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On the difficulties of translation.

August 11, 2012 Leave a comment

Apologies for my absence, it’s been a rough few weeks.

This week I am going to talk about how my learning Powershell (a Text-Based User Interface or TUI rather than the Graphical User Interface or GUI that we are all familiar with today) permits me to understand better how we translate every day and what it is we translate. This is the true nature of languages and communication at it’s most basic level. Well, really it’s me trying to be scientific and philosophical so prepare for some half-baked ideas from a newly graduated idiot.

To begin with, these words are symbols that represent concepts, or rather, more literally sounds which represent concepts that anyone who knows the ‘code’ can translate and can therefore understand the meaning of this heavily convoluted sentence. To you Grammar Nazis, I know that my writing is terrible, but hey, I’m learning, be gentle, communication isn’t my strongest point.

So even when one is speaking the same language, it’s possible for confusion ‘in translation’ because the concept has to be translated a few times: From thought to vocals, to detected sounds, to thought. A thought occurs (Ahaha), a brilliant demonstration can be shown in this xkcd comic, confusion reigns through translation.

Now that we understand a little about translating intent into languages, we may look at the intent in use of Powershell, and the language used. For example, to delete a file using Powershell, you don’t say ‘delete filename’, instead you say:

‘rm filename.txt’

‘rm’ stands for remove which is the word that the programmers of Powershell decided was the way they would define deleting. Understanding the correct syntax is also important, suppose for instance that you had to state which file you wanted to remove first, it is entirely conceivable that the programmers could’ve decided that you had to state which file you wanted to do anything with before you tell Powershell what you wanted to do with it, in which case the correct syntax could entirely be:

‘filename.txt rm’

Or they could have also decided that ‘del’ was clearer as del is short for delete and so it is more intuitive to do that and so:

‘filename.txt del’

Would be the correct syntax. Understanding what language you are speaking is important to know how to say anything, this is important for different human languages too, I’m afraid the only other language I know a bit about is the dead language of Latin but it is a good example, in order to state:

‘Adam eats the apple’

You say that

‘Adam the apple eats’

So if you were to try the first one in Latin it would sound like complete gibberish. It’s interesting to reflect on the origination of syntax, who decided these laws of noun and verb order for these different but certainly related languages. Speaking of foreign languages (At least foreign to where I’m writing this blog…) there is an important point on perception which is demonstrated by a Belgian artist, René Magritte, jokingly referenced by another webcomic Calamities of Nature (Calamities, you will be missed). The original is of course:

The Treachery of Images taken from Joshua Katcher’s Blog without permission, but I cite his post so I think it’s ok. Josh if you read this: I doubt you’re petty enough to demand more since you don’t own the image but thanks, yours was the first image that showed up on GoogleImages so props to you.

This artwork makes the point that an image of something is only a representation of it. Perfectly obvious really, but important to note. The point is pertinent, in my opinion, to what I have to say on translation; that when you state something, repeating our earlier example:

‘Adam eats the apple’

When you state this simple sentence, you don’t state what is happening, rather you state an impression of what is occurring. This adds a layer of potential confusion since this impression can be misinterpreted, for example, it doesn’t say what state the apple is in, if the apple was chopped or whole (I’m sure you can picture two very different scenarios when I give this additional information to supplement the statement.

I suppose this blog post really is about being careful about what you say and how you say it because a different interpreter could translate it incorrectly, or rather in a different way to you, as with the computer example about removing (i.e. deleting) files using Powershell.

References

Learn Powershell or your computer’s alternative.

Joshua Katcher’s Blog post which I took the image (Heheh) of the Treachery of Images from.