Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Mastery of A Language...Or Anything For That Matter

I have been thinking lately about mastery of a language - or anything for that matter. What does it take and what does it mean to be a master.

To master anything, one must have the passion for it. Without passion, we are but pure mediocrity however smart we may imagine ourselves to be.

To master a language, we must appreciate the beauty of a language to express our emotions as precisely as we can. To do this, we must read the literature and the poetry, as well as the folklore and the fairy tales - for this is where the wisdom of our ancestors are passed down, by word of mouth, in stories that captivate our minds and captures our hearts - of love for the things that define us.

To master the Malay language, there are literature books written by lovers of the Malay language to display its natural beauty by bringing out the sounds that make our poetry and our songs a delight to our souls.

To master the English language, there are plenty of literature books to read. We older students were suckled on Shakespeare, Coleridge, Dickens, Walter de la Mare, Laurie Lee and V.S. Naipaul. We have translated versions of the Greek authors such as Euripides, Sophocles, Plato and Aristotle. We might even have enjoyed Lin Yutang, the Chinese classics or Vyasa, even if in English.

But Maths and Science are such technical subjects which do not lend themselves to easy translation. It can be done but it will have to take many years for the translations to be good and the language that is being translated into to be stable. Otherwise, we are likely to end up with codelike words which look like bad spelling. This will not be helpful to our children when we want them to be at par with children all over the world and compete in order to make our nation proud. We may be at risk as a scientific nation to immerse our children in bad translations of things which the translators may not be masters of in the first place. A bad translation of a masterpiece is a badly translated book.

Our history has shown that poor students in rural areas are capable of competiting with the best of the urban students if they are given inspired teachers and well-equipped schools. In this day and age, in this day of modern technology when information reaches all the little nooks and corners, it must be intense efforts of teachers of doing a consistently bad job to produce bad students. If teaching nowadays is not easy, this is the nature of the job and this is modern living - I don't believe there is any job now that can be said to be easy - where the person doing the job can be half asleep and hope that their incompetency will have no impact.

There is nowhere to hide in modern life except in badly concocted statistics. This goes for bad financing schemes, bad banking practices, bad accounting practices, bad politics, bad economics and bad teaching. There is a reason for governments for developing countries to constantly underfund the national statistical organisations - so that the truth will not emerge - so that they can survive on rhetoric.


walla said...

A translator has to first know the subject that he is translating.

Whether the subject is geography or physics, maths or medicine, engineering or philosophy, biology or literature, economics or computer science, translating texts from one language to another needs prior and accurate knowledge of the subject. Because there is a thing called context which determines the choice of words strung in phrases which can carry different tones of meaning depending on how the translator interprets what is intended by the author to mean.

The translator does not have the benefit of having the author present in person to explain or confirm that what is translated is faithful to what the author had meant.

Furthermore, the passion to learn and master something is also dependent on how fluid and fluent is the presentation which in turn depends on how interested and confident is the presenter of his mastery of the subject.

Since the entire point of talking about translating is to create experts, we are in that situation where we need experts first in the subjects that we want to develop experts in. Patently, this is an absurd situation. Especially when we are not in some Meiji era when knowledge wasn't so much then that a backward but farsighted race could determinedly absorb and internalize what has been discovered and invented by others to catch up to their level of development and progress. Incidentally, that took one century.

Apart from context, there is another aspect about knowledge. It is cumulative. That's why medical specialists command a higher premium than general practitioners. As knowledge accumulates to a common global pool, the key determinant of success in using knowledge becomes the ability to filter and qualify the knowledge. Again, that needs expertise in the subject. And when the knowledge of a specific subject piles up to the top, another skill comes to be needed critically. It is a skill which is difficult to describe. Let's just call it associative insight. Or, if you prefer, generic patterning.

The purpose of building knowledge is to hone insights to design solutions.

People may contend that for technical subjects like science, maths, engineering and technology, their content is mostly symbolic, quantitative and factual, thereby making their translation mostly an exercise of exchanging technical terms.

Let's just take an example reflective of the present situation worldwide:


The first part is in a native language; it contains only notes; it is the second part further down which shows the size of the gulf, and illustrates why even for technical subjects it is not merely about plugging in the translated terms.

walla said...

And few translators, even if they be experts on the subject, will confidently say that they can faithfully reproduce the passion that went from one special mind into that second part. Incidentally, that second part is one of the most rudimentary pieces of knowledge today. At least half a century old.

So, what for one subject, spread the implications to all other subjects, not just science, maths, etc. But everything.

No economic program of worth has ever been advanced by a poet. So mastery of linguistic fine points may be good for diplomacy and refinement of the mind. But it won't add wealth to nations.

There is however one poet who was good in state administration. Goethe. He also discovered a maxillary bone. Just as our lecturer in the second part above had picked locks, played drums and helped develop the atom bomb.

The best specialists of their respective fields are usually also universalists in their world-views and interests.

There is one other tangential aspect which should also be considered. In fact, two, if one wants to parse the matter.

A trend has been recorded that more women than men enter the local universities. The other thing is that the infertility rate has also increased. So, ceterus paribus, we will one day be having less and less brains trained in the tertiary institutions.

Which theoretically means, together with the brain drain consequent from that slide, we will become a brain-challenged nation in addition to being knowledge-deprived.

Do our educationists think like this?


...about Lin Yutang..coinventor of the character typewriter..


and while at that..


Our national capacity to deliver the death blow on the future of our young will amaze even the ultra-immovable Jabba the Hut (http://is.gd/1HNZP)