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,

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