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Wednesday, April 26, 2006

It's The Thing Between

If you haven't read Rich's entry yesterday, Sins of Omission, go do that now.


I did a Snoopy Dance!

I started to reply with a comment and...well...the result is this post.

I have a statement I use that refers to what Rich said.

It's the thing between.

This statement is meant to refer to the fact that within a context there is something connecting the various pieces of the context. These connections create a very highly complex network which generates the coherence of the meaning of a text.

If I say, "Connections blue Fred burn ugly," you have no idea what that could possibly mean. It's totally incoherent. Why? There are no connections; there are no things between. (Though some of you will play with that "sentence" trying to make it make sense. What are you doing? You're constructing the things between.)

Now, some of these connections are explicit--they're in the text (eg. a genitive case ending). So, there are syntactical connections.

However, in many, many cases the connection is not in the text. The specifically required connections are determined by or selected by the text, but they aren't in the text[1]. This is obviously seen when I say 'trunk' and then ask you what am I referring to? You don't know! Why not? Because you don't know what to connect it to. Though you have probably thought of a prototypical trunk; you didn't think of a rhinoceros, for example. That sequence of connected letters, t-r-u-n-k, significantly constrained the potential meanings. But, there is still sufficient ambiguity that you don't know what I'm referring to. Now, as soon as I say 'trunk' and 'car' then an American makes a much stronger connection and does so quite quickly. It's the thing between that generates the meaning. And furthermore, and quite importantly, it's the thing between that generates the clarity in a communication.[2]

Another way of seeing this is the fact that I can leave a certain ______ out of a sentence and you will very likely be able to figure out what is missing. The connections, the things between, force you toward an appropriate determination of what word goes in that blank. Cross word puzzles somewhat work this way. You are given a clue; you have to come up with the word. Also, cross word puzzles point out that different people are different, and different words come to mind more readily than others. That is, for some answers you require more information such as additional letters. These facts point us to concluding that the connections are within your mind. These are the things between.

To a degree, word for word translations, by definition, ignore the things between. This is ironic since those who strongly advocate word for word translation also insist that words derive their meaning from the context (as do I). I think what they don't seem to understand is that the word-focused activity of a word for word translation process subverts the clarity generated by the things between. An accurate translation will not only translate the words, but will translate[3] the things between. And may I say here with little further justification that not only are the words inspired, but the things between participate in that inspiration. They had to, or we worship an inspiring God that is limited in his ability to communicate. So, as Rich said, there is no place to hid. The words are there; the things between are there--we have to humbly deal with that.

Lastly, I purposely used 'trunk' and 'car' in the above illustration since my British friends (and I think other non-Americans) will get the connection more slowly than their American counterparts, though not in all cases. And that's within the same language although separated by a common people (note that this sentence is meant to be humorous since it is connected to a similar humorous statement, but that connection is not in the text). This doesn't mean that Brits are somehow dumber than Americans (what provincialism!) Nor are those who want a clear translation asking for a dumbed down Bible (provincialism again!?!). People who want a clear translation are simply asking for Bible translators to do their job (and yes, most certainly, I know it's hard--the risk is great--this point in Rich's article is well taken!)

We need clear translations. We need to bring across from the original context into the modern context enough of the things between in order to generate that clarity.

[1] This is particularly true of an authoritative and sacred text such as the Bible.

[2] If we want to maintain a strong view of inspiration, then we have to come to grips with the coherency of the text and how that coherency interplays with clarity and ambiguity as it exists in communcation (or language use). In other words, has God communicated?

[3] The word translate doesn't quite work here; but, we don't appear to have a word that accurately captures the meaning. Transduce comes to mind.


At Wed Apr 26, 11:01:00 AM, Blogger lingamish said...

I share your joy although I think Snoopy himself would be doing his happy dance not about linguistics but that it is spring! I'm heading out for a walk in the sun.

At Wed Apr 26, 04:50:00 PM, Blogger Richard A. Rhodes said...

Thanks for expanding on Ortega y Gasset's notion of "silence", Mike. Your notion of "things between" helps a lot.

When philosophers talk, their metaphors often force you to go think things out for yourself. If you've never had to deal extensively in a bilingual situation, you might not immediately recognize what Ortega y Gasset is saying. Thinking of the information unexpressed in one language but necessary in another as something between the words rather than silence can be very helpful.


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