Translation, Theory and Technology
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Barker Lecture


  1. An example of the need to be sensitive to cultural factors is the translation of descriptions of items on a menu in a restaurant. Last year while in Paris, I passed by a billboard outside a well-known restaurant. The billboard advertised a dish called steak tartare. The description in English mentioned that it included fresh ground beef and egg, but failed to mention that the ground beef is served completely raw. In fact, this dish typically consists of raw ground beef mixed with spices and topped with a raw egg and bits of raw onion. For an American tourist passing by, there was not a clue that the meat was served raw. For a British tourist, this may be common knowledge, and for a Frenchman, it is no big deal that the meat is raw. Their 'well done' is more like our 'rare,' and they sometimes order a steak bleu, literally, 'blue,' meaning barely warmed over a flame but not cooked in the American sense of meat preparation. An American could easily think that the word tartare refers to tartar sauce and order the dish thinking that it would be strange to serve tartar sauce with beef instead of fish but certainly expect the meat to be cooked. This example shows the importance of being aware of the differences between cultures when translating. [ back to text ]

  2. Douglas Adams, in The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, gives us a whimsical account of why science should not attempt to prove the existence of God. The account is particularly appropriate for this paper since it involves translation.

    In Adams' novel (pp. 58-60), there is a small, yellow fish called the Babel fish that feeds on brainwave energy. If you place a Babel fish in your ear, you can understand anything said to you in any language. The Babel fish is thus extraordinarily useful, especially for someone hitchhiking across the galaxy. However, the story continues, some thinkers have used the Babel fish as a proof of the non-existence of God. The argument goes like this. It would be such a bizarrely improbable coincidence that anything so useful as a Babel fish could have evolved by chance, that we can conclude it did not evolve by chance. God refuses to allow a proof of his existence, since that would deny faith. But since the Babel fish could not evolved by chance, it must have been created by God. But God would not allow a proof of his existence. Therefore, there could be no God.

    The silliness of the above argument is intended, I believe, to show the futility of trying to prove the existence of God, through physics or any other route. Belief in God is a starting point, not a conclusion. If it were a conclusion, then that conclusion would have to be based on something else that is firmer than our belief in God. If that something else forces everyone to believe in God, then faith is denied. If that something else does not force us to believe in God, then it may not be a sufficiently solid foundation for our belief.

    Adams may also be saying something about translation and the nature of language. I can speculate on what Adams had in mind to say about translation when he dreamed up the Babel fish. My own bias would have him saying indirectly that there could be no such fish since there is no universal set of thought patterns underlying all languages. Even with direct brain to brain communication, we would still need shared concepts in order to communicate. Words do not really fail us. If two people share a concept, they can eventually agree on a word to express it. Ineffable experiences are those that are not shared by others. [ back to text ]

  3. There is a famous thought experiment in quantum mechanics devised by Erwin Schrödinger. A cat is placed in an imprenetrable box, along with a radioactive atom and a device that detects whether or not the atom has decayed, releasing poison gas when it does decay. According to one interpretation of quantum mechanics, the cat is in a state of superimposed life and death until some measurement is made. Many people have written about this thought experiment, which seems so counterintuitive. Cohen and Stewart do not challenge the evidence that quantum effects introduce true randomness, but they do challenge the assumption that the cat can be both alive and dead at the same time. They discuss what it means to make a measurement, and they suggest that the cat itself knows what is happening, invoking T. S. Eliot's poem "The Naming of Cats" (found, among other places, in The Norton Book of Light Verse, edited by Russell Baker, (c) 1986, W. W. Norton & Company: New York). [ back to text ]

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Last updated: Wednesday, January 3, 1999