Fractured Compass

July 5, 2006

How Not To Get Lost In Translation

Filed under: What I Saw and Read — roundapple @ 2:11 pm

Douglas Hofstadter published Le Ton beau de Marot: InPraise of the Music of Language in 1997. The book did not become as famous as his Godel, Escher, Bach (1979) and googling it today does not give very many results. Nevertheless, this is a work worthy of attention. It remains even today a hodgepodge of ideas and a celebration of words. (I bought it years ago but decided to read it only recently.)
Hofstadter is an exponent of Artificial Intelligence (AI) which he describes as “the belief in thought as the manipulation of unknown sorts of patterns, the attempt to discover those patterns and the rules for manipulating them, and the strategy of using computers to try out all possible sorts of patterns and types of pattern-manipulation rules.” His belief in AI informs much of this work, but the book is certainly more than an exposition of AI. It is a series of meditations on the art (science?) of translation, an emotional and intellectual autobiography, a collection of sometimes disparate thoughts on linguistics, literature and culture, and 88 translations of an inconsequential French poem, Ma Mignnone (A un Damoyselle malade), originally written half a millennium ago by the obscure poet Clement Marot. The translations were done by Hofstadter and his friends. The bookmark that comes with the book has the translation by Hofstadter’s beloved wife Carol who died at an early age.
Even if you don’t side in the old debate documented here between Hofstadter and John Searle on AI, you can enjoy large segments of this book. The main strand is that translation is not simply translation of content as in machine translation. It is like “the transport of an elusive essence between frameworks” – “an inter-frame essence transport” between linguistic media. He thinks that though languages may seem restricted by constraints, these “are not so tight as to preclude the expression of arbitrary meanings.” That this is possible is demonstrated by analogy from music and common prose which he calls “frame blends.” He refer to an idea he got from Giles Fauconnier’s Mental Spaces as seminal to his thinking – we often refer to people and places with incorrect linguistic markers which may paradoxically increase the efficiency of human communication. Thus, words may slip back and forth across “semiporous linguistic boundaries.” Although certain words may be inextricably tied to specific places and times, they should be used to “evoke, inside the new framework, the local – and now exotic – flavors that they are imbued with.” The translator then, though he/she may be self-effacing, has a more central role than readers care to recognize, because translation involves “small creative acts of faithful infidelity.” There are excursions in this book into translations of nonsense and the untranslatable. The final sections turn philosophical as Hofstadter seems to pin the possibility of understanding across cultures with his concepts of “deep understanding as identity-blurring” and “linguistic empathy” – concepts which at first glance sound like pseudo-mysticism but are actually worth further investigation, especially for us who live and breathe in the Third World but seem to speak a language from the First.
It does help Hofstadter’s cause that he chose a lighthearted poem to translate and expansively meditate on. I guess you could even make more than 88 translations of this poem in English. I also believe certain languages have constraints and I don’t know if more than that number can be achieved in any language. Now try doing that with Rilke’s Duino Elegies. (It would be possible, but I think, more difficult.)

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