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).

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