arcs of meaning

I was honored to be invited to attend the Distinguished Teacher’s Luncheon yesterday as a guest of one of this year’s Award winners. I do not know how stimulating the conversation was at other tables, but I believe ours was the best because five of us stayed long after the delectable cheesecake (that even the French would love, and Allison thought was actually ok). Rob commented on my expressive eyebrows and Floyd raked in a surprise award for turning out graduate student Distinguished Teachers two years in a row (Jennie joined us too, she’s doing some awesome work now with a project providing computers to schools in Kenya). The other DTA honoree gave an emotion-filled tribute to his students (notably the 18 fourth-graders showing him stringed instrument finger Number Two). Shabnam‘s devotion to Sumo Wrestling (and, may I add, Grand Theft Auto) played equally well: “sometimes you just have to give students a hook.”
(No, she was not nervous.)
I’m not sure how to connect Eduardo’s expertise with my interests, but Murray’s work (in progress) with owls and squirrels seems metaphorically close (although maybe we shouldn’t get too carried away with the food chain part). Human systems are not so linear, but why do I keep suspecting these mathematicians have created some ways with language that might help us address the dynamics of people in groups and societies? Just look at these Willmore surfaces! I know economists have done this somewhat – but everything they do is idealized (isn’t it?), assuming rational actors and fixed variables.
I suppose what I have in mind is a fairly simple regression (to start). We had some fun talking about language and interpretation. For instance, Rob brought up this classic from English to Russian:

“The spirit is willing but the flesh is weak.”

Russian (back-translated to English):

“The vodka is strong but the meat is rotten.”

I was intrigued by this example, which seems (to me) as if it could have been appropriately culturally adapted: that’s what makes it funny, isn’t it? I can imagine this as the result of an excellent interpretation among real people in real time in an actual circumstance in which the gist of the message is what matters, rather than dismissing it as a limited literal translation. Of course, in most situations these two versions of a desired way to characterize and/or move through a particular point in spacetime would not align, but the thing that a simultaneous interpreter does that is truly unique is factor in all the variables of the specific instance and generate their best sense of how to convey a preferred endgoal.
Wikipedia backs me up that the original story is an amusing, non factual anecdote – but nonetheless characterizes it, unquestionably, as a mistranslation. Blanket judgments like this still rely on a mechanistic view of language, because the premise remains that there is only one accurate translation that could work for all situations and contexts. Instead, suppose that what matters more than the equivalence of word-for-word is the overall shape of the relational trajectory:
arc of meaning.jpg
In communication theory (in my area, particularly at the interpersonal/intra- and intergroup level in terms of rhetoric, performance, and social interaction) we distinguish between a transmission view of communication and a ritual view of communication. The transmission view can be (loosely) linked with the stability of a particle, while the ritual view focuses more on the energy aspects of communication as a wave. The transmission view is about power (control) “here-and-now” and the ritual view is more concerned with influence and effects over time. These are two aspects of force present in every utterance and also in each pause between utterances. The interesting question then (to ask of your interpreter), is not “did you say what I meant” but “did you say what will accomplish for me the end I seek?” A dicey question, isn’t it? – that cuts both ways: interpreters are not psychic and must rely on all of the same cues perceptible to everyone else in the communication situation. Yet interlocutors often speak without a clear end-in-view, instead speaking in order to figure out what it is they mean and determine where exactly they are trying to go.
Certainly I had a grand time! 🙂 I am lucky to know such wonderfully bright and articulate people.

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