Saturday, July 26, 2014

It's Not The Translator Who's The Traitor

In The New Yorker, Adam Gopnik looks at the issue of translation. Many claim it's impossible to properly translate the sense of one language into another.  They go further--with the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis--claiming that your language helps determine your worldview.

Gopnik (and John McWhorter, in his recent book The Language Hoax, which Gopnik discusses), will have none of it.  Yes, meanings can be subtle, but there's no insuperable gulf that prevents us from understanding others.  I tend to agree. But that's not why I'm writing this post.

Gopnik gets to Orwell, who so famously wrote about how those in power use language to fool the public and hide what they're doing.  That's when we get this from Gopnik:

...euphemism is a moral problem, not a cognitive one. When Dick Cheney calls torture “enhanced interrogation,” it doesn’t make us understand torture in a different way; it’s just a means for those who know they’re doing something wrong to find a phrase that doesn’t immediately acknowledge the wrongdoing. [....] Whatever name Cheney’s men gave torture, they knew what it was.

This isn't a linguistics argument so much as a political slam. It's certainly not a political argument, since Gopnik apparently believes his statement is so obviously true (or so unlikely to be debated by New Yorker readers) that he doesn't have to present any evidence.

What is or isn't torture--legally or morally--is a tricky enough issue.  But Gopnik's arrogance goes much further.  He apparently has direct access to minds of Dick Cheney and his men.

Here's some advice for Gopnik. If you're going to use politics for some intellectual example, try something that either praises George W. Bush or attacks Barack Obama.  Going against your instincts will prevent you from fooling yourself.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

"What is or isn't torture--legally or morally--is a tricky enough issue."

Not really

8:28 AM, July 26, 2014  
Blogger LAGuy said...

Yes it is. It's exceedingly difficult to figure out specifically, if you're in charge, what you can and can't do. I've gone over this before, so I'm not going to give you a list of the thousands of questions you'd have to answer, any one of which if you get wrong will get you accused of human rights violations.

Let's say you're holding someone and trying to get information. Are you? Already some will say that's unfair, so guess what, you've failed the test. Pretending it's easy, or there's some book that you can look up to tell you precisely what is okay or isn't, is arrogant and stupid.

11:52 AM, July 26, 2014  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Let's say your prisoner goes on a hunger strike. (Already that probably means millions believe you're violating his human rights.) So you've got two choices--force-feeding him or not force-feeding him. But force-feeding is torture. And letting someone starve is also torture.

Get the idea of how tricky it is, Anon 1?

12:38 PM, July 26, 2014  
Blogger ColumbusGuy said...

Interesting tactic, A2, assuming the good faith of A. Strikes me as wasted effort. I think you're dealing with New York Times-class worldview.

But don't worry, A. It is for that very reason we love you.

4:51 AM, July 27, 2014  

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