

since a lot of hindi verbs are complex, with the most meaningful part coming first, I also split all multi-word phrases at the first word, but included the whole in the explanation, so that

starting - shuru karna* (शुरू करना)

would become

shuru - (shuru karna) starting

this hopefully maximizes the chance that you will hit right, even if what’s written is for example shuru kijie (please start - शुरू कीजिये). And when the match is all wrong, you’ll be able to see it from the context. Indeed the result is very far from perfect, but it’s sometimes helpful, and even when it’s way off, you can often understand the meaning from looking at the context (this is meant for someone who already knows some basic Hindi to aid in their reading of complex texts, not enable you to read Hindi from scratch). It’s certainly low quality, but I believe in putting things out there, instead of keeping it to myself. Maybe I will be able to improve it later on.

Having the word list unified and reversed, I still had to generate a StarDict file, which didn’t seem easy, so when I realized that TranslateIt! included a DictBuilder which could convert xdfd files, I decided to generate them with my Ruby script. The DictBuilder is a bit weird, first you have to “unpack” the xdxf file, which creates one file for each word in a directory (can easily be 40-50.000 files), and then it reads in all those files again to convert them to StarDict format. One would think it would be an easier way, but it does work.

If I were able to make some rules, I could improve the matching a lot as well. Hindi conjugations are mostly quite regular, and I wouldn’t need a lot of transformation rules to cover most of it (-iyan (-इयाँ) -> -I (-ई)) for female plural to female singular, f.ex.). The other thing is that there are several sounds in Hindi that can and are spelt in different ways - for example whether using a bindi or a half n to nasalize (Hindi: हिन्दी/हिंदी) etc, which could also be taken care of in a rule-based system.

I would also love to incorporate an actual Hindi-English dictionary instead of what I have been able to hack up. Shabdkosh is great for most purposes, but not free or downloadable, although they say they are talking about that changing.

Download the StarDict and the xdxf (XML-based, better for editing, etc) files:

Stian Håklev January 20, 2008 Toronto, Canada
comments powered by Disqus