Monday, 25 May 2015

Socrates the man

I've been working (somewhat peripherally to a group at work) to come up with a series of statements to try and develop a philosophical foundation for the use of Inuktitut at work (or, more precisely, use bilingualism at work). I call them 'axioms' and their 'corollaries' not so much because they're self-evident as Euclid's axioms on geometry supposedly are but because I think Spinoza's framework is cool.

These aren't all necessarily original but they provide me with some clarity of thought:

Axiom: "all human languages are equal"

Corollary 1: "grammar defines that equality"

Axiom: "concepts and ideas are not words"

etc. etc.

As a linguist, I've always been fascinated by such gems as "little, green ideas dream furiously" (actually it is: "colourless, green ideas..."), and I think I've got it why such constructs may be generated but are meaningless nonetheless. It has to do with how and what kinds of adjectives and adverbs are allowed in language: there are abstract nouns that require abstract adjectives and concrete nouns that require concrete adjectives...and so on.

But what has been mulling in my mind is how the syllogistic about Socrates the man works. I think I know why and how it works. But first here is the syllogism:

all men are mortal;
Socrates is a man;
therefore, Socrates is mortal.

Again, the abstract vs concrete notion applies here. Socrates the man is clearly different from 'man' per se in that Socrates the man may take on adjectives in ways that the notion of 'man' cannot and vice versa. There are 'old men' to be sure, but Socrates the man wasn't always old (despite all my mental images of him he was once a young boy, he grew up and died) whereas once I've inserted 'old' before 'men' I've collapsed the idea into that one grammatical specificity.

I've been doing a running joke with my students here in Baker Lake by mangling the calque 'good morning' in Inuktitut. Though I swear I use proper Inuktitut versions of adjectives the ones I use aren't of my dialect (nor anyone's for that matter in how I use them) and I get amused looks because they understand what I'm saying but what I'm saying doesn't make much sense.

This notion of specificity is an important concept in what I'm trying to achieve in what I opened with in this entry here. In mathematical terms it'd be a group (or, a set but I prefer group). We all know that literal translation rarely works and why it doesn't work happens at many different levels but that doesn't negate the possibility of translation. A translation that works well does so because of what is called the Karenina Principle. It's kind of hard to explain so I'll just quote a text I recently drafted for the course we just completed:

Some Persistent Issues Surrounding Translation
Besides the structural issues that arise when we try and do translation—which are, as we saw, technical in nature and, therefore, can be solved given the proper means and research—there are also deeper issues that seem rather insurmountable in comparison to the structural ones. The reason for this is that these deeper issues are not only technical but also philosophical and/or even ideological in nature.

One of these that have long been known to be problematic to Inuktitut translator/interpreters is the legal interpreting field. The reasons for the difficulties that confront Inuktitut translators are rather too complex for this course to address but there are broad and general cultural and sociological insights that may shed some light into the problem itself. Using the legal system per se as representative of this type of problem, let us see if anything can be done to alleviate the issue somewhat.

Form or Function
The notions of morality, as we know, are culture-specific—ie, are embedded into the structure and psychology of the language itself. This fact alone makes the issue a seemingly insoluble labyrinth of dead ends and false starts with no end in sight. We are swimmers in our own languages after all, and like the fish that may not even realize it is in water, we find ourselves pretty much in the same bind.

It has been said that “Problems worthy of attack prove their worth by fighting back” (attributed to the famous Hungarian mathematician, Paul Erdös). It is in this spirit (perhaps overly-naïve) that we should approach the problem of legal interpreting. There are two basic strategies open to us as translators: describing form and/or function.

Form and function are referenced here not in the sense of linguistic terms but rather in the sense of being descriptors of concepts and the processes in which these concepts are used. The reason for this stratagem is that the Inuit language is structured to describe novelty which then can become lexicalized into a root word in its own right.

If we but imagine the notions of “guilt” or “innocence” as two possible outcomes in the formalized ritual of arraignment, we can see immediately that the words themselves can be transcended with surprising efficacy. Having transcended a word trap of the most vicious kind we can now look into the purpose of ‘arraignment’ itself:

“In legal terms, a plea is simply an answer to a claim made by someone [else] in a criminal case under common law using the adversarial system.” (

The question then becomes a matter of phrasing an interrogative in such a way that a plea can be made without getting mired in the philosophical/ideological load of the words in the source language.

The quote above is an example of a 'group theory of translation'. Instead of getting trapped by "guilt" and "innocence" we treat it in binary terms (ie, yes or no; or, agree or disagree). The Karenina Principle also applies because there is really only one way of getting it right.


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