Knowledge in translation

Several years ago I read Douglas Hofstadter‘s Le Ton Beau De Marot: In Praise of the Music of Language, an examination of the creative process in the form of poetry translation. Hofstadter established some structural and literal guidelines and had several friends and colleagues translate a 16th Century French poem. (See the wikipedia entry for a bit more detailed synopsis.)

The book was brought back to mind by a post by Jack Vinson and his thoughts on a post by Victoria Ward entitled Traduttore-traditore, in which she discusses the challenges of (you guessed it) translating poetry. Comparing the translation of poetry to knowledge work, Victoria leaves us with this:

And these five tips on translating poetry are as good for knowledge work as any other guidance I’ve come across if, for the word poem, you substitute the words ‘knowledge thing’ – a bit graceless I know, but it serves the purpose for now. The first sentences here come from the original tips. The companion sentences are mine.

1. Stay Close to the Poem. Get thoroughly intimate with the thing.

2. Know the poet. Understand it’s context and origins inside out. Get familiar with everything you can about the thing.

3. Go for Grace. Convey the essence of the thing with pith and elegance.

4. Be Wary. Don’t take other’s people’s ways of looking at the thing as your own. Own your own way of relating to and conveying the thing and ignore the noise.

5. Take a Deep Breath. Sit with it. Go away. Come back and look at it again.

What I think that Victoria is hinting at is that, in many ways, knowledge work is often an act of translation. Not from one language to another (though that undoubtedly happens, too), but within the native tongue of the knowledge worker. The translation, then, is one of culture not language, but instead of having to translate between British English and American English or Mexican Spanish and Spanish Spanish, knowledge workers have to translate between Engineering and Production or Sales and Human Resources.

After an e-mail exchange with Jack on the subject, I went back into Le Ton Beau de Marot and found this related passage that I had marked when I read it the first time. I apologize for the length, but felt it best to include the whole thing.

Distortion-free Idea Transmission: A Chimera

Any good translator’s ideal is to get across to a new group of readers the essence of someone else’s fantasy and vision of the world, and yet, as we have repeatedly seen…, the mediating agent necessarily plays a deep and critical role in doing such a job. A translator does to an original text something like what an impressionist painter does to a landscape: there is an inevitable and cherished personal touch that makes the process totally different from photography. Translators are not like cameras – they are not even like cameras with filters! They distort their input so much that they are completely unique scramblers of the message – which does not mean that their scrambling is any less interesting or less valuable than the original “scene”.

A curious aspect of this analogy between the translation of a piece of text into a new language and the rendering of a scene as a painting is that the original text…plays the role of the scene in nature, rather than that of something created by a human. The original text is thus a piece of “objective reality” that is distorted by the translator/painter. But what, one might then ask, about people who read the text in the original language? Are native-language readers able to get the message as it really is, free from all the bias and distortion inevitably introduced by a scrambling intermediary?

As the letters and words of the original text leap upwards from the page into a native reader’s eyes and brain, they shimmer and shiver and then suddenly splinter into a billion intricately-correlated protoplasmic sparks scattered all over the cerebral cortex and deeper within – unique patterns in the unique mind of the unique reader that each distinct person constitutes. The idea that all native-language readers see “the same thing” falls to bits. It’s true that in the case of native-language readers, there is no intermediary human scrambler, but it’s not true that, because of this lack, there is no idiosyncratic perceptual distortion. How sad it would be if that were the case!

Since this is the theme song of George Steiner’s “After Babel”, I can think of no better way to end this chapter than to quote a few sentences from the end of his first chapter, entitled “Understanding as Translation”:

Thus a human being performs an act of translation, in the full sense of the word, when receiving a speech-message from any other human being. Time, distance, disparities in outlook or assume reference, make this at more or less difficult. Where the difficuulty is great enough, the process passes from reflex to conscious techniqe. Intimacy, on the other hand, be it of hatred or of love, can be defined as confident, quasi-immediate translation….

In short: inside or between languages, human communication equals translation.

In other words (my words): Just because everyone is told the same thing doesn’t mean that everyone hears the same thing.

Or, to be more specific to the world of knowledge management and knowledge work: Just because all of your knowledge workers have the same knowledge doesn’t mean they all “know” the same thing.

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