Wednesday, January 20, 2010

What's In A Word: Dictionary vs Translation

What a difference a word makes!

It was Dr. Samuel Johnson's dictionary - which he wrote singlehandedly, bar a few scrawny Scottish helpers, over a period of nine years - which laid the foundation of the English dictionaries that we have today.

Johnson's was not the first English dictionary, and earlier dictionaries were unsatisfactory because they tried to define what a word means, and not how a word has been used or is being used today. An unsatisfactory dictionary tries to fossilise a word in its historical usage, whereas a proper dictionary should try to demonstrate how a word is being used today - which may be very different from the way it was used before.

For me, the one word that has changed drastically in usage is this lovely simple word "gay." I like this word a lot. It tells of a condition in a person that is light and happy, not quite exuberant or just contented. Today, the word "gay" has a heavy sexual connotation.

Johnson's dictionary was significant because it tried to give example of how a word had been used or was being used. Words which had been used before was quite easy for him to discover, by borrowing books from friends and marking them so that his clerks could copy out. Words which were being used could be found out from current publications, and if he could not find one example, he simply gave his own version of the word. The most famous example was the word "Oats: a grain which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland supports the people"

The greatness of Johnson's dictionary is to present for posterity the right to use words in the way as we so choose, which then make words living words rather than dead words, as opposed to giving the right over the usage of words to grammaritarians and some external linguistic authority.

So, if one were to do translation, how would one translate. Does one merely refer to the dictionary on the meaning of the word (as one would think of the nature of a poor dictionary) or does one try to understand how the word has been used or is being used and how it now can be used.

At the end of the day, the meaning of a word can be discovered only within the context that it is being used. The word does not define the context; but the context, the word.

It is only by opening words out for variations that we encourage creativity and innovation in the way we think. We can create new words for new ideas but we usually find that what we think is new is not really that new and that it could be the same old thing that now has taken a more modern facade.

If we are not allowed to think freely and express ourselves freely, then we may not be using words to master our thoughts; instead, we may find our thoughts being enslaved by words.

The way we use words betray our hidden innermost feelings about ourselves and how we see life.

1 comment:

walla said...

This is too subtly deep even for me. ;P

Some may think by muscularizing venn diagrams. Others in terms of topological kinks. Yet others think by sensing an idea forming inside the head like a cloud rolling forward from some dark recess. A considerable number may actually form their thoughts as they write using words that they remember which means if their vocabulary is limited or memory short, so too their thoughts, and if they don't write, there is no thought in their heads.

Maybe to know how one thinks is the first step towards knowing what one is.

This ability to throw light inwards towards some process akin to total internal reflection should be taught in all schools because the only person we really carry with us throughout our lives is, well, ourselves.

The longest journey of any life is the journey inwards.

It is a long journey because we have to find a dictionary to translate what we observe as we live day by day. We can't know everything in advance otherwise the journey will be dreadfully boring. Like watching a movie a second time.

Each day brings some things which are the same and many things which are different. Sometimes things we think are different are actually the same. And vice versa.

So it remains to ask what is that dictionary and how does one use it to translate the signposts of each journey?

Presumably a dictionary has two parts; one, the language one knows, which then connects its words to their corresponding words in the second language which one doesn't know. Sometimes publishers realize that if you have x to translate to y, then the user who knows y only will have to search the whole dictionary to hopefully find x because y,x is not indexed alphabetically. That's why they publish so-called bilingual dictionaries which first half is x,y and second half is y,x.

Nowadays, everything is just made easier using electronic translation engines. Some engines only require one to enter only the link to a web page, and the machine will translate everything inside the page in seconds. More than half will be gibberish because machine contextualization isn't yet an exact science.

So it is the matter of context which is the real value of translations. But what is context as applied to a dictionary to be used to translate the signposts of a journey in life?

Is it just the historical setting in which the signposts are to be read, or mayhaps it is also something else, something deeper, something that can only be pondered upon without referring to any word in any language?

Again, another thing that should be taught in schools. How to analyze to the essence of something without the need to use words.

Meditation helps, it is suggested. But how many can sit still for even a few minutes, let alone sit cross-legged?

One day it may be incontestably proven to some level of self-consistency that the fuzzy logic of the medici effect will become more and more important as the world and its situations get more and more complex.

Whether in behavioral finance or artificial intelligence, the medici effect may create knowledge faster and wider to cast a bigger net to produce more contextualizations. A paradox of precision by fuzzing; some will say it is actually summation over all possible paths of causation.

Which remains to close by inquiring why is it all relevant signposts so far bespeak common decency and practical behavior?

Is it because they were originally founded on the notion of common good for groupings like tribes and societies and that notion magically coincided with some rare truths beyond the realm of humanity? that each journey is already preordained in some regard but at the same time open to how one interprets the notion of common good in all its forms and protocols....

As we ponder this, let us partake of more barley and quaker oats.

Health is the first and last wealth as if to clock the message that all journeys must be completed to some end, come what may.