Sunday, 30 December 2012

Small business solutions

I like thinking about language. I like thinking about it in all kinds of ways as thinking about it is not only my job but also, and more importantly, it is a subject that takes me up (to paraphrase Frye) to the dizzying heights of that dreamed of world (Pink Floyd, high hopes).

The other day I was thinking about the cultural, technical and aesthetic issues of translation that invariably come up in the email of a distribution list of translators at work but are never really alluded to, let alone talked about, explicitly. Again, quoting Pink Floyd's High Hopes:

Looking beyond the embers of bridges glowing behind us
To a glimpse of how green it was on the other side
Steps taken forwards but sleepwalking back again
Dragged by the force of some inner tide

there is always this tension (and I'm not talking about emotional tension though it definitely exists) between literal translation and meaning-based translation that I think we can all acknowledge but never can succinctly articulate. It is complicated...

I was in that blessed state of intellectual free association that I can only describe as being in a zen-like space when a commercial came up (like all commercials, it has come up many times before) when the announcer said something that struck me as odd: why would a postal/courier service talk about "small business solutions"? - is it to justify how other "services" it has to offer subsidize this special kind of service directed only to small businesses? -isn't that somehow ripping off other customers? -small business solutions; how does one translate that into Inuktitut?

I don't have the presumption to tell others how to think and interpret these sorts of things (actually, I do and I do because it's my job) but I highly doubt many translators think about such things; it's a highly politicized affair this ritual of asking for help without appearing to be in need of help. It's highly politicized because it cuts right into the heart of identity politics.

I'm re-reading this book right now written by Edward T Hall called, Beyond Cultural, in relation to another project that I've been asked to review. Hall has many things to say that are completely relevant to my review and great many aspects of my main job, and, though I have some technical issues with what he has to say, he provides insights beautifully and is the only credible source I have for my review. I, personally, think that Hall should be required reading for those who work in fields that touch upon inter-cultural relations. But his work will only work if people are willing and able to talk about and discuss his work seriously even if only as a starting point.

Hall has this concept he calls "extension transference" (an extension is something like tools we use; the language we speak; theories we construct to explain and reconcile our realities):

It is [...] paradoxical that extensional systems - so flexible at first - frequently become quite rigid and difficult to change. Confusion between the extension and processes that have been extended can explain some but not all of this rigidity. Older readers may remember when English teachers tried to convince them that the real language was the written language, of which the spoken language was merely a watered-down, adulterated version...The fact that the written language is a symbolization of a symbolization does not mean that the writing system is not something in its own right, just as mathematics is a system in its own right, independent of computations in the head.
Extensions often permit man to solve problems in satisfactory ways, to evolve and adapt at great speed without changing the basic structure of his body. However, the extension does something else: it permits man to examine and perfect what is inside the head. Once something is externalized, it is possible to look at it, study it, change it, perfect it, and at the same time learn important things about oneself. The full implications of the extension as lesson and extension as mirror have yet to be fully realized.

The extension can also serve as a form of prosthesis when something happens to the processes that lie behind the extension. (pp. 28, 29)

It is precisely the "prosthesis" stage where problems in translation arise. Without a viable cultural context (ie, without first defining what a concept is) phrases like "small business solutions" are seen clearly for what they really are: utterly meaningless phrases a bureaucrat/corporation would say because the meaning is not something that has a physical or factual reality but intended only to convey a vague sense of comfort and familiarity to the target audience - it is merely propaganda in the quick (ie, a slogan).

Havel and Orwell are two famous writers/thinkers who've talked about the effectiveness of such things by pointing out how paradoxically empty these types of memes really are because they're only intended to evoke a visceral reaction (both good and bad, and often at the same time). Memes are, by nature and design, extremely cultural and linguistic specific.

This prosthetic problem can also be seen in the current text-based (internet) society that humanity has achieved (or degraded to). The polarized and polarizing "politics" of our age demands that we either take a left or right position on even the most seemingly insignificant issue. Upon challenging the right (especially - but I have found much to my dismay the so-called progressive left is just as virulent) one hears either the deafening silence of the intellectual wilderness that corporatism (ie, the internet) has bestowed upon us, or extremely angry extistential angst that is prone to lashing out at any perceived threat, never mind the logical and ethical veracity of a well-meaning statement.

The prosthesis problem of extension transference cannot be underestimated nor overstated. It's both a fascinating and perplexing problem to which translators and language specialists especially are called upon to arise. But without awareness of socially-relevant literature to base a collective experience on (especially for Inuit of Nunavut) mass alienation prevails. Inuit are caught in some sort of limbo: its intellectual, linguistic and mythical archetypes have been denigrated and dismissed to such a degree a transition stage is utterly non-existent that any forward steps are negated by sleep-walking back again while the very institutions that are ostensibly set up to avoid mass alienation have the exact effect and affect of gross alienation.

I hope this entry provides more food for thought than confusion; we definitely need a serious discussion for so many reasons.


Sunday, 23 December 2012

Principles to live by (part ii)

I know that I've quoted Grotius somewhere but I'm not sure where exactly and am too lazy to seek the quote out. Regardless, Grotius is one of those great thinkers in the family of humanity whose one quote that I've tried to live by:

those who are enemies do not in fact cease to be men (quoted from A History of Philosophy, Frederick Copleston, SJ)

I'm an unbashed Americanophile but I have no illusions about the darker side of American imperialism, and am, in fact, greatly disturbed by the recent history especially. Upon reading Chomsky's take on what American corporatism/imperialism has done to the less unfortunate of the world, I have a healthy mistrust and hate for coporatism. But the fact remains: I love the idea of America - its history, its music, its literary traditions, the impulses and ideals of its founding and continuing development.

As a person of anticorporatist sentiment I see no contradiction between loving the idea of America and hating what I'd call its 'infection' and its foul humours in the guise of extremist rightwing that currently stifle its greatness because I have seen the ideal of Grotius insight in my own heart.

I recognize an older strand of thought in Grotius' discourse on international law and political jurisprudence, namely, Socrates' "an unexamined life is not worth living" - another productive source of principles to live by. I take the Socrates quote to mean that we should examine and explore our value systems, things we want for ourselves as guiding principles to living our lives, else we are no better than stimulus-response switches that form the guts of an unthinking machine.

The computer I'm typing on right now is a means of producing great or malificent works but it is itself incapable of thinking and producing the words that I'm now typing; my guitars are likewise capable of producing great beauty but the notes they produce all depend upon my talent and drive. Our lives likewise are largely here by chance but we are the authors of our life-story (though it sometimes seem otherwise).


Saturday, 22 December 2012

Principles to live by

I have it in my head to propose a regular column in one of the local rags here, but not the ambition to actually act upon my idea. I greatly admire what Rene Levesque did when he was with Radio Canada explaining current affairs or talking about his admiration for American political thinkers and as a student of North American history, and that's what I'd like to do if I ever found the energy to get off my ass.

As a regular contributor to the personal exchanges in the community of posters on Huffington Post, I get a little of that satisfaction, and I learn something of myself in how I react to some posts and I learn something new everytime I read Huffington Post (from the articles, opinion pieces and posts from other users). I'd like to think that most of my posts are informed by certain principles but somtimes I don't always say something informative and am easily baited by the rightwing trolls that patrol the website regularly - some of the ignorant and sometimes racist vitriol just demand a response sometimes...

David Berlinski, the subject of my last blog entry here, wrote something that I totally believe in (in talking about why mathematicians obsess over formal proofs and other such seemingly trivial things):

There is elegance of assumption, and a corresponding power to dissolve the chatter of common experience in favour of something more austere and more dignified. (1, 2, 3 Absolute Elementary Mathematics, p. 188)

This is one of the principles I try and live by especially in my work as a linguist and as a commentator of Inuit society and philosophy. It is not always understood by my critics but my obsession with abstract structures and logic systems is (fortunately or unfortunately) stronger than my reactions to those who'd try and hammer down the proverbial nail that sticks out.

I sometimes have mystical experiences in thinking about abstract structures and in the thoughts of the long-dead and others like Berlinski and Eco and many more that I find beautiful to contemplate. This love for the subject seems to be becoming rarer and rarer, and perhaps I'm old school in this regard, but there is something of a comfort to be gotten in the old, familiar things. Else, in timeless things.


Saturday, 15 December 2012

The great David Berlinski

As a connoisseur of popularizers of mathematics and mathematical history, I must say that David Berlinski is right up there at the top of list. He is one of those fascinating people I've never met and would give all my two-month's salary just to sit in on one of his lectures. Clearly the man is an orator who cares about his craft as a writer and a mathematician/philosopher.

I think I have all his published books, books I read and re-read simply because I take great pleasure in reading his words and humour. He writes like the painter/artist Bosch. The flesh and bones of the long dead come back to life in all their humanly glory and foibles not because he describes them in great detail but that he gets to the heart of their original insights - in appealing to their imagined and historically accurate appearance one can see clearly their humanity but in a cerebral, this-is-how-a-great-mind-works kind of way. He does the same thing with equations.

Then, he comes up with gems like:

In the early 1980s, Grothendieck vacated his mathematical career to live alone in a shepherd's hut in the Pyrenees.

The hard, gifted, practical men expressed their appreciation for his genius, took what he had given them, and went right on being hard, gifted, practical men.

They were relieved. (1, 2, 3 Absolutely Elementary Mathematics, 2011, p. 156)

And, after going through a whirl-wind description of a process, he says something like: "[The] Clues have done all that clues can do." (p. 162).

Berlinski has great genius for these things. He should be required reading for junior and senior high school maths curriculum.


Sunday, 9 December 2012

The rights of public employees vs intellectual property

My apologies to my readers for not having posted a while. I just started a job. After many years of being a persona non grata in my own homeland, I totally appreciate this new job and the opportunities to be a contributing member of society again. For those who know me or of me, a political post and the way I tend to think, the way I am do not mix without explosive results. Hopefully that is all behind me now. I think it is; and I'll tell you why:

The nature of our work is such that many of the things we do in our office can be considered 'new' and 'cutting edge' even. In order to implement the mandate of the workplace, everything that everyone in the office does is of that nature. The transition from pre- to a literate society... -this is no hyperbole, believe me. From the technical to the aesthetic, we are trying to meld these aspects together in a more or less seamless manner. Deliberately.

I've actually been intending to post a technical paper in this blog that I did up recently as part of constructing a terminology database. I mean, I don't know whether the thought processes behind the paper are technically feasible (I'm pretty sure they are - just that I'm no computer expert to see clearly why I'd think that).

As a trained linguist, I know the grammatical/phonological structure of the Inuit Language (Inuktut, we call it to make the term inclusive covering all Eskimo-Aleut family) intimately. Many years ago I came up with a way of emptying the contents of the Inuktut grammar completely to bring out the structural aspect of it all. The equation works beautifully to expose the inner workings of the structure.

Focussing only on the medial affixation rules (ontologically, as Duden heavy-weights call it and what re-inspired me to look more closely), there is a way of demonstrating the logical constraints why the grammatical equation would work so beautifully. The internal structure of the Inuktut grammar is no chimera open to human whim and uninformed imagination but one that behaves mathematically with constraint rules that are both rigorous and stable and utterly systemic. Beautiful, is all I can say.

I'm usually not one to claim credit for what I consider to be the heritage and birth right of all humanity, but given the (what I consider) failures of government bureaucracies to do justice to the intellectual and practical possibilities of human development and aspirations - of course, based solely on the already uni-laterally and publicly stated priorities and directions for which bureaucracies are infamous for for glomming onto at whatever cost - I think its worth pointing out that whatever failures may come to pass it is not because Inuit and their language are 'primitive' (demonstrably to the contrary) and not worth our time and effort but that these failures will be due to the 'priorities and directions' already taken even unto lock-stepping over a cliff.

This brings me to the whole point of this blog entry's title: do what we produce in the public workplace (even ones that we've produced before becoming bureaucrats and are only now showing) belong to governments, or are they public domain and open to public discourse?

There are other insights from other fields that have not been applied in the way the thinker now plans to apply them that should also be settled in terms of the question posed in the title of this entry. I will not get into them here simply because they're highly technical and out of respect for the unnamed collaborators. But what  makes the issue different and unique here is the nature of Nunavut itself. The proper word would be 'pressing' for the differences and uniquesness.

And there we have: saying so many words without saying much. At least, not exposing more than is neccesary.