Thoughts on Translation

November 28, 2008

As with many issues of language, I believe that multitudinous difficulties of translation categorize well as lexical and syntactical. Lexical difficulties stem from the fact that there is not a one-to-one correspondence between words in sundry languages. The most obvious case is translating between two languages, one of an extensive vocabulary and the other a scarce, but with a functional correspondence of words in the former to those of the latter.1 Translating from the former to the latter, the translator typically faces little interpretive challenge, as only one word in the final language matches a word in the source language. However, if he translates word-for-word in this manner, he fails to convey the original precision. Thus, a conceptually accurate translation must add words, and one stylistically accurate must add ambiguity. The reverse, translating from the poorer to the richer, encounters the opposite problem. A given word in the source language will, in different contexts, translate to a different word in the final. Thus, to maintain the original ambiguity of meaning, he must add words to indicate the ambiguity; to maintain the style, he must act as interpreter of meaning, adding his own opinion of the precise meaning of the original. And this is in an optimal situation, where the correspondence of words is functional in one direction. In real translation, meanings will overlap, so that the translator risks adding ambiguity in some respects and removing it in others. For example, in English words may be vague in exact meaning, and specific in context; in Greek, the converse is true. L&S defines ŒªœåŒ≥ŒøœÇ as “Computation, reckoning, relation, correspondence, proportion, explanation, debate, continuous statement, narrative, verbal expression or utterance, a particular utterance, saying, thing spoken of, subject-matter, speech”. To an English speaker, this seems to be a very broad range of meanings. At the same time, it conveys a fairly specific general meaning, applied in a variety of contexts. In English, we use a different word for each context, but frequently use a word for a variety of meanings within one context for which Greek uses multiple words. English better specifies context; Greek meaning. Thus, word-for-word translation from Greek to English specifies the context more strongly and the meaning less; the converse, the inverse. The only means of circumventing these difficulties is to attempt to force a correspondence, as the scholastics did in creating a technical terminology within Latin to parallel the nuances of Aristotle’s Greek.

Moreover, lexical difficulties may pale in comparison to syntactical. Syntactical difficulties further resolve into conceptual, accentual, and stylistic. Conceptual difficulties are very similar to lexical; certain forms in one language are more precise than comparable forms in another, e.g. the careful distinction in Greek between natural and artificial result, difficult to express except by convention in English. Accentual difficulties arise particularly when translating from a highly inflected language into a weakly; highly inflected languages tend to use word-order to express accent, while weakly syntactical role. Thus, maintaining the original word order introduces odd word orders where the original was natural and even grammatical errors, while transposing words changes emphasis. Going the other way, maintenance of the original word order implies an emphasis not in the original; transposition an interpretation of the intended emphasis. Yet more challenging are stylistic difficulties. Style, more so than any other aspect of a language, is relative to context; what may seem informal and idiomatic, when literally translated, may appear formal and stilted. Thus, preserving the original style may require unidiomatic translation.

1. A function associating each member of the range to one member of the domain, but not necessarily the converse.

Concerning Happiness

November 18, 2008

What is happiness?

1. It seems that happiness is pleasure, for happiness is the end of all men, and all men pursue pleasure, according to their separate definition.
2. It seems that happiness is wealth, for happiness is an action, and the wealthy man possesses more tools to aid his action.
3. It seems that happiness is the prosperity of good, for all men desire that what they consider good prospers.
4. It seems that happiness is the success of one’s actions, for all men desire that their actions achieve their goal.

On the other hand, many who pursue pleasure and possess wealth are not happy, so happiness is neither of these things. Furthermore, the prosperity of good and the success of one’s actions do not lie wholly within one’s own powers, and so if happiness is either of those, happiness would be a condition. But happiness is an action, as is proven elsewhere. Therefore, happiness is neither the prosperity of good nor the success of one’s actions.

Rather, since happiness is a proper end, it must be the pursuit of good, not of pleasure. And since happiness lies within one’s own power, it must be the pursuit of pleasure only insofar as it lies within one’s power. And since happiness cannot rely on unknowable information regarding the future and conditions external to one’s actions, happiness must be not the pursuit of good with respect to what one knows after the action, but that before. Thus, happiness is the pursuit of good insofar as one is able with respect to information contemporaneous to the action.

1. Happiness is the end of all men, but only the prudent choose suitable means toward their end. Thus, happiness is only the pursuit of pleasure for the prudent man.
2. Not all sources and uses of wealth are good. Thus, happiness is only wealth insofar as wealth is acquired and used rightly. Furthermore, some have greater means of acquiring wealth than others, which fact cannot hinder the latter’s ability to pursue happiness. Thus, happiness is in no case wealth absolutely, but rather the right use of opportunities for wealth.
3. All men ought to wish that good prospers, but while to fail to do this would be an inhuman withholding of moral judgement, to bind one’s happiness to that which is not within one’s control is foolish. The expression of contentment of the wise man is not “That which I have loved has prospered”, but rather “I myself have acted justly”.
4. Many actions, well intentioned and well planned, go astray. Thus, were happiness bound to the success of one’s actions, the fool who acted imprudently yet succeeded would have a greater claim to happiness than the prudent man whose well-laid plans went astray for reasons outside his knowledge and control. When the wise man says “I have done well”, he means not that his actions have succeeded, but that, if he faces an identical situation, with the same knowledge, he would act the same.

The Importance of Experimental Error

November 17, 2008

You have probably heard Galileo’s experiment wherein he verified that acceleration due to gravity does not depend on mass by releasing two cannonballs of different mass from the tower of Pisa and observed that they hit the ground at the same time. The problem is that it never happened. At least, I hope that it never happened.

The problem arises from uncontrolled variables. Acceleration due to gravity only matches actual acceleration when all forces other than gravity sum to zero. On the surface of the earth, however, one other force has significance in most problems: friction. Thus, when Galileo released the cannonballs and they gained speed, both gravity and friction acted upon them. FG is directly proportional to mass; friction approximately with surface area (if I recall correctly, it does not vary directly with surface area; however, my purpose here is to show the inequality between the actual rates of acceleration of the cannonballs, not the exact relationship). Mass varies with volume, or with r3; surface area varies with r2. Thus, the net force on the cannonball is not directly proportional to mass when at non-zero speed, and the larger cannonball falls faster. However, as FF would have been small relative to FG for a metal cannonball, the cannonballs would probably have appeared to hit the ground at the same time.

Yet if this had been the observed result, the experiment would have either (depending on whether Galileo attributed the difference to friction or to the antiquated theories) been inconclusive or even supported the theory that heavier objects have greater acceleration due to gravity. Only because of the error in collecting data did the experiment come to the correct conclusion.

This makes me wonder: how many conclusions of experimental science are due to such slight inaccuracies which may have produced an incorrect conclusion? As one obvious example, take Newtonian physics. Newtonian physics is not actually true, ignoring as it does relativity. However, because the effects of relativity are small, most experiments seem to verify Newtonian physics. Only after relativity was first hypothesized were sufficiently precise experiments designed. Thus, it seems to me that even the physical sciences are not, at their core, inductive, conducting experiments and then looking for relationships. Great changes in scientific theory arise from purely theoretical hypotheses later experimentally verified. Why, therefore, expect inductive reasoning, insufficient even in the physical sciences, to work in the social sciences?

Concerning the Unum Argumentum

November 15, 2008

Perhaps the most intriguing of the sundry logical proofs of God’s existence is the unum argumentum of Anselm of Canterbury, commonly known by Kant’s term, the “ontological argument” (although Kant applied the term to a different argument).

I shall let Anselm present his case, from his Proslogion:

“But surely that than which a greater cannot be thought cannot be only in the understanding. For if it were only in the understanding, it could be thought to exist also in reality–which is greater. Therefore, if that than which a greater cannot be though existed only in the understanding, then that than which a greater cannot be thought existed only in the understanding, then that than which a greater cannot be thought would be that than which a greater can be thought! But surely this conclusion is impossible. Hence, without doubt, something than which a greater cannot be thought exists both in the understanding and in reality.”

Crucially, this argument does not deal with reality, as do the famous Five Ways of Thomas Aquinas, but rather with the thought. Fundamentally, Anselm is not arguing for the existence of God; he is arguing that to doubt the existence of God involves a mental contradiction.

Also important to this argument is Anselm’s definition of “greater”. While I shall not hear attempt to analyze Anselm’s rather complex usage of the term, the important point is contained within the aforequoted passage: to exist in reality is greater than to exist only in the understanding. Thus, “greatest” is equivalent to “greatest in all respects except existence, and existing in reality”. Furthermore, “that than which a greater cannot be thought” is equivalent to “the greatest that can be thought”. Thus, we may restate Anselm’s argument as “That which is thought to be greatest in all respects except existence and is thought to exist cannot be thought to be only in the understanding.” Phrased this way, it becomes nearly trivial, for it is manifestly absurd to think that something defined as existing does not exist. Thus, the argument is a reductio ad absurdum: to deny the existence of God is self-contradictory.

But at the same time, so is to deny the existence of “a unicorn that exists”, for if one asserts that such a unicorn does not exist, clearly one is not referring to the same unicorn. Thus becomes manifest the invalidity of the argument: if we permit such a reductio, anything may be proven to exist. The problem is that thoughts themselves may be false, having no correspondence to reality. To think of a unicorn that exists is to think of a unicorn and to think that it exists; clearly, the second thought is false. Existence cannot signify the unicorn; it can only make a statement about the unicorn, which statement may be true or false. Similarly, to think of the greatest in all respects except existence that exists is to think of the greatest in all respects except existence and to think that it exists; the second statement does not signify the subject, but makes an additional claim about it which may be true or false. Anselm’s inclusion of existence as an element of goodness, however, serves to hide this invalid operation.

More on Rational Irrationality

November 12, 2008

In response to may last post on this subject, Abigail very correctly noted that the consequences of rational irrationality are not unique to this past election, nor recurrent to every, but rather universal, reflective of society turning towards statism.  While I do not believe that this observation invalidates my previous argument (and, in fact, even strengthens it), I believe that the relationship between this general ideological shift and rationality bears closer examination.

For clarity, I would like to introduce two definitions of rationality, one practical and the other intellectual, the distinction between which is key to correctly understanding the seeming paradox of rational irrationality. Practical rationality means “pursuing the course of action with the highest expected utility”. Note that this definition does not imply action from perfect knowledge or perfect decision-making, nor does it ignore rational ignorance (intentionally remaining ignorant because expected costs of acquiring additional information exceed expected benefits from that information), but rather that, for a given set of judgements concerning the conditions of action and the expected effects of possible actions, one chooses the action expected to achieve the most-preferred distribution of future states of nature. Thus, choosing an improper means to an end while believing that they are appropriate is not prima facie irrational, while so choosing while aware of a better means is. On the other hand, intellectual rationality means “holding beliefs consistent both among each other and with their respective grounds”. Thus, to hold contradictory beliefs or to derive a belief inconsistent with its ground (in light of one’s other beliefs) manifests intellectual irrationality.

Most confusion regarding rational irrationality seems to arise from this analogical use of rationality within the term; in the first instance practical rationality is meant; in the second, intellectual. Thus, a literal expansion of “rational irrationality” would be “holding inconsistent beliefs as an appropriate means to an end”.

Such behavior is prevalent in modern society. One of my favorite examples is the “environmentally conscious” celebrity who advocates human extinction. I fail to see how someone can reconcile that belief with his own continued life, unless he holds that his life is temporarily necessary to advance the cause of death. Similarly, one frequently finds multi-millionaire celebrities who give little of their own great incomes to the poor advocating income redistribution to the point of equalitarianism, or wealthy private businessmen supporting socialism.1 If one desires socialism, is not the first step to relinquish one’s own property to the state? In each of these cases, the individual is advocating government enforcement of a certain path of behavior, while deliberately refusing to follow that path themselves. It could be argued that these behaviors manifest simple egotism, as the person advocates altruism when others bear the cost and selfishness. But why would an egotist who cares nothing for the welfare of others, or the environment, or socialism, go to any trouble to advocate them publically? And would not someone who sincerely believed such causes suffer terribly from the guilt of fortune, life, or private ownership? It seems to me that these people are sincere both in their public exhortation and private action. But then, as income redistribution and socialism are improper means to nearly all ends, why should so many who desire a certain end choose the same improper means? Thus, we must somehow explain their systematically inconsistent and mistaken beliefs. The most plausible solution I have yet encountered is that such people maintain their (intellectual) rationality because it is (practically) rational, allowing them to derive the satisfaction of altruism and the wealth of egotism.

I agree that society is being consumed by menacing ideologies, by socialism, by equalitarianism: “A spectre is haunting Europe”: the cult of the state. But this spectre is not simple concern for the poor, the environment, or state control; were that the case, the advocates of the poor would donate to charity, the advocates of human extinction would extinct themselves, and the advocates of socialism would become poor. The latter two cases would be regrettable, certainly, but not one of these actions substantially threatens society. Nor is this spectre simple bad judgement; typically, those who judge poorly quickly discover and correct their error. This spectre is terrifying because it claims the terrible power of the state; lasting because it stems from unquestionable rationality.

Rational irrationality has thus supported a rising tide of devastating ideology. What is to be done? To some, the problem seems insurmountable, for rational irrationality is inherent to the process of elections, of divided responsibility and power, of the state itself. But at the same time, the presentation of rational irrationality presents its own solution. Insofar as it is possible, make each decision powerful by itself or powerless as a whole. More generally, ensure that each decision maker reaps as many of the costs and benefits of his action as possible. Elections fail because voters do not suffer any harm, nor do they receive the material benefit, in the vast majority of situations. Political offices fail because the office holder does not benefit, or benefits only in a limited, artificial manner,2 from his good decisions. Only the competition of a free market, where the inefficient businessman suffers certain losses and the efficient gains profits, preserves as much as possible natural consequences. Thus, the lesson I draw from rational irrationality is that as many decisions as possible ought to be determined by free action, with the market coordinating interpersonal transactions.

1 Socialism, strictly speaking, refers to the state ownership of capital, and not to income redistribution. Mere support of income redistribution merits another term, which I cannot at this time remember.

2 I call artificial a consequence of an action made so only by the deliberate action of another. Thus, a performance benefit for beneficial action is an artificial benefit, while a share in the innate benefits is a natural. I do not condemn artificial benefits, as for example the deterrent function of punishment, but I hold it to be inferior to natural benefits, as natural benefit can not be distorted and artificial can.

Rational Irrationality

November 9, 2008

Election day has passed; America has a new president elect. Specifically, America has a president elect who seems completely ignorant of economics. Thus, regardless of whether one agrees with his economic objectives, he is unlikely to be able to realize those goals. Why, then, did so many vote for him?

I see several alternatives. The first is that the voters are simply bad decision makers, unable to tell what lies in their best interests. But this seems inconsistent with what we see elsewhere. The American entrepreneur is the quintessence of the type. Americans are elsewhere condemned not for their naivety, but for their excessive self-interested calculations. So Americans are not bad decision makers normally.

Perhaps Americans are simply ignorant. But how can this be, when we have been bombarded by election propaganda for over a year? There is certainly no lack of information, and one would have to expend great effort to avoid it. But perhaps this information is faulty? Perhaps the candidates are not revealing their true beliefs? But I condemn not some arcane policies of Obama, unknown to any without exhaustive research; instead I condemn that which is held with the greatest pride, his fundamental faith in government and mistrust of the market. The voters know him for whom they vote.

What, then, remains to explain Americans’ bad decisions with regard to politics? Voters are normally good decision makers, and have good knowledge of the issues at stake. Clearly, if both of these factors were true with respect to elections, voters would make a good decision. But they did not. Clearly, then, one must not hold with respect to elections. The second was proven specifically with regard to this elections. So we must change the first, holding that voters, while normally rational, make poor decisions in elections.

But nothing happens without cause. Why do normally rational voters vote poorly in light of available information? Unfortunately, I can see no means of proving one cause to be predominant in an event so complex as elections. But one fact does grab my attention: that while in business and consumption one reaps the full effects of one’s decision, both material and psychic, in voting one does not. Specifically, one’s rewards are divided, into psychic benefit inherent to voting for a candidate, which is guaranteed, and material benefit (what one gains from having the preferred candidate in office) deriving from having a better politician in office, which is achieved only if one’s vote influences the results of the election (for even if one votes for the winning candidate, if that vote was not the decisive vote, then one would have achieved the same material well-being had one voted otherwise). Thus, if psychic and material utility work in opposite directions, one could rationally vote for a candidate with harmful policies, as the low probability of one’s vote being decisive would cause that harm to be an insignificant factor in his decision. So bad voting could be rational. Why, then, should we condemn it? Because the material effects do not go away. Its lack of impact on the voting decision does not mean that people do not care. In fact, I think that most voters would rather have a president with proper policies than have any psychic utility achievable in voting by a substantial margin.1 Thus, in an election, each voter pursuing his own interests can lead to a result extremely harmful to the entirety.

How does this work? The best description I have encountered is Bryan Caplan’s term “rational irrationality”. In pursuing psychic interests, voters are acting rationally to maximize their utility. But at the same time, they are acting irrationally, for this process inevitably involves a suspension of judgements and false views of reality.

What is the general tendency of rational irrationality? Unfortunately, I think that it is towards large government. Government interference with the free market can achieve very few goals (such as the wanton exercise of power, or destruction of the economy); it cannot lead to increases in efficiency, nor can it redistribute wealth without great harm. Thus, almost everyone should want a small government, regardless of whether they wish to help the poor, protect the environment, or enrich themselves. But there is something peculiarly unsatisfying to saying “Help end poverty; vote to end welfare”. Thus, I think that someone truly interested in helping to end poverty would be much more satisfied if given the option of doing something much more concrete, particularly if he could pass off the costs through government (as opposed to doing something on his own initiative). Thus, he would derive greater psychological utility from voting for a candidate who promised to fight poverty than from an advocate of the free market (so long as he actually believes the claim of the first; his irrationality is believing this claim not because it is true but because he derives greater psychic utility from acting on it than from acting on the truth).

Voters are normally rational, but have a fit of temporary insanity in the voting booth. How else are we to account for their persistent bad decisions?

1. This is not an accusation of egotism; I do not assume that voters care only about their own interests. Rather, I am saying that candidates would like to have their goals actually realized. Thus, if one were interested in helping the poor and thus favored policies harmful to one’s private interests that could nevertheless be expected to help the poor, this would exhibit no trace of irrationality.

The Present Defined

November 2, 2008

I have been long intrigued by the fact that, in Greek, both past and future times can take the simple aspect (action completed at a time, i.e. “he ran”) in the aorist and future tenses, respectively, but that the present tense conveys only progressive aspect (action continuing through a time, i.e. “he was running”). Ultimately, the only explanation is to define the present as the widthless boundary between past and future. Thus, progressive action cannot occur in the present because, as the present occupies no time, it can only encompass an action taking no time, and such an action is inconceivable (as it would then be possible to repeat that action an infinite number of times simultaneously). The past and future, on the other hand, are more than even definite, non-zero periods of time, but are rays, extending indefinitely away from the present. Thus, while an action can continue to both sides of the present (progressive aspect), terminate at or before the present (perfect aspect) or start at or after the present (to which no simple Greek aspect corresponds), no action can take place in the present (simple aspect).

But this definition of the present, while philosophically sound, is unsatisfying for certain practical purposes. Thus, I would like to advance a separate definition, for the purposes of praxeology: the present is that period of time demarcated by (but not including) the last point in time at which one can receive information regarding reality in a certain place and the first point at which one’s action can influence reality at that point. The most startling aspect of this definition of the present is that it is not absolute: such a present is defined only with respect to a certain actor, and has a different extent at different places and with different technology. At the same time, I think that these attributes of the present so defined are useful for certain purposes. While it matters very much to a general in his planning room whether a comment was made five seconds ago or will be made in five seconds, it matters very little whether a given event in the battle happened even five minutes before or after the time of his action, if it would take ten for news of the battle to reach him or for his orders to reach the battlefield. Historically, I think that this well explains the infamous Battle of New Orleans: from our modern perspective, it seems horrible that a battle should take place two weeks after the signing of the treaty, but if one considers the primitive communications available at the time, the two events may well be considered contemporaneous. Philosophical nuances may, in places, have very little bearing on practical reality, and time seems to be one of those instances.