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komponisto comments on The Optimizer's Curse and How to Beat It - Less Wrong

44 Post author: lukeprog 16 September 2011 02:46AM

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Comment author: komponisto 16 September 2011 05:19:27AM 2 points [-]

Would you say the same thing if a translation had been quoted of a poem originally in Latin or French?

(My guess: probably not. No one talks about a "standard English translation" of Catullus or Baudelaire. Instead, they credit the translator by name, or simply take the liberty of using the translation as if it were the original author's words.)

Comment author: [deleted] 16 September 2011 05:24:45AM 1 point [-]

The translator should absolutely be credited by name if he or she is known. Burns has passed kind of into folk status, and is a special case.

I would never quote Catullus or Baudelaire in English as if it were the original author's words. No. It's wrong (deprives the translator of rightful credit) -- and, FWIW, it's also low-status.

Comment author: komponisto 16 September 2011 06:02:38AM *  4 points [-]

Burns has passed kind of into folk status, and is a special case.

What matters, obviously, is not whether Burns has passed into folk status, but whether the particular translation has. The latter seems an implausible claim (since printed translations can presumably be traced and attributed), but if it were true, then there would be no need for acknowledgement (almost by definition of "folk status").

My comment arose from the suspicion that you reacted as if Burns had been paraphrased, as opposed to translated -- because the original language looks similar enough to English that a translation will tend to look like a paraphrase. I find it unlikely that you would actually have made this comment if lukeprog had quoted Catallus without mentioning the translator; and on the other hand I suspect you would have commented if he had taken the liberty of paraphrasing (or "translating") a passage from Shakespeare into contemporary English without acknowledging he had done so. My point being that the case of Burns should be treated like the former scenario, rather than the latter, whereas I suspect you intuitively perceived the opposite.

All translation is paraphrase, of course -- but there is a difference of connotation that corresponds to a difference in etiquette. When one is dealing with an author writing in the same language as oneself, there is a certain obligation to the original words that does not (cannot) exist in the case of an author writing in a different language. So basically, I saw your comment as not-acknowledging that Burns was writing in a different language.

I would never quote Catullus or Baudelaire in English as if it were the original author's words. No. It's wrong (deprives the translator of rightful credit) -- and, FWIW, it's also low-status.

I don't see it as lowering the status of the quoter; the status dynamic that I perceive is that it grants very high status to the original author, status so high that we're willing to overlook the original author's handicap of speaking a different language. In effect, it grants them honorary in-group status.

For example: Descartes has high enough status that the content of his saying "I think therefore I am" is more important to us than the fact that his actual words would have sounded like gibberish (unless we know French); people who speak gibberish normally have low status. Or, as Arnold Schoenberg once remarked (probably in German), "What the Chinese philosopher says is more important than that he speaks Chinese". Only high-status people like philosophers get this kind of treatment!

Comment author: Bill_McGrath 16 September 2011 10:47:35AM 4 points [-]

Or, as Arnold Schoenberg once remarked (probably in German), "What the Chinese philosopher says is more important than that he speaks Chinese". Only high-status people like philosophers get this kind of treatment!

Google has let me down in finding this quote, both in English and in roughly-translated German. Where is this from?

Comment author: komponisto 18 September 2011 01:29:17AM 0 points [-]

A statement like this is attributed to Schoenberg by a number of people, but I can't find a specific reference either. Perhaps it was just something he said orally, without ever writing it anywhere.

Comment author: garethrees 12 January 2012 05:46:45PM *  2 points [-]

The earliest reference I can track down is from 1952. In Roger Sessions: a biography (2008), Andrea Olmstead writes:

[In 1952] Sessions published "Some notes on Schoenberg and the 'method of composing with twelve tones'." At the head of the article he quoted from one of Schoenberg's letters to him: "A Chinese philosopher speaks, of course, Chinese; the question is, what does he say?" Sessions [had performed] the role of a Chinese philosopher in Cleveland.

(The work that Sessions had performed this role in appears to have been Man who ate the popermack in the mid-1920s.)

Sessions' essay (originally published in The Score and then collected in Roger Sessions on Music) begins:

Arnold Schönberg sometimes said 'A Chinese philosopher speaks, of course, Chinese; the question is, what does he say?' The application of this to Schönberg's music is quite clear. The notoriety which has, for decades, surrounded what he persisted in calling his 'method of composing with twelve tones', has not only obscured his real significance, but, by focusing attention on the means rather than on the music itself, has often seemed a barrier impeding a direct approach to the latter.

An entertaining later reference to this quotation appears in Dialogues and a diary by Igor Stravinsky and Robert Craft (1963), where Stravinsky tabulates the differences between himself and Schoenberg, culminating in this comparison:

Stravinsky: ‘What the Chinese philosopher says cannot be separated from the fact that he says it in Chinese.’ (Preoccupation with manner and style.)

Schoenberg: ‘A Chinese philosopher speaks Chinese, but what does he say?’ (‘What is style?’)

Comment author: wnoise 16 September 2011 07:25:14AM *  3 points [-]

All translation is paraphrase, of course -- but there is a difference of connotation that corresponds to a difference in etiquette. When one is dealing with an author writing in the same language as oneself, there is a certain obligation to the original words that does not (cannot) exist in the case of an author writing in a different language.

Right. But there are no hard-and-fast lines for "same language as oneself".

So basically, I saw your comment as not-acknowledging that Burns was writing in a different language.

You and I both brought up comparisons with Shakespeare. Both can be difficult to read for a struggling reader. For a sophisticated reader, the gist of both can be gotten with a modicum of effort. Full understanding of either requires a specialized dictionary, as vocabulary is different. So was Shakespeare writing in a different language? Was Burns? What's the purpose of this distinction? If it's weighing understanding vs adherence to the original wording, the trade-off is fairly close to the same place for the two. On the other hand, if it's to acknowledge the politic linguistic classification that Scots is a separate language from Modern English, there is a distinction, as no one cares whether Early Modern English is treated as a separate language from Modern English. (EDIT: I should say that I do think it's often more useful to consider Scots a separate language. Just because Burns was mostly intelligible to the English does not mean that other authors or speakers generally were.)

French

Meditations was first published in Latin.

Comment author: [deleted] 16 September 2011 06:28:36AM 1 point [-]

My comment arose from the suspicion that you reacted as if Burns had been paraphrased, as opposed to translated

I don't know what to tell you except that you're wrong. I know the original poem pretty well ("Gang aft agley" is a famous phrase in some circles). Burns isn't my specific field, but my impression, backed by a cursory Wikipedia search, is that the name of the original translator has been lost to the mists of history. If anyone can correct me and supply the original translator's name, I'll be truly grateful.

I don't see it as lowering the status of the quote

Yes, you wouldn't, and I can't prove it to you except by assembling a conclave of Ivy League-educated snooty New York poets who happen to not be here right now. I will tell you -- and you can update scantily, since you don't trust the source -- that the high-status thing to do is to provide quotes in the original language without translation. You are thereby signalling that not only do YOU read Scots Gaelic (fluently, of course), but you expect everyone you come into contact with socially to ALSO be fluent in Scots Gaelic.

The medium-status thing to do is at least to credit or somehow mark the translator, so that people think you are following standard academic rules for citation.

The reason that quoting translations without crediting them as such is low-status is that it leaves you open to charges of not understanding the original source material.

Comment author: wnoise 16 September 2011 07:39:38AM 10 points [-]

You are thereby signalling that not only do YOU read Scots Gaelic (fluently, of course), but you expect everyone you come into contact with socially to ALSO be fluent in Scots Gaelic.

Scots Gaelic is not Scots (is not Scottish English, though modern speakers of Scots do generally code switch into it with ease, sometimes in a continuous way). Scots Gaelic is a Gaelic, Celtic language. Scots is Germanic. Burns wrote in Scots.

Comment author: [deleted] 21 September 2011 12:33:39AM 2 points [-]

You're right, and thanks for the clarification. As I said, Burns isn't really my field.

Comment author: [deleted] 16 September 2011 01:28:38PM *  7 points [-]

Scots Gaelic is a thing, but it is not the language in which Burns wrote. That's just called Scots. I wouldn't ordinarily have mentioned it, but... you're coming off as a bit snobby here. (O wad some Power the giftie gie us, am I right?)

Comment author: JoshuaZ 16 September 2011 12:42:21PM 6 points [-]

that the high-status thing to do is to provide quotes in the original language without translation

This may be high status in certain social circles (having interacted with the snooty Ivy League educated New York poets also, they certainly think so) but to a lot of people doing so comes across as obnoxious and pretentious, that is an attempt to blatantly signal high status in a way that signals low status.

The highest status thing to do (and just optimal as far as I can tell for actually conveying information) is to include the original and the translation also.

Comment author: [deleted] 21 September 2011 12:36:42AM 2 points [-]

I agree that this is probably optimal. My own class background is academics and published writers (both my parents are tenured professors). It's actually hard trying to explain in a codified way what one knows at a gut level: I know that translations need to be credited, and for status reasons, but press me on the reasons and I'm probably not terribly reliable.

Comment author: gwern 21 September 2011 01:15:57AM 7 points [-]

I find it interesting that everyone here is focusing on status; couldn't it just be that crediting translations is absolutely necessary for the basic scholarly purpose of judging the authority and trustworthiness of the translation and even the original text? And that failing to provide attribution demonstrates a lack of academic expertise, general ignorance of the slipperiness of translation ('hey, how important could it be?'), and other such problems.

I know I find such information indispensable for my anime Evangelion research (I treat translations coming from ADV very differently from translations by Olivier Hague and that different from translations by Bochan_bird, and so on, to give a few examples), so how much more so for real scholarship?

Comment author: [deleted] 21 September 2011 01:53:25AM *  6 points [-]

Well, what I originally [see edit] wrote was "It's wrong (deprives the translator of rightful credit) -- and, FWIW, it's also low-status." I think people found the "low-status" part of my claim more interesting, but it wasn't the primary reason I reacted badly to seeing a translation uncredited as such.

Edit: on reflection, this wasn't my original justification. I simply reacted with gut-level intuition, knowing it was wrong. Every other explanation is after-the-fact, and therefore suspect.

Comment author: JoshuaZ 21 September 2011 01:59:10AM 2 points [-]

Upvoting for realizing that a rational wasn't your actual reason.

Comment author: JoshuaZ 21 September 2011 01:26:01AM 1 point [-]

Yes, agreed. I did note above that including the translation details with the original was optimal for conveying information but I didn't emphasize it. I think that part of why people have been emphasizing status issues over serious research in this context is that the start of the discussion was about what to do with epigraphs. Since they really are just for rhetorical impact, the status issue matters more for them.

Comment author: [deleted] 22 April 2012 12:25:25AM 1 point [-]

[if you] provide quotes in the original language without translation [you are signalling that] you expect everyone you come into contact with socially to ALSO be fluent in [the language].

This was the case until about a decade ago, but nowadays it merely signals that you expect the audience to know how (and be willing to) use Google. (The favourite quotations section in my Facebook profile contains quotations in maths, Italian, English, Irish and German and none of them is translated in any other language.)

Comment author: ArisKatsaris 16 September 2011 01:14:21PM 0 points [-]

Status is in the map, not in the territory, siduri. The map of "snooty New-York poets" needn't be our own map.

Comment author: JoshuaZ 16 September 2011 04:19:05PM 1 point [-]

Status is in the map, not in the territory, siduri. The map of "snooty New-York poets" needn't be our own map.

Yes but being aware of what signals one is sending out is helpful. Given that humans play status games it is helpful to be aware of how those games function so one doesn't send signals out that cause people to pay less attention or create other barriers to communication.

Comment author: Hey 16 September 2011 04:31:51PM 3 points [-]

Agreed, but it takes a high degree of luminosity to distinguish between tactical use of status to attain a specific objective, and getting emotionally involved and reactive to the signals of other (inducing this state of confusion is pretty much the function of status-signals for most humans, though).

Tactical = dress up, display "irrational confidence", and play up your achievements to maximize attraction in potential romantic partners, or do well at a job interview.

Emotional-reactive = seeking, and worrying about, the approval of perceived social betters even though there is no logical reason.

Comment author: prase 19 September 2011 07:51:10PM 0 points [-]

Only high-status people like philosophers get this kind of treatment!

Are you saying that always when a sentence is translated, its author must have high status or gains high status at the moment of translation, because the default attitude is to ignore anything originally uttered in foreign language?

If this is what you mean, I find it surprising. I have probably never been in a situation when someone was ignored because he spoke incomprehensible gibberish and that fact was more important than the content of his words. Of course, translation may be costly and people generally pay only for things they deem valuable, which is where the status comes into play. But it doesn't mean that with low-status people it is more important that they speak gibberish than what they say.

(A thought experiment: A Gujarati speaking beggar approaches a rich English gentleman, says something and goes away. The Englishman's wife, who is accompanying him at the moment, accidentally understands Gujarati. The man can recognise the language but doesn't understand a word. What is the probability that he asks his wife "what did he say"? As a control group, imagine the same with an English beggar, this time the gentleman didn't understand because when the beggar had spoken, a large truck had passed by. Is the probability of asking "what did he say" any different from the first group?)

Comment author: komponisto 19 September 2011 09:45:10PM 1 point [-]

Are you saying that always when a sentence is translated, its author must have high status or gains high status at the moment of translation, because the default attitude is to ignore anything originally uttered in foreign language?

Yes. More generally, the default attitude is to ignore anything uttered by a member of an outgroup. By calling attention to the fact that a sentence has been translated, one is calling attention to the fact that the author speaks a foreign language and thus to the author's outgroup status. Omitting mention of a person's outgroup status is a courtesy extended to those we wish to privilege above typical outgroup members.

(A thought experiment: A Gujarati speaking beggar approaches a rich English gentleman, says something and goes away. The Englishman's wife, who is accompanying him at the moment, accidentally understands Gujarati. The man can recognise the language but doesn't understand a word. What is the probability that he asks his wife "what did he say"? As a control group, imagine the same with an English beggar, this time the gentleman didn't understand because when the beggar had spoken, a large truck had passed by. Is the probability of asking "what did he say" any different from the first group?)

Curiosity about what a low-status person says does not imply that one thinks the content of their words is a more important fact about them than their low status. With high probability, the most salient aspect of the beggar from the perspective of the Englishman is that he is a beggar (and, in the first case, a foreign beggar at that). Whatever the beggar said, if the Englishman finds out and deems it worthy of recounting later, I would be willing to bet that he will not omit mention of the fact that he heard it from a beggar.