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An essay on translating

I think I have a treat for everyone.

Members who were here back in April of '09 will remember a collection of poetry that came out of the poem a day game. I now call it the 'L.D. Suite,' a set of poetry inspired by and mostly addressed to a friend I lost to melanoma in '90. The set can be found in the forum Ateliers. Poem #9 involves a bunch of us who were friends back in the '70s, young men starting out in the arts and in thinking. One old friend I refer to as Red. I lost touch with him in '84, the last year I received a letter from him, accompanied by a play he made. I still have the play, written in his own clean and crisp hand.

The same week of the Deepwater Horizon explosion a mutual friend, L.D.s first wife, put us in touch with each other. I am guessing he found the blog she has devoted to L.D., contacted her, eventually asked about me. She then gave me his email address and I wrote him. He replied. 26 years later and we have reestablished contact. (still a little disbelieving, shaking my head at my good luck.)

The poem mentions Red's love of languages, of French in particular. It turns out he has for long since become a translator and not just of French. And he has become fluent in languages as diverse as Swahili and Latin. In its intro he cites remarks I made to him concerning linguistics a couple of weeks ago, involving the Lang Po program in particular. I was simply wanting his take. Last week he sent me an essay of his. It is so well written, so thoroughly thought out, I am hard pressed to believe it is just two weeks old. But that seems to be the case. Thinking is very clean, Occam Razor type clean. And syntax is grounded, down to earth, not head heavy or filled with pyrotechnic like jargon. This is an essay written from the inside out and by a practitioner in the art of translating who has clearly been at the craft for a while, for decades, whose thoughts are experience based.

Red has given his permission to posting the essay. Some of us have head scratched ourselves on the topic of translating and on the topic of the nature of linguistics. One of us, no, two of us, have committed themselves to the act of translating. Red's essay speaks to a certain core.

An Essay on Language
(Revised Version)

~Yesterday I received an e-mail from an old friend of mine, from which I will quote a sentence or two: “I don’t know if you’ve followed American poetry over the last thirty years or so [sorry, I haven’t], but there has been this ongoing debate involving the so-called Lang Po group of poets [who?], mostly academia based [oh, dear]. Their contention is that language can have nothing to do with reality, therefore it can never be referential, but can only be about itself. Essentially, signs, say, can never tell us anything except about other signs. . .Two further items in their program is the killing off of the author [something all of us would heartily approve of in certain cases], as they put it, and that language is simply a cultural construct and can only speak of cultural bias.”

I’m generally wary of this sort of topic because I’ve never got too deeply into philosophical speculation. Perhaps because I grew up in Texas. Or perhaps because I’ve never seen much purpose in speculating about things if it won’t lead me to any knowledge in the end. It strikes me as pointless—although given that so much of what I’ve done in my life has been pointless, perhaps I should give it a firm theoretical basis. But I certainly can’t claim that I dislike speculation because I’m a practical sort of person. There are few people less practical than I.

Although if we must speculate from time to time, there are ways of going about it. For example, my friend’s conclusion: “To be up front with you I think the group is full of !@#$. And I think the theoretical underpinnings of their program are specious.” Now he’s a man after my own heart: not afraid to say what he thinks and not afraid to spice his thought with a well-chosen vulgarity.

I don’t like talk about “reality”. What reality is and whether our perceptions of it are in any way accurate are of course very old questions, and they’re primarily philosophical rather than linguistic. Such questions came up for me recently when I was re-reading 1984 for the umpteenth time, specifically the debates between O’Brien and Winston Smith in the Party’s torture chambers. Smith’s basic contention was the commonsense one, that reality is independent of our perceptions of it, whereas O’Brien was claiming that what we think about reality can alter it. Forget that a man existed and he never existed. If you can truly convince yourself that two and two make five, then two and two make five.

Now if Smith had been thinking clearly (and he can be forgiven for not doing so, since he was being tortured at the time), he could have asked the simple question, “How do you know?” That is my question: how can we know what reality really and truly is, how can we know how closely it matches our perceptions of it?

There’s no doubt that our perceptions of reality are limited. Some animals have much keener senses of hearing and smell than we do, and some birds are actually able to see light in the ultraviolet range, which means they see “colors” where we don’t. But a limited view of reality is not the same thing as a wrong view—unless of course a view is so limited that it does in fact falsify a reality, which is always possible.

For me the real question here is, How can we know how accurate our perception of reality is when we have no way of measuring reality except by our own perception? In order to measure reality and measure our perception of it, it seems to me we must be able to free ourselves from both. We would need to somehow take up a “god-like” position where we could see reality as it really and truly is and see how closely human perception corresponds to it. That is, the only way to say just how limited our perception is is to have unlimited perception. We may all be in Plato’s cave, but that’s not something we can know for certain until we escape it. And we (or at least I) have no way of doing that.

This is why I’m not terribly fond of speculation. It always leads me up blind alleys. Now there are people who are much, much cleverer than I and maybe they can figure out ways to escape the dilemma. As for me, I take (what I view as) the commonsense approach: I don’t know reality perfectly, but I have a good working knowledge of it. I know what hot and cold, pain and pleasure, etc., are, and if you’re so minded you can tell me till you’re blue in the face that it’s purely subjective, that those are purely my perceptions, and so on. Perhaps ultimately you’re right: but for right now, I accept the notion that there are real things independent of me that can have good and bad effects on me, and it’s to my advantage to know the difference. Speculate all you want about reality, but give me something to work with that’s better than what I’ve already got.
Now the linguists want to get into the reality game. Fair enough. But the assertion that language says nothing about reality on the face of it is absurd. If I invite you around to my house one evening, and you show up at my house, it’s a fair assumption that a “house” is a thing that exists in the real world.

Unless you want to claim that everything we experience or perceive is merely part of an artificial construct, a “Matrix”—and some people have claimed just that—that we can never truly know. That’s a road I’d be very wary of travelling myself.

Or will we say that signs tell us nothing about reality? Try telling the cop that the next time you get caught running a stop sign. “Look, Officer, a sign has nothing to say about reality. It will tell me things about other signs—yield signs, railroad crossing signs, golden arches, red crosses—but it won’t tell me whether I should stop or not.”

It’s an odd notion that language has nothing to do with reality, when language was invented to express our experience of reality, when it is constantly being adapted to our new experiences of reality. There is a notion around these days that our language determines our thought. This is the basis of politically-correct people’s efforts to correct our language.

When I was a kid there was a girl in our school that we called “crippled”. She’d had polio, and it left her with crutches and leg braces and unable to walk. This word “crippled” went out of fashion long ago. We were taught to say “disabled”, and now I find that “differently abled” is an acceptable substitute. Changing terminology doesn’t change the poor girl’s unfortunate condition, of course, but what the politically-correct will have us believe is that if we change our vocabulary, we will change the way we view this woman. If we use an ugly word, we’ll have ugly thoughts about her. If we use a nice word, then we’ll feel a lot more sympathy towards her.

This is rubbish, of course. Any word can be turned into an insult. The terms “moron”, “idiot” and “imbecile” used to be scientific terms referring to the degree of a mental handicap that a person might be suffering from. These words started being used as insults, and so the terms “profoundly/moderately/mildly mentally retarded” came into use—and of course it wasn’t long before “retarded” and “retard” became common insults. In Ireland where the politically-correct term is currently “mentally handicapped”, a favourite insult among Irish children is “You handicap!”
Nasty people invent nasty words. Nasty people can take a perfectly innocuous word and make a nasty insult of it. Changing terminology is useless. When people become more civilized and humane, they will stop looking for ways to insult each other. We should stop worrying about words and worry instead about the nastiness that might be lurking inside of us.

This notion that language determines our thought is also present in 1984 and was the basis of the ruling party’s efforts to cull as many words as possible from the English language and to pare as many meanings as possible from words that were left in existence. Their theory was that the fewer words people had at their disposal and the narrower in scope those words were, the fewer thoughts people could have. For example, if the word “free” was left with no political connotations and could only be used in the sense of “not having”—e.g., “The dog is free from fleas”—then people would not be rebellious because they could have no notion of political freedom.

This is exactly backwards. There undoubtedly have been times in human history when people had no notion of political freedom, probably because they had no politics. But we homo sapiens are an ornery species, and when our actions become restricted, we will want to get rid of such restrictions. If those restrictions are political, we will develop a notion of political freedom. And if we don’t happen to have a term that expresses that notion of political freedom, we’ll invent one. New words and expressions are commonly being invented in every language. They are invented precisely for the purpose of expressing something new that we have thought, experienced or felt.

My own firm belief is that thought is not ultimately dependent on language. Consider: one day as I was walking through the neighbourhood I spotted a cat who’s a good buddy of mine. He’s white- and rust-colored and a notorious troublemaker. We get along famously. I started calling him, in the Irish fashion (which consists of a series of hissing whistles) since he’s an Irish cat, not in the American fashion (a perfectly ridiculous, high-pitched cry of “Here, Kitty, Kitty, Kitty”, which is why American men like dogs, not cats).

Now the cat’s next-door neighbor, a large dog, happened to be lying on the footpath in front of his house at the time, and as soon as he heard me calling the cat, he was up on his feet looking for the critter. The dog obviously knew how cats are called, and when he heard me calling a cat, he made the reasonable assumption that there must be one around. Now that is thought. Thought of a very basic nature, granted, but still, it ain’t bad for a dog. Dogs may have no vocabulary, grammar or syntax, but they do have a rudimentary ability to think. It is not language that determines thought, but thought that determines language—where a mental ability for language exists.

It was when I began studying Latin that I began to think theoretically about languages. I had already done a fair bit of French and had dabbled in Spanish, German and even Swahili, so when I took up Latin, I went into it with a fair bit of confidence, or rather cockiness. I considered myself a veteran of many campaigns and was sure I knew the ropes. Latin very quickly relieved me of my illusions. It is a bizarre language, so much so that it will get you thinking about exactly what languages are and how they work.

Latin grammar has its complexities (and there will be a word to say about that), but the traditional bogeyman of beginning students, declensions of nouns, is actually much less of a problem than it’s made out to be. In fact, once you get used to that, you miss it in other languages.

One of the chief problems in Latin is an unexpected one: vocabulary. Normally you would expect vocabulary to be one of the easiest aspects of a language. You’re looking for a simple one-to-one correspondence: how did the Romans say “house”, “table”, “bank”, “mobile phone”, etc? Just draw up your list and away you go.

Only it doesn’t work that way in Latin. Now I’ve never counted, but it’s a firm conviction on my part that Latin had far fewer words than English, but that those words covered a lot more ground than English words. When I began reading Tacitus, for example, I was estimating my Latin vocabulary to be around 15,000 words—a ridiculously low total to be taking on a writer of his stature. And yet it proved sufficient.

But as I say, the problem with Latin words, particularly verbs, is that they cover a lot more ground than English words. A Latin word will generally have one core meaning (though often enough it can have two or more), but branching out from that core will be secondary meanings, and you can branch out from those meanings to reach third-, even fourth-level meanings. There didn’t seem to be any limit as to how far a Roman could extend a word.

The result is that often it’s hard to know exactly what a word means in a given context. And when you have three or four other problem words in one short sentence, it can be very difficult to get even a rough notion of what the sentence is saying. You generally guess at the meaning of a problem word by context. But when an entire sentence is problem words, you have no context to go by. Latin strikes the beginning student as very vague, as capable of meaning almost anything, and I know that in the early months of my study of it, I was constantly asking myself, “Presumably the Romans understood each other when they were conversing—but how exactly did they do it?”

In such circumstances you begin asking yourself such questions as, “What exactly is a word?” The answer I finally came up with is this: a word is a file in which we store meanings. Another question: “What exactly is a language?” My answer: we all have concepts in our minds, and your language is the way you organize those concepts. Note that we derive our concepts from reality. Subsequently we need a way of organizing them, because there are far too many of them to leave floating around freely in our minds. So we invent a system for doing that. People who have the same system can understand each other. They speak the same language.

A word is string of sounds that we produce using our tongues, teeth, vocal chords, etc. This string of sounds is purely arbitrary. “A rose by any other name. . .” The sounds that we use to denote that flower tell us nothing about the flower itself. Language in that sense tells us nothing about reality. There are very, very few words that in themselves convey anything about reality. We call them onomatopoeias.

But consider what words can do. Take a hard “g” sound, add a long “o” to it, and you’ve got one of the most commonly-used words in the English language. “Go” is a file, in which, according to one dictionary I looked at, we have stored 29 different meanings. Consider these sentences:

(1) Last night we almost went to that new Italian restaurant.
(2) Last night we almost went out of our minds altogether.
(3) This state usually goes to the Republicans.
(4) Five will go into twenty-five five times.
(5) Pink doesn’t go with orange.

“Go” has a core meaning of “moving from one place to another”, but we can extend it to mean lots of other things. I once told my friend that a language is magic. This is one of the reasons I say so: because we can store all this information in one file and retrieve it instantly as needed. Sometimes we can retrieve it faster than instantly. Sentences (1) and (2) above both start out the same way, but “went” means something different in each case. It isn’t until you get to the end of the sentence, until you have enough context, that you can determine what “went” means in the given sentence. That is, you have the ability to hold onto a word and then go back and interpret it once you have enough information to do so. This is something we do automatically, without thinking about it, without even being aware that we’re doing it. A complex operation that we perform effortlessly. Language is magic.

But the meaning that language conveys is not just contained in individual words. Meaning is also contained in the relationships between words, how we fit our words together. It is this, more than the words a language uses, that gives a language its character and that causes the most problems for a foreigner who wants to learn it. A language is a way of organizing reality—or at least our perception of reality. There are many ways of organizing it, and what appears to one people to be a perfectly reasonable way of doing it can be totally baffling to another.

John bought a book.

Things don’t come any simpler than this, and it would seem impossible to arrange things any differently. Yet Latin would put it,

John a book bought.

There’s no reason to prefer one way to the other. The choice is arbitrary. English is a Subject-Verb-Object (SVO) language, whereas Latin is a Subject-Object-Verb (SOV) language. An apparently small difference, but make things more complex and the difference becomes huge. It’s one thing that makes Latin very difficult for an English-speaker, who needs many years of experience before he can just read off a Latin sentence of any complexity whatsoever and understand it.

One reason is that the main verb of a Latin sentence (and your typical Latin sentence will be very, very long) is almost always the last word of the sentence. E.g.,

Yesterday John, after much hesitation and unnecessary waste of time, bought the most ridiculously expensive and ridiculous-looking T-shirt I’ve ever seen.

Put it in Latin (making allowances for various cultural differences):

Yesterday John, after much hesitation and unnecessary waste of time, the most ridiculously expensive and ridiculous-looking T-shirt I’ve ever seen bought.

The Latin sentence strikes the English-speaker as lopsided. For the English-speaker a Latin sentence seems to offer up too much information that cannot be digested, until suddenly at the very end it all collapses into something meaningful. If an ancient Roman could have learned modern English, he might have had the feeling that an English sentence achieves its climax far too early and then trails away into nothingness.
The problem for the English-speaker is that we are used to a certain filing system. We want the subject of the sentence, which we file away until we get the verb, which we then file away until we get whatever objects may be forthcoming. As long as this order is respected, we can file away other bits of information along the way with no problem.

The adverb “yesterday” before “John” is no problem. We’re used to introductory material before we get the subject. A prepositional phrase with a double object between the subject and the verb “bought” reads smoothly because we’ve seen that sort of thing often enough. A definite article plus two long adjectives (one of them modified by an adverb, itself modified by another adverb) between the verb and object “T-shirt” is also easy because we’re used to filing away such words before nouns. So a sentence of moderate complexity poses no difficulties because it respects the proper order of things: it’s the filing system we’re used to.

Latin gets it all wrong. It gives us the subject quickly enough, but then it leaves us hanging for the verb. It asks us to file away a lot of information without that verb, and we are not used to that. It’s as if we’re trying to juggle too many balls at once, and eventually they all fall down. Latin textbooks will advise you that when you approach a Latin sentence, look for the subject, then the main verb, then any objects that might be present. In other words, shatter the sentence looking for the pieces you normally need, and then put it back together the way you like it.

The fact that Latin is backwards is a never-ending problem. Just as the main verb is at the end of the sentence, verbs belonging to subordinate clauses all tend to pile up at the end of the sentence. It’s not uncommon for a Latin sentence to finish with three or even four verbs all at the end, one right after the other. You have to try and figure out which verb belongs to which clause. And one of Caesar’s favourite little sentences, “He explained what he wanted done”, becomes “What to be done he wanted he explained.” The first time you see that one it totally baffles you.

All this “backwardness” derives from the basic Latin strategy of putting the object before the verb. It forces you to try to adopt a whole new filing system, and you will find that that tends to tax the mind. But that’s not the only problem involved with the relationship between words.

(1) John gave the man the book.

(2) John gave the book to the man.

(3) John gave the book the man.

Sentences (1) and (2) are fine. (3) appears to be something of a problem. This is because the words “man” and “book” are related in certain ways to the verb “gave”—specifically, “book” is a direct object and “man” is an indirect object. Such relationships must be expressed in the proper way, and it is one of the bits of magic that a language possesses that its speakers do not need a formal knowledge of it in order to speak it properly. They feel these relationships instinctively, and they express them properly without thinking about them, without even being aware of what they’re doing. No English-speaker would make the mistake made in sentence (3) above, unless he was very drunk or under Winston Smith-like stress.

Such relationships exist in Latin, of course, but Latin has a very different way of going about things and it doesn’t make life easy for the English speaker. When Mark Antony says that he can endure his friends’ injuries, this doesn’t sound very generous (which is really not surprising, once you get to know Antony). It sounds as if he’s not terribly worried about the bad things that are done to his friends. Actually what he means is that he can endure the injuries done to him by his friends. It’s the injuries done to him by his enemies that rile him. The Latin expresses with a simple genitive what the English has to express in a more roundabout way.

All this discussion of vocabulary, relationships between words and so on, is very academic, and the academicians might claim that it has no relationship to reality. I would disagree. When we say that John gave the man a book, we are talking about a real act in the real world. How a language chooses to express that act is arbitrary, but it must have some system for doing it.

There are many arbitrary aspects to any language. The English practice of distinguishing between habitual actions and actions in progress by using simple and continuous tenses, a distinction that doesn’t exist in French, is arbitrary. But in reality there is a difference between a habitual action and one in progress. French does not make the distinction with its verbs, but if it becomes necessary to emphasize the difference, it has its ways of doing so.

Now my friend’s poets may claim that a language speaks of cultural bias. This is the sort of statement that is very politically-correct these days, politically very cool, very aware, very flippant, very easy and very true. Of course a language speaks of cultural bias. Our culture is one part of our reality that naturally we will seek to express. If a language has a word for “gentry”, that will tell you something about that culture. If a language lacks a word for “the sea” (which ancient Greek originally did), that will give you a clue as to the people’s origins. When Jesus of Nazareth calls non-Jews “dogs”, that will tell you something about the cultural bias of ancient Jews. And when a language has 1,014 different words that mean “a stupid person” (as every language on earth does), you can draw your own conclusions from that.

But if these poets also want to claim that a language is simply a cultural construct, there they’re in deep waters. They’ll have to explain what sort of culture uses continuous tenses and what sort does not. They’ll have to explain why one language finds it so easy to create compound words, whereas for another language it’s such an awkward process. They’ll have to explain why one people develops an SVO language like English and another an SOV language like Latin and another a VSO language like Irish. (Actually this last one is easy: the Irish were drunk when they invented their language, and you won’t find many Irish people today who would argue with that.) In short, they’re going to have to find logical explanations for things that are actually arbitrary.

Everything about a given language is arbitrary. But Language itself is not. We perceive reality, we need to express it. “Watch out for that child!” I yell, and you hit the brakes. There are thousands of different ways of saying that simple thing: it doesn’t matter. We communicate, the child survives. Language refers to reality.

Consider Helen Keller’s testimony. Blind, deaf and dumb (excuse me, visually-impaired, hearing-impaired and vocally-challenged) she went without language for the first years of her life. This doesn’t mean she was incapable of thought. When someone handed her her hat, she understood that she was going out for a walk and that delighted her. She was physically, not mentally, handicapped and capable of anything any child would be capable of.
But when she acquired language—by means of signs that she would perceive by touch—she says that a whole new world opened up for her. The idea that things and actions could have names was new to her and served to sharpen reality for her. She says that before then mentally she was wandering about in a fog. Suddenly things became more real to her. For example, if a doll got broken, she would feel its loss more keenly.

Language is not a precondition for thought, but it is a huge convenience. It allows us not just to communicate what we perceive of reality, but to better understand reality because we have a way of organizing it. Carlos Castañeda’s Don Juan might say that in thus organizing it we limit it and we limit ourselves in that we can no longer fully perceive it as it is, but that’s for another day. I don’t pretend, as I have said, to fully understand reality. I don’t know what reality really is and I never will. I do the best I can with what I have to work with.~

As a footnote to Red's essay, I was tickled to learn that all these years he has been living in Ireland, near Sligo, Yeats's old home-grounds. I am tempted to think he made choices long ago not so dissimilar from choices Robert Graves made. That is to say, he turned his back on us all. Maybe that accounts for the exquisite peasantry. It's like I am reading the thoughts of Cervantes's Sancho Panza as he tries to keep Don Quixote from going mad.

May/29/2010, 5:03 pm Link to this post Send Email to Terreson   Send PM to Terreson
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Re: An essay on translating


I remember Red from the L.D. poems. Must be wonderful to find him again and pick up where you left off--and good to know he's been pursuing the same passion all this time.

Good essay, thanks for posting it and including us.

May/30/2010, 8:55 am Link to this post Send Email to Christine98   Send PM to Christine98
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You're welcome, Chris. Sharing it with ya'll was my first thought, even before I had finished reading his piece. On a funny note my friend informs he doesn't care for the sobriquet, Red. He prefers Seneca the Duck. So Seneca it is.

May/30/2010, 2:34 pm Link to this post Send Email to Terreson   Send PM to Terreson

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