Sunday, 27 January 2013

Literal vs meaning-based translation

I belong to an email distribution list at work where government translators can pose questions or initiate discussions - technical or otherwise. Most of the questions/issues, unfortunately, belong to the 'otherwise' column not because they're frivolous (some questions and issues cut right into the heart of the profession) but because there is little appreciation of the more technical aspects of translation: elements of grammar, the historical developments of some terms (etymology), ideological issues...

There was a heated exchange recently after a question was posted of what to call the new GN (Government of Nunavut) department whose name in English is rendered as "Family Services" (what used to be called, Social Services). Some translators wanted a literal translation "services geared towards families" (or something roughly to that effect).

The problem, I pointed out, is that a literal translation of something like the old social services function would be highly disrespectful of those whose families have been broken up (ostensibly, in the interest of the child) with no real prospects of appeal, that many Inuit elders were against 'departmental adoptions' when no real efforts have ever been made to seek out solutions from and within the communities nor shown any respect to IQ practices (IQ = Inuit Knowledge and values).

The example above is kind of glaring but there are more subtle considerations that touch upon the very notions of 'literal vs meaning-based translation'. Often, the problem arises in literal-based translation simply for the lack of basic understanding of how grammatical elements work together to make sentences meaningful. Some translations rely upon dictionary entries, but without the ability to discern and navigate through multiple entries, the first entry is often used without regards to whether it is a noun, verb, adjective or adverb.

In an episode of the TV comedy show called, NewsRadio (super karate monkey death car), the proprietor has written a book that's become a best-seller in Japan so he's commissioned a translation from Japanese back to English to try and exploit the success of his book. His original title was: "Jimmy James, Capitalist Lion Tamer," but it's been back-translated as "Jimmy James, Macho Business Donkey Wrestler".

I've used this TV episode's example before in an earlier blog entry but in the context of an infamous Harper public policy announcement in Davos where no one outside of Canadians really knew anything of the back-story. Without context and awareness of the detailed discussion on the issue of old age pension, Harper's announcement would actually seem to make sense; but, we, in Canada, knew and know better. Much of the translated material in Nunavut has that same quality about it.

Things are either left unexplained in anything resembling satisfactory or a back-story is missing entirely. And it is not just translations of government documents in which this occurs, for it also happens daily in the Inuktitut version of the news. The insidious part of this type of practice is that analysis and contexting is missing. But how can anyone know something that was never brought up in the first place?

I'm not placing blame on anyone - let me be clear on that.

What I am criticizing is the system (the abstraction of our great homeland, Nunavut) and the lack of appreciation of cross-cultural communications' pitfalls from both sides. I'm a subscriber to the old linguistic principle that anything that a human being ever thought of is translatable into any other human language (to varying degrees of success, of course, but the principle applies and has in my mind and awareness proven largely successful). This principle requires a bi-cultural awareness and appreciation of linguistic subtleties (ideology, class/social systems, political values and agendas, philosophical outlook, etc.) inherent in all human languages.

In my long, storied career as a policy analyst for various Inuit organizations and the GN itself, I acquired a nasty reputation of being 'difficult to work with' and a rogue, basically. That my reputation worked for the 'other side' never really helped the Inuit cause, for which I'm truly sorry. I'm a hot-head and impatient to begin with...

Now, when I see the monster rearing its ugly head, I try and steer clear of its line of sight, though I have to be more careful as a couple of close-calls with some of the participants in the distribution list have illustrated to me.

I had a very interesting discussion the other day with two colleagues of mine stemming from another issue that arose from skeptical questioning from another colleague who was absent then (which I tried to avoid largely from self-interest and selfish considerations, I'm ashamed to admit). I felt safe in bringing it up in the present company because I knew without a doubt that they'd understand where I was coming from. I brought out a technical issue that I thought was missing in much of the translation discourse: appreciation of "first principles" as the basis of a given discourse.

It's the knowledge of first principles that have generated the best viable terminology in acquired technologies and know-how of Inuit: whether it be hunting equipment or engines and parts that Inuit require in hunting or making clothes. This practice and its principles can be applied to other areas of what I call, non-indigenous know-how (legal, politics, health&medical knowledge, science and mathematics, anything really).

In translation work these 'new' concepts can easily be explained properly in foot-noting or generation of glossary of neologistic terms at the end of a given document. The trick is appealing to first principles to make the discourse logically productive and contextually consistent. Being a translator is not just having a job, it is nothing less that educating oneself on the underlying structures of the discourse and building up an appreciation of the given discourse's historical developments the better to convey its depth and reason for existing.


Saturday, 26 January 2013

Word games

As a linguist, and an admirer of semioticians like Umberto Eco and Jakob von Uexküll especially, I have a healthy appreciation of the power of words insofar as to their ability to make or break ideas. Right off I want to say that I believe in the basic notions of Darwin's theory of evolution but I think there is much room for improvement. I find it unfortunate that the great man chose the words he did to convey his great masterpiece.

Firstly, he spoke mainly of the mechanisms of evolution and had very little if anything to say about how animals actually behave. This is rather like Aristotelian logic:

Socrates is a man;
all men are mortal;
Socrates is mortal

in that it says very little about the man, Socrates, and yet the formula has a tendency to be interpreted as the whole of the content and context of the man (especially when Socrates the man is long dead and unable to defend himself). Darwin's ideas are likewise taken to occur and exist in the same formula. That the ideas are couched in violence and militaristic terms compounds the problem of logic of the whole thing. Though evolution itself as a whole is undeniable, it does invite great discomfiture which makes the theory vulnerable to attack. But let's not be so hasty in throwing out the baby with the bathwater.

I believe had Darwin been a hunter and knew something of the behaviours of animals, his theory would have been rather more impeccable. All things being equal, he'd have realized at once that 'survival of the fittest' is a flimsy gambit at best to forward an argument as complex as a theory of evolution because the way animals behave is largely determined by aesthetics rather than violence. Aesthetically pleasing forms are a sign of health and vigor (ironically, animals with these characteristics are preferred by human hunters as much as they are preferred by potential mates). 'Natural selection' is less about violence than a matter of preference.

Before people start wondering if 'aesthetics' refers only to the visual realm, it can also refer to indicator chemicals (pheromones, pH levels, what-have-yous), seasonal and tidal cues, territorial features, even unto the amount of solar radiation. You get the idea.

Seen and interpreted 'semiotically' the Darwinian theory of evolution becomes immediately something deeper and more elegant (in a sense of Occam's razor) than what a man of European (Victorian) sensibilities would come up with. The psychological dimension has been recognized and broadened the theory. I think it was Uexküll who came up with a beautifully powerful image of a pond: to the human mind the pond is something entirely different than it is to a dragonfly which in turn is something entirely different to a frog, let's say.

Reframed in semiotics it has become an ecological argument with no need to bring up religiosity of any sort while leaving room for the 'spiritual' dimension insofar as the animal is concerned. Rather than opening up the theory to theological/sociological argumentation, it has made such things rather more unnecessary, and given it back to the psychologies of the animals themselves.

I have a deep suspicion and extreme leeriness of rightwing ideologies. That these ignorant people pervert such a great piece of scientific inquiry (that is not even completed yet) for such short-sighted and nefarious ends does not help lessen their folly in any way. Neo-nazis and amateurish neoliberal economists/sociologists have built themselves castles in the sky based on words they have no appreciation of let alone comprehend; and, for that I resent them greatly for intruding unbidden and playing upon my pity.

The tragic figure of the aging Darwin is all that much more potent. He, least of all, deserve the sadness that came to poison his great mind. In my estimation, he is a man of greatness precisely because he and Wallace udumbrated the science that was to come; their only hint of hubris was to assume the wrong terminologies.


Sunday, 20 January 2013

Feet of clay?

In the Wikipedia entry it states that the phrase "feet of clay" refers to "weakness or character flaw, especially in people of high station". The phrase comes from of The Book of Daniel, a dream that visited King Nebuchadnezzar II (Daniel 2:31-33):

Thou, O king, sawest, and behold a great image. This great image, whose brightness was excellent, stood before thee; and the form thereof was terrible. This image's head was of fine gold, his breast and his arms of silver, his belly and his thighs of brass, His legs of iron, his feet part of iron and part of clay.

In David Berlinski's book, The Devil's Delusion, he uses the image to illustrate that, though the use of scientific achievements by militant atheists like Dawkins to 'prove' the non-existence of God might suggest their arguments are unassailable, science itself actually has little if nothing to say when it comes to not only human experience but also when it comes to ethics and moral discourse that give meaning to human life.

I was listening in on the news this morning where a piece was featured looking at the knowledge of basic geography of university students and some couldn't even identify where Asia, Europe, Africa were (some thought South America was Africa, and some couldn't point out where Europe is). Going by some of the posts I've been reading on Huffington Post (the Canadian edition) regarding #idlenomore and the Chief Spence 'liquid-only diet'. it is not just basic geography that Canadian students are not learning in school but almost every subject, especially civics and history.

There is certainly a lot of hatred and racism targetted at aboriginal groups in Canada; not only are we lazy moochers, a fiscal blackhole, criminals and cheats but downright primitive (as illustrated in that despicable cartoon in the Morris Mirror). Please. Given social passing in schools, we can't even accuse these people of disingenuousness, and I'll tell you why:

The social passing is compounded by the fact that much of the curriculum has not the appreciation nor imagination for the use of 'the liberal arts' in every subject that is taught and expected of the student body. A civics course, by itself, is not enough. It requires some knowledge of the  historical developments, and how the political traditions of our great country came to be the way they are. For this, a liberal arts education is required because the political principles and examination of values that are spoken of by the ancients will never lose their applicability in the discourse of what it is to be human.

The rise of the rightwing extremism in North America, in the guise of Stephen Harper (in our case), is a result of this intellectual negligence. Harper himself has shown time and again that he not only lacks appreciation of the notion of 'conventional wisdom' but is dangerously under-developed as a competent leader of a political party, let alone a country. His whole take on public policy is one that seems based on personal feelings. Omar Khadr, Henk Tepper, Conrad Black, are just a few of the examples that his is the complete absence of appreciating the rule of law. His scandal-ridden Cabinet Ministers is another.

I, myself, was never taught the liberal arts. I gave myself the program to do the reading up on my favourite subjects. It was through reading of the masters my appreciation of the political/philosophical discourse was developed; same with my acquired personal values (by way of supporting data in the guise of literary classics of the world).

There's been an unconscious program of eliminating the human element in Canada's curriculum. To mistake the sad, sordid history of organized religion as an absurdity of the need for personal growth and character development is nothing less than robbing ourselves and our children of the benefits of civilization. We cannot long exist peacably in a poisoned well.


Saturday, 12 January 2013

Brinksmanship without design

I've been obsessively looking into and seeking out insights of Edward T Hall trying to grasp some of what's been happening recently in Canada re: #idlenomore and Chief Spence's hunger strike (she's not the only one: Elder Raymond Robinson is also along side Spence in forgoing solid food in protest of the recently unilateral actions of Harper in the guise of an 'economic' omnibus bill C-45).

Yesterday I was totally rivetted by the very fluid and dynamic series of events that presaged and capped off the meetings between AFN and Prime Minister Harper. I heard Grand Chief of Manitoba, Derek Nepinak, speak of the power he and his fellow protesters felt in the ceremonies they held in the Delta Hotel. And, though it may sound rather wishy-washy to the uninitiated (including me in the 'uninitiated' column), we shouldn't underestimate nor dismiss his words lightly.

When I was actively involved in the discussions surrounding IQ in the early, heady days of newly-minted Nunavut, I used to talk about the Japanese tea ceremony and the Haida Potlatch ceremony as illustrations of an outward expression of cultural ritual that belie the deeper, implicitly-felt symbolism they represent that cannot be denied if not articulatable in rational, clinical terms. In fact, to deny them as wishy-washy - as in new age-y wishy-washy - is to deny one's own culture and psychological space that define us all as human beings.

I didn't have the language then that I've since acquired in reading the works of Hall, but I can see what I tried to articulate so clumsily was actually going in the right direction. I'm not congratulating myself, just pointing out the fact that we sometimes come up with thoughts that have been articulated rather more elegantly by other greater thinker than us.

The title of this entry is taken from a phrase by Hall in, Beyond Culture (p. 162). A "brinksmanship without design" is what happens in cross-cultural relations when either side or both fail to account for the action chains that carry unvoiced expectations or seemingly strange speech like what Grand Chief Nepinak said yesterday. In order to phrase Nepinak's words in more familiar terms: we've all been in a place of worship or concert hall at some point in our lives, and felt that power of collective effervescence that carries us away in the music that envelopes us. The power is undeniable because we come away with some form of spiritual restoration.

It also got me thinking back to what Chantal Hubert sort of skirted around when asked about the #idlenomore movement in the last At Issue panel on CBC's The National. The danger of "brinksmanship without design" is also intimately familiar to the Quebec experience in trying to deal with anglophone Canada. In the wee hours of negotiations on the repatriation of Canada's constitution, language intended to embrace Quebec in the constitution (in good faith) was sadly and terribly mishandled in what became known as the "night of the long knives."

Using Hall's language, Quebec and the aboriginal communities are relatively 'high context' cultures that celebrate and place high value on communal interlinkedness (within themselves and Canada in general), whereas anglophone culture is relatively 'low context' and places more value on contractual relations while trying to get as much out of these legal instruments with the least amount of cost to themselves. I'm not saying that English  Canadians are like that, but that the legal and judicial systems are set up thus.

The way things are playing out in the First Nations protests right now is sadly familiar; one side is looking at this in legalistic terms while the other side is protesting the injustices and lack of fairness in the relationship. This is nothing less than an example of brinksmanship without design. I hope both sides realize the roles they're all playing right now before something terrible happens.


Saturday, 5 January 2013

Some thoughts on the Idle No More movement and other such movements

I'm a supporter of Idle No More movement. I think it's a wonderful and lovely thing to see, and it gladdens my heart to see what it has inspired in the hearts of non-indigenous peoples. But I think it suffers from a lack of consistent and consolidated principles the same kind that plagued Occupy Wall Street and the Arab Spring.

I've been reading up on the writings of Edward T Hall, while trying to context and frame so many other things currently occupying my mind, including Idle No More. The problem is not lack of leadership as far as I'm concerned but a lack of political and intellectual principles that diverse communities of interests may buy into and inform their actions and advocacy (and I'm not talking just about the aboriginal group, but environmentalists, scientists, policy analysts, and elected leadership like Assembly of First Nations and Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami).

Hall wrote about what he calls "situational dialects", like this:

During our studies, we concluded that people anywhere in the world master hundreds of what we came to call "situational dialects" which are used in specific situational frames, none of which is the language taught in the classroom. More important, the classroom is the only place where the classroom form of the language will be found. It is a monument to the human intellect that it has been able to overcome the handicap of classroom instruction and moved into the living language.

Ordering meals in restaurents represents a class of situational dialects (SD) of moderate complexity, depending upon the circle the speaker travels in as well as on how much of a gourmet he happens to be. If he eats ordinary food or frequents lunch counters in larger American cities, a few properly placed words will do. But if he wants to swing with the Jet Set and be at ease with the maitre d'hotel at the Ritz, Maxim's, or La Pyramide, he will need a whole new arsenal of terms as well as strategies and plans for their use. (Hall, Beyond Culture, p. 132)

-all of which faciltates and simplifies ease of interaction and "take[s] advantage of what the other person already knows" (ibid, p. 132).

I developed what I call a "family health model" (written in more detail somewhere in this blog) to try and frame justification for policy development advocacy for Inuit but in all the years of policy advocacy I couldn't get my fellow Inuit to grasp what and how I wanted to use it, and those federal and territorial bureaucrats who actually knew what I was rambling on about acted innocent and disingenuous because it implies things that make them uncomfortable for historical and ideological reasons.

The family health model, I think, would work very well as a set of basic principles for community development concerns like Clyde River's Ilisaqsivik where it provides early childhood education, acts as a family resource centre, and provides general beneficience for the community through counselling and public education initiatives.

But there are other things like the Humanist Manifesto I and II that could provide the 'situational dialect(s)' necessary for solidarity and informed direction however modified and adapted for such thing as Idle No More. As far as I'm concerned a servicable direction would be to ask for a negotiated process for First Nations-Governments relations to provide conflict resolution mechanisms and ombudsman role with legal force (ie, things that have been neglected for all these years).

But these are only my thoughts.


Tuesday, 1 January 2013

"Marching to a different beat(s)"

In his book, Beyond Culture, Edward T Hall talks about a concept that greatly interests me as an observer of Inuit-governments relations and as someone interested in Inuit (ie, aboriginal) education. The concept has to do with group synchrony. We can see this most clearly when confronted by a new culture or have to deal with a different culture day in and day out. Most of us do not, and cannot, articulate it when we experience it because it is something almost completely submerged from our explicit awareness and yet exerts such great influence over our responses, reactions, and the quality of our intercultural-linguistic relations.

Though - as far as I can tell - this wonderful insight of Hall has never really taken hold, and may even have been 'debunked' by some smart-ass criticism that I don't know about, we can see it in such things as Nash's game theory and its attendant notions of the 'Nash equilibrium' and the 'governing dynamics' made famous in the movie, A Beautiful Mind.

When Inuit (ie, aboriginals) reflect upon it seriously, we've all come to the conclusion that white people are autistic and seem utterly incapable of understanding anything other than their own worldview. This is not a moralistic judgement on my part; just that I'm trying to reflect upon the fact that none of us (on either side of the dialogue) have made a convincing argument why things tend to fall apart in aboriginal-government relations. The temporal imperatives are different: one governed by (seemingly artificial) schedules and budgets (decided before-hand), the other by the need to adapt and evolve a program or new way of doing things as one does by socialization. Guess who loses? Both sides, actually.

When I "lost" my mind I was sent to jail a couple of times. The temporal and spatial imperatives there are as dysfunctional and chaotic as one can ever have the misfortune of confronting because the two competing rhythms are amplified by unmitigated feedback loops that are the result of coercive force (on both sides) that resonate throughout the whole system. But even there one finds friends and quiet moments - reason why programs are so, so important because even if they seem utterly ineffective to the evaluators they provide space and time of humanity by the simple virtue they provide space for some semblance of equality and discourse so rare otherwise. I met good and decent people on both sides.

Some relations and projects cannot take hold in an artificially constructed environment anymore than a plant or human being cannot be grown or developed by coercion and will. The factory model, though a juggernaut of power and efficiency, is most inappropriate in many if not all human relations, especially inter-cultural relations. Methinks there are schools out there that succeed in developing human beings like me precisely because some classrooms are structured like greenhouses (ie, those which respect the natural rhythms of its charges rather than imposing the system's will upon them).

There used to be reader sets of all different levels that we were allowed to work on on our own pace; from there I graduated to reading the encyclopedia set we had in the small library. This type of set-up allows the teacher to focus their attention on those struggling while freeing up those who advance at a faster rate. Some programs just work. And they work not because they're designed deliberately but more importantly because of the way they're set up to accomodate the different beats of the drum orchestra.