Saturday, 27 April 2013

The second part to the April 17th entry to an email distribution list

Una titirarataalauqtama ilagutanga.
There is a term,techne, from ancient Greek that I’d like to talk about today. The word “techne” is often translated ascraftsmanship, craft or art and the term is almost always indicated in relation to a Latin term,ars meaning roughly the same thing. From the root word “techne” comes words in English like: technical, technique, technology, etc.
In the Wikipedia entry, it says that “techne” differs from abstract theory (epistēmē) in that it is about “making or doing” – Inuktut taigajaqtavuqqai “sananiq” amma ilagalangit “sanajjuti/sananirmik” uvvalu “pilirijjuti/pilirinirmik” tukiliit piqasiutilugit.“For the ancient Greeks, it signified all the mechanic arts, including medicine and music.” (Wikipedia)
The point I’m trying to make, in this “word of the day” entry and the one before this, is that when one looks at knowledge “semiologically” one begins to understand that “knowledge” itself is not language-specific (as much as prejudice wants us to believe that English alone is good enough to teach science, maths, politics, and so on) because “knowledge” precedes words/vocabulary.
To quote Larry Shiner in his book, The Invention of Art: a cultural history (2001, University of Chicago Press): “…techne and ars referred less to a class of objects than to the human ability to make and perform…. the issue is not about the presence or absence of a word but about the interpretation of a body of evidence…” (p. 19) –he’s talking about here the fact that ancient Greeks had no word for “drama” though they are inventors of tragedy/comedy as a performance art, as they are “inventors” of great many things Qallunaat.
I’ve always attempted to make explanations of scientific and mathematical principles in the Inuit language because I know that “semiologically-speaking” these fields of knowledge are not English-only. Chinese, Japanese, German, French, Russian…some of these languages do a much better job of conveying scientific and mathematical knowledge than English but because the pre-dominant language (for us) is English we think and assume that only English can be used to teach and learn these fields of human knowledge.
Using what are called, “first principles” and their rules-of-logic as the basis of discoursing/teaching and learning is it possible to construct Inukt. terms that make much more sense and have better consistency than English (which is not really English per se but “Anglicization” of Greek and Latin terms). For example, I started constructing the first two periods of the periodic table of elements (chemistry) by starting out with “lumaajuq” for hydrogen (lumaajuq, in Nunavik versions of the Inuit legend is the old woman who turns into a narwhal and is the grandmother of the sun and moon) to flourine (atomic number 9 as “nipijuq” Inukt for the setting of the sun). I had all the terms ending in [-juq] to indicate that these elements are less a noun than chemical processes of the atom; then, I’d built up compounds by changing the ending [-juq] to [-ja-] as in: paujanirlijuq1 (for cabon monoxide) and paujanirnijuq2 (for carbon dioxide) which come from paujuq (for carbon) and anirnijuq (for oxygen).
By setting up rules of naming (“nomenclature”, in technical-speak) we can construct logically-productive terms this way. What I mean by “logically-productive” is that new and original conclusions/insights/connections can be made by the students themselves once they begin to master the art and science of a field. In the case of chemistry, of course, we’d want to stick with the symbolic conventions (F, 9 for “flourine”; Au, 79 for “gold”, and so on) so as to be able to encode and decode chemistry using the International symbolic conventions…

Saturday, 20 April 2013

Who the heck is Brian Maxine?

I think it was my nuliakuluk who bought me the book by Umbero Eco called, On Literature (2002) - she bought a bunch of books for me online and she knows I'm a huge fan of Eco.

This particular book is an anthology of his essays, and in one called, On Style, he talks about this thing I've never heard of before: New Post-Antique Criticism, in talking about the difference between "the semiotic theory of literature" and "criticism that is semiotically oriented" - I'm not going to get into it but suffice it to say, like much of what Eco writes, it is insightful and thought-provoking. He writes:

...criticism is being leveled down to the rhythms and rate of investment of other activities that have proved to guarantee a profit. Why bother with reviewing, which forces one to read the book, if it sells more copies of a paper to have the literary section comment on the interview given by an author to a rival paper? Why put Hamlet on television, as the much-criticized TV of the 1960s used to do, when you can obtain higher ratings by putting on the same talk show, and treating the village idiot and the academic idiot on the same level? And why on earth read a text year after year if you can achieve the ecstasy of the sublime by chewing a few leaves, without wasting your nights and days discovering the sublimity of leaves in the sublime workings of chlorolphyll and photosynthesis?

For this is the message that is propagated daily by the high priests of the New Post-Antique Criticism[my emphasis]: they repeatedly tell us that whoever knows about chlorolphyll and photosynthesis will for the rest of his life be insensitive to the beauty of a leaf, that whoever knows anything about the circulation of the blood will never be able to make his heart palpitate with love...

This is a life-or-death battle between those who love text and those who are simply in a hurry. (pp. 174-5)

I read and watch a lot of politics (I love the discourse). Recently, there was a blog on the Huffington Post website that upon my first and second reading I didn't quite understand - something to the effect that "we tend to agree with those who agree with us". So I posted a comment. The author's reply made a bit more sense, but I still came away thinking: have we attained such a degree of polarization between "left" and "right" that everything we see is either "left" or "right"?

As a maturing reader and thinker, I try and check strands of thought to the sources if and when possible. The sources rarely if ever label such thoughts and ideas as "left" or "right", nor do they write of "right" or "wrong" ways of interpreting their ideas: they just write something interesting and insightful. It is usually those "New Post-Antique" critics who come up with such pat labels. And, I suspect strongly, that this is the point that Eco is trying to make in his essay I quote above.

Now, who the heck is Brian Maxine? He is a wrestler from Britain who, in 1972, recorded an album on EMI's budget label, Starline. The reviewer for MOJO magazine writes:

"Although we should...consider the cabaret style of wrestling in the early '70s and realise that Brian would have had the ability to entertain, prance about with confidence and hold the attention of a crowd - essential skills for a performer, but can Brian actually sing? If his vocal talent is anything like the Jackie Pallo family (another wrestling LP) then there will be little of merit here apart from the cover. However, a quick scan of the back cover makes this album instantly more exciting. Brian has a backing band with a sprinkling of Fairport Convention (Dave Swarbrick, fiddle and mandolin; and Dave Pegg, drums) but no explanation as to why or becomes immediately apparent that there is no folk here at all. It's a country album. And You Can't Housebreak A Tom Cat is a surprisingly tame opener for something that should sound a little wild...But even though I found the whole Brian Maxine experience drab, the album must have faired well, as shortly afterwards Brian and the gang recorded another (Ribbons of Stainless Steel, 1975), but with even more members of Fairport Convention, a guest vocalist called Sandy Denny and not a picture of Brian in tight trunks to be seen. Apparently it's worse." (MOJO, October 2011, p.26)

I think at some point in his writings, Eco admits admiration for literary criticism in the Anglo tradition...I would tend to agree given a well-written review such as above. But, seriously: I do agree with Eco's assessment of the best of English literature and literary criticism. I'm a great admirer of Northrop Frye whom I've quoted here in this blog as often as I can. And, perhaps I have a bias here since I grew up reading English, some of the greatest literature (of all genres) and commentary that I've read is written originally in English.

That is not to belittle or undervalue world literature not originally written in English: most of my heros are long-long-dead and would have never even heard of the English and their literature (let alone its traditions), but I think in the very best exemplars these long-dead poets and philosophers would have recognized their influence.


Wednesday, 17 April 2013

April 17th entry to an email distribution list

At work I write to a group of professional translators and Inuit language specialists. below is an entry I wrote up this morning:

I’ve always been a voracious reader since I learned how to read. I read for pleasure, I read for work and I read as a student of language. For the first type of reading (for pleasure) I would include not just books but also movies, radio and TV shows, and listening to Inuit Unikkaaqtuangit because I love the art of dialogue; for the last two types of reading (for work and as a student of language) how I read for that is different than when I read for pleasure in that I try and have a critical eye (ie, analytically, and to not merely “criticize”).
While I was studying linguistics I came across what is called “semiotics”. Wikipedia defines semiotics like this:
Semiotics, also calledsemiotic studies and including[…]semiology, is the study of signs and sign processes (semiosis), indication, designation, likeness, analogy, metaphor, symbolism, signification, and communication. Semiotics is closely related to the field of linguistics, which, for its part, studies the structure and meaning of language more specifically. However, as different from linguistics, semiotics studies also non-linguistic sign systems. Semiotics is often divided into three branches:
  • Semantics: Relation between signs and the things to which they refer; their[…]meaning
  • Syntactics: Relations among signs in formal structures
  • Pragmatics: Relation between signs and the effects they have on the people who use them
But the best picture that I’ve come across in the definition of semiotics is the image of a pond: to human beings we see it merely as a pond; but, to a dragonfly (or mosquito in our case) it is something entirely different; which, in turn, is something entirely different again to a frog, say.
Jakob von Uexküll, a famous semiotician, calls these different perspectives of the same thing “umwelten” (German for “own worlds-environments-surroundings” – singular, umwelt). But the concept extends not only to ponds and the environment but may include texts (and any form of communication for that matter). For example, holy texts. Besides being some of the finest examples of literary eloquence (at the superficial level), their meanings tend to be multiple layers, and even depending on one’s own personal experience and state of mind there is always something new to learn from them.
Now, going back to the different types of readings I want to quote another semiotician of note, one I admire greatly as a writer and thinker, Umberto Eco:
“To put it bluntly, the first-level[…]reader wants to know what happens [in a given text], while the second-level[…]reader wants to know how what happens has been narrated. To find out how the story will end one usually just has to read the text once. To become a second-level[…]reader one has to read it several times, and some stories have to be read countless times.” (Intertextual Irony and Levels of Reading, 2002) – the book I’m referring to is called, On Literature, for those interested in checking it out. This book is an anthology of his articles and has many wonderful and useful insights on the nature of literature and meaning.
I don’t know if it was out of boredom or something else – it was by accident, really – but at some point early in my reading/writing career I started analyzing “how what happens has been narrated” or written, and I would try and emulate the underlying patterns in my writing. It was when I realized that there are different styles of writing – literary, speech-writing, comic book, academic, lyrical, bureaucratic, etc. Though I didn’t know it then and didn’t know it ‘til I studied linguistics, each style of writing is really about differences in semiotic intent and description, and that each field has its own vocabulary and style of expression.
This realization also led me to look at how dictionaries and reference books are structured and how to navigate my way through their entries. It took me a long time to begin to understand why people (teachers) said to me that what I had written was to use words “out of context” (then I realized that how I used the words were not only sometimes out of context but that I also needed to be mindful of whether the word was a noun, verb, adjective or adverb).
I’m not really “showing off” or being critical of other people’s writing, but having been an instructor to adult students I have found that many people struggle with writing. The best way I have found to write more naturally (besides writing and re-writing phrases and paragraphs over and over again) is that one has to start by writing the way one speaks. I know many people with better style of speaking than I who yet still struggle when it comes to writing stuff down. The mental block, I think, has to do with an assumption that one needs a “better” vocabulary so they become self-conscious and hesitant: don’t try and write what you think other people expect to read; write as you normally speak as you can always go back and make corrections or revisions.
“Write the way you speak” is also a good principle to follow as a translator. There is a world of difference between “literal” translation and “meaning-based” translation: the first one is writing/speaking the way others speak; and, the second one is writing/speaking the way you speak. The first one easily becomes meaningless because each language not only has differences in vocabulary but also different grammars (I call it “speaking English in Inuktitut”); the second one, though it uses not the exact same words as the original, is being less concerned about the superficial words but tries and conveys the ideas and meaning behind the words.
There are many instances where there might be a single word in one language but the same concept may need to be put in a phrase in another language. Using the example of “aniqpanaq”: we have a single word in Inuktitut but in English the concept has to be put into a phrase capturing the notion of “getting one’s just deserts”; “got what you (he/she) deserves”, etc. This is one of the reasons why “literal translation” doesn’t work.
I have found that the best way to do meaning-based translation of new concepts to Inuktitut is to roughly follow how we’ve been able to generate new terms using the “function” or “form” of something new to Inuit culture/language. For eg, we didn’t originally have the term for “computer” so we used the “function” of the computer and came up with “qarisaujaq”; we didn’t originally have the term for “concrete” or “pavement” so we used the “form” of the material and came up with “ujaraujaq” (or some form of “rock-like; frozen” (qikuq, in Iglulik dialect for example) term in other dialects).
The beauty of our language (it’s greatest strength) is how readily we can generate new words by putting together concepts (morphemes). As new technology (like vehicles and hunting equipment and even unto their parts) was introduced to Inuit culture and talking about and fixing them became important, new words were generated. Many of these new terms aren’t just making “English” words into Inuktitut but are based on either “form” or “function” – form, again, is how something looks like something (iggannguakuluk for the “ng” symbol in syllabics) and function (pisuuti for bicycle, nunasiuti/nunakkuuruti for an automobile, for eg).

Sunday, 14 April 2013

Tractate Avot

I mentioned the Talmud in my last entry (Jagged little pill) so I want to continue it in this particular entry.

There is a tractate (or a book of the Talmud) called, Tractate Avot (sometimes spelt "Aboth") from Pirke Avot or "Sayings of the fathers" that has a lot of relevance to non-Jews (or Christians even unto secular people) who want to try and lead an ethical life: "For kindness I desired, and not sacrifice."

Like any religious/wisdom text, the reading requires reflection and deliberation (as this particular tractate encourages us to do) at many different levels to realize that it speaks not only to the religious-minded but also to people who value rationality and dignity above dogma and orthodoxy (it is not the superficial kowtowing to the legalese and ritual that matters but the unbidden actualization of the spirit of the law).

Indeed, many of the articles in the tractates leave decisions undecided so conscience, reason and circumstance may prevail (the use of the word "safeguard" occurs quite a bit in the tractate but I'm led to believe that it means "vouchsafe" in the archaic sense of the English term - ie, to warrant as being safe (to make such a statement based on the authority of the Torah and past decisions on a particular issue)).

As one reads through the Talmud (especially those pertaining to ethics and morals) one can see the unbroken links between the two sides of Judeo-Christian traditions, and it makes clear that our Lord Jesus was truly a Torah and Talmud prodigy as it says in the Gospel of Luke. The language of Jesus' teachings is the language of the Talmud par excellence.

Though the Talmud is kind to the intents of the heart and shows great forbearance to circumstance rather than the legal language, it certainly hasn't stopped writers like Mordecai Richler from poking fun at the ignorant assumptions about the Talmud; there is a scene in Solomon Gursky Was Here (Richler, 1989) where one of the ancestors of the family (Ephraim Gurksy) is stranded in the Franklin Expedition and he survives having been adopted by Inuit, whom he converts to Judaism and appoints himself a Jewish-Eskimo shaman. They all starve and die in a festival that should last a single day (sunset to sunrise) but the winter night lasts a bit longer than a single day in the Arctic...


Saturday, 13 April 2013

Jagged little pill

I try and make a point of watching films about Inuit, by Inuit and for Inuit. On the main, I invariably enjoy watching these types of films especially those that are based on Inuit legends or on historical accounts that I know of or have heard growing up. Yesterday I watched a film (I'm not going to name which one because that is not the point of this entry) and was yet again struck by the disjointed and jagged dialogue (words and phrases that seemed to have been translated without a view of the film as a whole, words and phrases that seemed at odds with the emotional and situational mise en scène that make the films whole as the story unfolds) and it got me thinking about the way Inuit children are taught the language arts in Nunavut schools.

I know that Inuit children in Nunavut are not taught how to express grammatically-correct phrases and that what passes for Inuit language instruction is really about how to read and write syllabics, and that, when real words are used, they are usually isolated labels and concrete words that one can see around the classroom and attached on them are the labels. That is, the emotional, political, artistic, ethical and psychological realities that make up who and what human beings are, what we can become, are missing entirely because the narratives that are the wares and tools of the trade are entirely missing.

Recently, one of my colleagues (a person whom I love and respect deeply) asked what the difference was between 'eye' and 'eye ball' and, upon proper reflection, he cut to the very heart of the problem of translation, the subtle differences that stem not so much from differences in grammar or language structure but in semiotics (ie, mindsets and frames that allow scientific thought to be different than literary thought, say).

I don't know if my 'witticisms' were appreciated but I offered 'iji' and 'ijiup aqsanga' after he then asked what an 'ear drum' was to which I facetiously said was 'siutiup qilautinga'. But of course literal translations serve a very important function in that they expose the semiotical differences in frames of references even within a single language - of which English is a perfect example.

I was really into the Percival legends around the time I spent at Memorial U of Newfoundland, and I'd tell the different variations of the stories to a friend of mine down there (who wasn't in school) to try and illustrate how different sources and ages change a given narrative. In one of house parties he started talking about how Sir Lancelot and Mary Magdalot were caught having an affair by King Lear...whether or not he was serious he provided a good laugh for our friends.

But this story proves a point that without the proper treatment/awareness of the semiotic space in which a given narrative occurs the story can become rather confusing. The storyline in the movie I saw with my nuliakuluk yesterday suffered from the same type of ailment. It really is a morality play. There is a narrator's voice that comes on when the hero is alone, and she says something to the effect that "now you are completely alone to [indulge] in your evil thoughts" when I think the proper translation should have been like "your desire for revenge has left you alone and destitute [without your new family]"  - who have been trying to dissuade him from carrying out his revenge.

The plotline of the film (which in the original English is coherent and compelling) is like a jagged little pill and its insights and admonitions do not (cannot) take hold because the storyline in the Inuktitut translation is jagged and disjointed rather like a series of unrelated vignettes. This is rather like treating the bible as one whole book of double-binding, contradictory, confused evil.

But in order to appreciate the bible, one has to realize that not only does it have multiple authors but also that it comprises of different genres: creation myths, geneologies, poetry and lyrics, morality plays (or parables), historical accounts from a spiritual perspective, prophesies, instructions and laws...each of these comprise of wholes and complete discourses (many books on many topics). It has to be regarded and approached as the Talmud (The body of Jewish civil and ceremonial law and legend comprising the Mishnah (text) and the Gemara (commentary)) regards and approaches it in order to make sense of it. Its true beauty cannot be seen otherwise.


Sunday, 7 April 2013


Peter Shaffer is a genius who wrote about another genius, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, which was made into film by Miloš Forman, Amadeus (1984).

I'm watching the film right now (I've seen it a couple of times). What dialogue, what music, what story-telling, what acting. It is told from the point of view of the court composer, Antonio Salieri, who sees in Mozart divine inspiration, true genius, but is struggling with his own issues of pride, envy and perplexity why God (and his Signore (Jesus)) would choose such a vulgar and boisterous vessel who, in his view, is unbecoming of such a supernal talent and blessedness. He has Jesus on the cross on his wall and thanks Him after he composes music, and at some point in the movie, in the heat of the moment, says he no longer believes and throws the cross in the fire.

The film starts out with Salieri confessing to a young priest who asks if it's really true that he (Salieri) killed Mozart (I won't spoil it for anyone). The dialogues that speak of the music are a pure delight and make the music come even more alive, exquisite, just like what Gould does in his CBC broadcasts when he talks about and explains what he's playing. This may not sound like much but for someone as obsessed as I am about structural dynamics and first principles it is pure heaven.

There is a scene in which Mozart's wife brings Salieri Mozart's music in an attempt to convince the court composer that Mozart deserves the post to teach the princess music. There is an imparting of something august, sublime in what Salieri is holding in his hands made the more impactful in contrast to the demeanor of the young wife who seems only to know there is something special about Mozart because people say he is. Overcome by the music that he hears in his head, Salieri lets slip the sheets.

You know when you see architecture, art, hear music, see a masterpiece, you just's like that.