Sunday, December 27, 2009

Gibberish, Part One Redux (Word Choice)

Dear Reader,

Several different problems make translation hard. Word choice for example:

A word in the original language rarely means exactly the same things as any one word in the new language, so the translator has to pick a translated word that only means part of what the original meant, or means extra things the original didn't mean. Exact matches occur less often than most people think, and less often than even the translators themselves think.

For example, Red Pine's translation of the first half of chapter 81 is this:

True words aren't beautiful
beautiful words aren't true
the good aren't eloquent
the eloquent aren't good
the wise aren't learned
the learned aren't wise.

but the usual translation of the middle two lines is more like this (courtesy of Robert G. Henricks):

A good man does not argue;
He who argues is not a good man.

That's different! And Henricks is right: this is closer to the usual reading. Here are a few others for comparison:

J. Legge translates this as:

Those who are skilled (in the Tao) do not dispute (about it);
the disputatious are not skilled in it.

Frederic H. Balfour's translation is:

The virtuous do not bandy arguments.
Those who bandy arguments are not virtuous.

Stephen Mitchell suggests:

Wise men don't need to prove their point;
men who need to prove their point aren't wise.

And Aleister Crowley's take is:

Those who know do not argue;
the argumentative are without knowledge.

To argue effectively we have to be persuasive, and to persuade it helps to be eloquent, but given just the word eloquent we wouldn't understand it to mean argumentative, even though given the rest of chapter 81 that is almost certainly closer to what the author meant than eloquent. Red Pine's book is an excellent resource for studying the Daodejing for many reasons (including his translation), but in this specific case he probably chose a word that scans beautifully and reveals nuance but obscures the text's primary meaning.

This problem is not specific to Red Pine. Any translation of the Daodejing has this problem in multiple places, because for difficult-to-translate words there is no right choice. To understand the original text, we have to read it in the original language or at least read multiple translations, preferably including some that identify and discuss difficult words and phrases.

Now for the kicker: there are worse problems with translation than word choice. More next time.

Yours truly,

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Oaths and Fates

Dear Reader,

I've started a third blog, Oaths and Fates (, where I'll be discussing Dungeons and Dragons.

Yours truly,

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Interlude with Li Po

Dear Reader,

Thanks again and again to Wikipedia and the wikipedians for their continuing mission to make so much information so widely available, including little gems like this one.

For those of you unfamiliar with the exquisite Li Po, I'm so happy to share with you this moment of beauty from over a thousand years ago.

Yours truly,

Drinking Alone by Moonlight (月下獨酌, pinyin: Yuè Xià Dú Zhuó)
by Li Bai (aka Li Po) (Chinese: 李白; pinyin: Lǐ Bái, or, Lǐ Bó) (701 – 762)
translated by Arthur Waley

花間一壺酒 。 A cup of wine, under the flowering trees;
獨酌無相親 。 I drink alone, for no friend is near.
舉杯邀明月 。 Raising my cup I beckon the bright moon,
對影成三人 。 For her, with my shadow, will make three people.

月既不解飲 。 The moon, alas, is no drinker of wine;
影徒隨我身 。 Listless, my shadow creeps about at my side.
暫伴月將影 。 Yet with the moon as friend and the shadow as slave
行樂須及春 。 I must make merry before the Spring is spent.

我歌月徘徊 。 To the songs I sing the moon flickers her beams;
我舞影零亂 。 In the dance I weave my shadow tangles and breaks.
醒時同交歡 。 While we were sober, three shared the fun;
醉後各分散 。 Now we are drunk, each goes their way.
永結無情遊 。 May we long share our eternal friendship,
相期邈雲漢 。 And meet at last on the Cloudy River of the sky.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Gibberish, Part One

Dear Reader,

In my blog entry on Saturday, April 28, 2007, I quoted verse 81 from Red Pine's Lao Tzu's Taoteching:

"True words aren't beautiful
beautiful words aren't true
the good aren't eloquent
the eloquent aren't good
the wise aren't learned
the learned aren't wise
the sage accumulates nothing
but the more he does for others
the greater his existence
the more he gives to others
the greater his abundance
the Way of Heaven
is to help without harming
the Way of the sage
is to act without struggling"

In response, an anonymous commentator responded:

"sounds like giberish to me"

Today, two and a half years later, I've finally decided to respond. I waited in part because the incomparable Johnny Ringo responded to Anonymous with a delightful improv riffing on the difference between gibberish and "giberish." In part I waited because anonymous commentators lack commitment to their words, since they won't even put their name behind their statements. Finally, in part I waited because sometimes it's hard to know how to respond to people whose perspectives are so profoundly alien to your own. For a long time, I honestly wasn't sure what to say to someone who would read a passage like verse 81 and see only gibberish (let alone giberish - shades of Charles Dodgson!).

Maybe it's because these days I do a lot more teaching than I did in 2007, maybe because Anonymous's complaint has finally cooked enough on my mental back burner, but my answer's finally ready. Here you go, Anonymous, in three parts, the first in this post.

First, human languages are optimized to say the kinds of things people from that culture say or think a lot, the commonplace ideas. They are anti-optimized against the things people do not often say or think in that culture.

The more you need to talk about something outside the range of your culture's usual concerns, the more like gibberish you're going to sound because that language will fight you, forcing you to choose between clumsy but literal prose or elegant but abstract metaphor.

You can see this clearly when translating certain works from one language to another, especially when the works in questions are masterpieces of their language, meaning they express exactly those kinds of things that language is great at, meaning the one you're translating into is likely to be quite bad at.

For example, translating Hegel from German into English does real violence to Hegel's ideas and renders clear but abstract and difficult ideas in German into simultaneously misleading and impenetrable prose in English. German is just plain better suited to expressing the kinds of ideas Hegel wrote about. In English, he often sounds rather like gibberish. This is ironic since there are fewer writers in the history of world literature whose ideas are less like gibberish. The clarity and force of his ideas make what most of us write seem as incoherent as fever-dream babbling by comparison, but in English - gibberish.

For example, here's a comparatively clear sentence from Die Philosophie des Geistes (The Philosophy of the Mind. Or should that be The Philosophy of the Spirit? Even the title doesn't translate into English. You're better off keeping the German word Geist):

The self-feeling of the living unity of mind inherently sets itself in opposition to the splintering of this same unity into distinct, mutually opposed, independently represented faculties, forces, or, what amounts to the same thing, likewise represented activities.

You have to be very comfortable with Hegel or German or both to really comprehend this translated sentence, and this one's pretty easy to translate. The ones that try to distinguish the "Idea" from the "Notion" (which are grossly butchered translations of clearly distinct German words whose distinction makes very little sense in English) read like pure gibberish.

The case of translation is not nearly so difficult as another case. Some writers write things not only difficult to translate into other languages, but even difficult to express in the language most suited to expressing it. That is, some writers build upon the linguistic strengths of their language by pushing beyond the limits, stretching the language to say things even it cannot easily say.

These writers tend to be the great thinkers, like Heraclitus of Ephesus, who understand things that no one has ever effectively expressed before in any language, who in their role as teachers have to find some way to bend the language to give them a chance to put this insight into words. This case most often arises from the need to simultaneously express many different ideas that are intertwined with one another, to reveal some important result of their interdependency.

For example, when Heraclitus writes Ἦθος ἀνθρώπῳ δαίμων (Êthos anthrôpôi daimôn), he says in three words what it takes an entire book to express in English; in those three words he takes a bold and original position on the classical philosophical debate about whether or not human beings have free will. Any attempt to "translate" this powerful statement into just three "equivalent" English words - or six, or thirty, or three hundred - reduces it to either a trivial statement or gibberish. Many of Heraclitus's statements still baffle even dedicated Heracliteans to this day for this very reason, because his ideas were barely expressible in Classical Greek and are more or less inexpressible in English. To truly understand what he's trying to say, you have to build up the vocabulary you need by studying Classical Greek. As with Hegel but even more so, the apparent gibberish of an English translation of Heraclitus (like G.T.W. Patrick's "A man's character is his daemon") is actually a desperate attempt to make accessible a profound truth.

Laozi's magnificent Daodejing (The Classic of the Way and the Virtue) falls into the same category as Heraclitus's Peri physeos, an attempt to put profound but nearly inexpressible ideas into words in a language far better suited to it than English. For example, writers like Laozi and Heraclitus often resort to paradox or even simple contradiction to slap the reader across his expectations, to force us to slow down and consider what he really means, to break out of our usual mental ruts long enough to consider a profoundly different perspective on something we've been taking for granted.

So, Anonymous, in short my first answer to your complaint is that sometimes gibberish is a good thing, an important thing, a sign of untranslatable profundity. Sometimes gibberish is how you know you are in the presence of one of the most important ideas you will ever encounter in your life.

More in part two.

Yours truly,

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Busy Busy Busy

Dear Reader,

I haven't forgotten about my blog here, but I've been distracted by (1) six deaths in my family in six months, and (2) my work-related blog, the VISTA Expertise Weblog. That blog for now and the immediate future is consuming most of my writing energy. Although it's mainly VISTA-related, there's an unavoidable amount of philosophy to it given its author, so you may find it interesting.

I'll resume my more directly philosophic explorations in the not-too-distant future. Until then, be well and struggle for wisdom.

Yours truly,

Friday, March 13, 2009


Dear Reader,

Ironically, for a man from a race of sleepwalkers, I can't sleep tonight.

My Grandma, Ann Saling, died a week ago, and we held her service two days ago. The service was a trainwreck, horror after horror with a few grace notes mixed in whose contrast sharpened the pain. It was so bad I was actually struck dumb when it was my turn to speak, and even now I cannot write about the details. I've been a fan of horror films all my life and watch the most astonishing fictional horrors, yet now I feel like a Lovecraftian protagonist who collapses in the face of true horror. Nihilism is so much worse a violation than death or mere grotesquerie.

Although I spent yesterday shying away from the trauma of the previous day, distracting myself, I find myself tonight unable to stop replaying the worst of it when I should be sleeping. After two sleepless hours I gave up trying and thought to fall back on my old comfort of writing to achieve emotional alchemy.

Rereading my last entry, from October, about pathei mathos, I found that it still rang true to me. Moreover, in the depths of pain now, stripped of abstract intellectual imagining by the direct grip of experience, I feel its truth more profoundly now than when I wrote it.

Why pathei mathos? Why do we only question ourselves under duress?

I think the problem lies in our mimesis, which I believe to be the essence of human nature, the very heart of our species. Intense mimcry seems to be the strange attractor that organizes all the anomalies and general weirdness of this species into a coherent pattern. It is an evil joke to call ourselves Homo sapiens, wise man, when wisdom is the surest thing we are not. Homo mimesis names the core of us better. For man all the world is indeed a stage, and the best actors are in the audience, playing the roles of their lives.

To fully immerse ourselves in our roles we must believe in our performances, which requires the complete shutdown of our critical faculties where perspective on ourselves is concerned. Great performances require commitment; one cannot be convincing and self-conscious simultaneously. Thus our mimesis and our profound resistance to self-scrutiny depend on each other, evolved to reinforce one another and create one of those powerful harmonic feedback loops evolution loves.

The more clearly we look at this nexus of drives within our nature, the more singers we find contributing decisively to this harmony.

Consider the psychological effect of acclimation, in which any stimulus, no matter how anomalous or unpleasant, can be adapted to by the human mind until we no longer notice it, like how sanitation workers get used to the odors associated with their job. Acclimation helps counteract the disruptive effect of sudden jumps in pain, ensuring that we sink back into our roles as we become used to the new conditions rather than breaking out of our mimesis completely, likewise ensuring that any wakefulness from our sleepwalking through life, our self-unconsciousness, is kept as brief as possible. That is, evolution's priorities for us placed mimetic immersion above disruptive wisdom as a survival trait.

We usually think of acclimation as the balm that soothes our pain, that allows us to adapt to it, but for that very reason it is also the chloroform we place over our own mouths whenever we become momentarily conscious, protecting us from insights and ensuring our operation can continue.

Or as another example of a powerful drive within us that makes the most sense when considered as a contributor to our essential mimesis, consider our species's notorious dearth of instincts compared to other mammals. Instincts place limits on a species's available range of behaviors by hardwiring them for specific behaviors. The more instincts you have, the less range you have as an actor, because the more of your behavior you cannot alter to fit your role. The greatest actors would have to have the fewest instincts (using the term here strictly biologically, not in the colloquial jargon of acting itself, in which instincts are—typical of English—something entirely different than instincts in biology (hardwired behavior); acting instincts are closer to intuition or the capacity to be true to the character you are playing, and these are the not the kind of thing our species lacks).

A third drive that contributes to this harmonic is the remarkable capacity for doing things unprecedented in the history of evolution, or doing things to an unprecedented extent. Sure other animals use tools, but none as wildly and intensely as we do. Sure others change their environment, but none as wildly and extensively as we do. Sure, other animals use language, but none so wildly and diversely as we do. The list goes on forever, because our capacity to do the unexpected does. This seemingly infinite, Protean malleability permits us to completely lose ourselves not only in precedented roles but unprecedented ones as well. That is, we can not only organize ourselves around any natural roles for which there are precedents, we can also organize ourselves around unnatural and artificial roles without precedent. The dynamic range in human cultures far exceeds the behavioral range of any other species, which is necessary for a species organized above all around imitating anything.

Each of these harmonic factors reinforces each of the others. Our wild dynamic range would not be possible without our capacity to acclimate to anything, however alien it might be at first. Thus, a stable civilization can be created around the idea of (among other things) tearing the hearts out of other people on top of enormous artificial mounds oriented to the stars. Likewise, our wild dynamic range would not be possible if our behavior were constrained by an evolved system of instinctive behavior. You don't find wolves deciding to organize themselves around the building of monuments to their own dead, because wolf instincts create an intricate and consistent worldwide wolf culture that constrains their behavior within functional and sustainable limits, whereas humanity's poverty of instincts permits us to organize around almost anything.

Finally (for this essay) a fourth example of an essential human characteristic that powerfully harmonizes with all these others organized around mimesis is neotony, an evolutionary principle first brought to my attention by Desmond Morris's The Naked Ape. Neotony is a process by which a new species evolves from an old one by interrupting its normal course of maturation to prevent adult characteristics from developing, that is, by retaining childlike characteristics into adulthood. Morris noted that many of our species's differences from the other apes are almost entirely explained in terms of neotony. Young apes have less hair than adult apes, and we have less hair than other primates. Young primates have larger heads relative to the size of their bodies, and so do we. Young animals have more generic, less specialized bodies and so do we. Young mammals are more social, and so are we. Young mammals are more curious and so are we. Young animals learn new behavior more easily, and so do we.

Overall, our species is an ideal case study in how neotony can turn one species into another, and I have long recognized that it is pivotal to understanding what we are, but now look at neotony in terms of the components of our essential behavioral harmony and its importance increases. Many of the instincts animals develop are not present at birth but instead activate later in the development process, so by interrupting that process neotony would cause these instincts never to develop in the new species; if humanity is one of the most intensely neotonous species, then we would expect to find a correspondingly extreme reduction in the number of instincts present in an adult human being, which we do. Our extreme capacity for unprecedented behavior is most closely associated in other animals with play, curiosity, and learning, all features more typical of young animals than of adults, except in human beings, who retain this childlike capacity for highly variable behavior into adulthood. Our capacity for mimicry is just the neotonous retention of learning-by-example that all young mammals do taken to an extreme because it is never switched off in adulthood as it is in other animals.

Neotony, extreme behavioral range, instinctual poverty, acclimation, self-unconsciousness, and mimesis together (along with other harmonizing human drives) create in human beings an extremely effective talent for mimicry, a paradoxical combination of extreme flexibility in the choice of behavioral models combined with an intense commitment to whatever roles we find ourselves in.

Our essential mimesis makes us very good at what we have evolved to do, but extraordinarily bad at wisdom. We are anti-evolved against genuine introspection, though we have the capacity to imitate the surface of it trivially. We have the capacity to be convinced by ourselves and our own roles, but almost no capacity to genuinely question ourselves or even to perceive ourselves in context, since that would interfere with perceiving ourselves according to the roles we have adopted.

In short, by means of our most essential survival traits we must and will subvert any chance of breaking out of our perpetual dream states. By our commitment to our roles, by being convinced of our own authenticity and our own understanding of who and what we are, we are guaranteed to be unable to question those roles, that authenticity, or that understanding, and without such questioning wisdom is quite impossible (though the imitation of the surface of it, the intense desire to be thought wise, the aping of wisdom, are not only possible but inevitable for a mimic).

That is why our only opportunities for advancing in wisdom can occur during those all-too-brief windows (1) after a sharp, unprecedented pain has shaken up our worlds so strongly that we groggily awake from ourselves, and (2) before our powerful capacity for acclimation adapts us to our new condition and puts us back to sleep.

That is, to that list of powerful harmonizing drives and effects that make us Homo mimesis, we can finally understand pathei mathos not as a curse of arbitrary gods to make wisdom unreachable except through pain—no jealous Olympian gods withhold from us the fires of enlightenment—nor as the idle speculation of ancient philosophers and storytellers—no fiction invented for our entertainment or catharsis—but rather as the necessary and inevitable consequences of our evolutionary recipe for survival. Wisdom is incompossible with mimesis, and mimesis is our specific, special priority and mission.

That is why it is impossible for us to know ourselves or to reflect upon ourselves as we actually are—the prime requisites for wisdom—except during the briefest of windows here and there in our lives when we suffer from fresh pain so intense that for a short time we cannot sleep.

Yours truly,

Postscript: If only it were the nightly sleep we needed to interrupt, perhaps we could all become wise, but alas, it is the sleep of a lifetime from which we must awake, and that we cannot do for long. The only permanent end to the sleep of mimetic personality comes with the sleep of the dead, the eternal sleep from which we none of us ever awake, and in which, alas, wisdom does not await us, only the dissolution of the self back into the selfless cosmic realms of soil and sea.


Dear Reader,

I just corrected the spelling in my comment about myself, which previously read "curioser and curioser." My wife is an editor, and I'm no slouch at spelling, but I've had this wrong for years. Heraclitus is right—we really are sleepwalkers.

Yours truly,