Weinberger and Plain Language.

I just reread (because I’m a couple years behind in my NYRB reading) the 2016 Perry Link review of two books by Eliot Weinberger; I actually posted about it at the time, but then I focused on the translation issues, and the discussion in the comment thread followed suit (until it got onto the spacing of dots in Word). This time I was struck by the ending, which I so thoroughly agree with that I’m going to post it separately:

In his analytic observations, Weinberger likes to cut to a core in plain language. He writes:

Confucianism taught that when the government is bad, one should head for the hills. (Taoism taught that, regardless of government, one should head for the hills.)

Professors might warn graduate students against such writing as too casual or “reductive,” but I disagree. The points Weinberger makes here are essentially correct and are much clearer than they would be if dressed up in academic jargon. In addition to its clarity, plain language has the virtue of allowing ideas from ancient times and distant places to extend into our present, just as shared humanity itself extends. The alternative of studying ancient ideas as if they are pickled specimens in a jar cannot do that. Weinberger sees lines of Wang Wei’s poems as “both universal and immediate,” and he sees much else in human cultures in that same spirit, which I think is wonderful.

Really, it would be worth posting just for the quote about Confucianism and Taoism. (By the way, I eventually read The Ghosts of Birds and posted about it several times: 1, 2, 3.)

Comments

  1. This is more about translation than academic jargon, but I was just reading two different translations of a Zen text the other day and was struck by how much more “clarity” I felt one captured.

    Bielefeldt, 2013 Shobozengo
    Book 25
    Sound of the Stream, Form of the Mountain

    “In anuttara-bodhi [unsurpassed awakening], the buddhas and ancestors who transmitted the way and handed on the work are many; the traces of our predecessors who pulverized their bones are not lacking. We should learn from the ancestor [Huike] who cut off his arm; do not differ so much as a hair covering the mud. As each is able to slough off the husk, we are not restrained by our previous views and understandings, and matters unclear for vast kalpas suddenly appear before us.”

    contrast this with Tanahashi, 2010:

    VALLEY SOUNDS, MOUNTAIN COLORS
     
    “IN THE TRANSMISSION of unsurpassable, complete enlightenment by numberless buddha ancestors, various practices have arisen. Study such examples as ancient practitioners crushing their bones and Huike chopping off his arm. Embody in yourself the dedication of a boy spreading his hair on muddy ground for the Buddha to walk on. Slipping out of your old skin, not constrained by past views, you manifest immediately what has been dormant for boundless eons.”

    … the first translation might be far, far more technically accomplished or accurate in many ways than the second one for all I know, but as a casual reader the second one has a kind of flow that makes me want to read more. I wonder if this is the sort of “pickled specimen” vs. “plain language” issue that the NYRB was talking about?

  2. ə de vivre says:

    And yet…

    It seems like an insistence on plain language just results in taking ideas from different cultural contexts and turning them into the same ideas we’re already familiar with. What’s the point in seeking out different points of view if all you want is to recognize things you’re already familiar with from your own? I see it a lot with translations in White people Zen: you don’t want to demand that the reader has an extensive background in Mahayana sutras in order to understand the text, because that’s just not part of the context of the readership these days, but the writers were usually using language in very precise ways to make specific points. An insistence on plain language just gets you generic Eastern mystical pablum.

  3. The question generalizes, really. What is the best way to translate a chemistry article into a language whose speakers have no tradition of participating in the discipline of modern chemistry? Plain language is all you’ve got, if you want to be understood – but it fails to convey the text’s exactitude and concision, not to mention its obscurity to the average reader in the source language. To create a context where you can translate the chemistry article accurately, you’ll need to create the context for learning chemistry from scratch – starting with clear explanations in plain language, but unavoidably building up from there to create ever more obscure technical language…

  4. Practical tip: use terminology from the developed language which is culturally closest to the speakers.

    Eg, if it’s a language in Cameroon, use French terms, if it’s a language in Chad, use chemical terms from Arabic, etc.

  5. Confucianism taught that when the government is bad, one should head for the hills. (Taoism taught that, regardless of government, one should head for the hills.)

    A very neat and insightful summation. But not a good translation of anything. Although actually the only controversial bit is “head for the hills”, a succinct expression from modern English advising flight from civilised parts to the wildness of the hills because you’d be better off there. The Confucianists preferred to stay away from bad rulers, because a bad ruler did not provide the soil for their teachings to flourish. The Daoists believed you should keep away from all rulers. So the English paraphrase is flippant but pithy and apt. However, it’s not so good as an actual translation of Confucianist texts.

    As for AG’s example, the problem is that the first translation renders only the words without explaining their context. For example “do not differ so much as a hair covering the mud” means nothing without context. The second translation supplies the context: “Embody in yourself the dedication of a boy spreading his hair on muddy ground for the Buddha to walk on”. (Perhaps Sir Walter Raleigh would be a better example for English speakers except that it would be totally inappropriate here.) The second translation is not a witty rendition in terms of modern lingo like “head for the hills”; it is an explanatory translation that supplies what the modern reader is unlikely to know.

  6. Comments:
    I see it a lot with translations in White people Zen

    The question generalizes, really. What is the best way to translate a chemistry article

    it’s not so good as an actual translation of Confucianist texts.

    Language Hat & Perry Link:
    – but then [back in 2016] I focused on the translation issues
    In his analytic observations, Weinberger likes to cut to a core in plain language.

    This isn’t about translating a text. I expect everyone except AG was very tired. The disadvantages of using a vivid contemporary phrase like ‘head for the hills’ are that a) it may drag in additional associations that aren’t apposite and b) the phrase may not be so vivid in a few years time. But not all of us are writing for posterity, and right now it’s instantly understandable whereas constructions in jargon are not.

  7. Bielefeldt’s “a hair” suggests that he missed the allusion in the first place.

  8. It seems like an insistence on plain language just results in taking ideas from different cultural contexts and turning them into the same ideas we’re already familiar with. What’s the point in seeking out different points of view if all you want is to recognize things you’re already familiar with from your own?

    Nobody’s insisting on plain language; the point isn’t that “everybody should just talk plain like normal people all the time, why do eddicated people keep using big words I can’t understand?” (which is what most commenters seem to have read into it), the point is that the rote academic dismissal of anyone who dares to write in a way non-specialists can understand is misconceived and counterproductive. If one gets interested in a subject, one can read as much specialized literature as one likes and get to know all the fine points and understand where the plain-spoken version one first read was incomplete or misleading, but one will never get interested in a subject if all that is offered is rebarbative specialist material that takes years of grad school to grasp. Sometimes I think there’s a lot of “I made it up the ladder and now I’m kicking it down so you plebs can’t join me” syndrome going around.

  9. It seems like an insistence on plain language just results in taking ideas from different cultural contexts and turning them into the same ideas we’re already familiar with

    Are you saying that plain language is capable only of saying things that have already been said, and that if you want to say something new you have to use fancy words? That’s a strange way to think.

  10. Yeah, good point. “Light goes at a certain speed and nothing can go faster” is perfectly plain language but was revolutionary at the time.

  11. I find pulling up the ladder more effective than kicking it away.

  12. Certainly you can and should say complicated and surprising things in simple language. If you couldn’t, none of us would get very far! But shortcuts matter. Technical vocabulary makes it possible to say what you need to say more precisely and concisely. And sometimes technical vocabulary becomes well enough known to count as plain language: “license”, “dinosaur”, “exercise” aren’t fancy talk any more, and that fact makes it easier to talk unpretentiously about driving or paleontology or medical advice. It’s no good to write as though everyone knew your technical vocabulary from the start, but once they’re interested, you’re not doing them any favors by avoiding it too assiduously either.

  13. @ Lameen

    When you spelt it “license”, I thought you meant the verb and immediately thought of the linguistic sense of “license”, which I still find difficult to process.

    @LH

    the rote academic dismissal of anyone who dares to write in a way non-specialists can understand

    Like most walks of life, academia has its rules on how to “walk the walk and talk the talk”. Anything else runs the risk of being dismissed and ignored for eternity. I once found a paper on the web citing one of my web pages while pointedly noting that “this is not an academic article”.

    In fact, I wonder if the day will ever come that academic articles or dissertations can be submitted in HTML. There are, of course, problems of integrity (HTML can be modified at will), and link rot is a certainty, but there are a lot of things that can be done with HTML pages that can’t be done in black and white on paper.

  14. David Marjanović says:

    My next publication was submitted as a Word document, and the page proofs are a pdf, but the journal will never print it. The pdf contains links, and the HTML version will, I hope, contain even more.

  15. January First-of-May says:

    The proper way to submit scientific articles is of course (La)TeX, which was pretty much made specifically for this. Don’t recall to what extent it allows for outgoing links, however (especially since, IIRC, most of it was standardized before the World Wide Web was a thing).

  16. David Marjanović says:

    Only mathematicians and physicists use (La)TeX. It’s cultural.

  17. \LaTeX allows you to insert internal and outgoing links now. I generally don’t bother with it though.

    For physics and mathematics, LaTeX is a virtual necessity, in order to handle the amount of mathematical material that may need to be included. However, if you take the time to learn it, it makes an excellent typesetting application even without the math. But using it has just not become commonplace in other fields.

  18. “I see it a lot with translations in White people Zen: you don’t want to demand that the reader has an extensive background in Mahayana sutras in order to understand the text, because that’s just not part of the context of the readership these days,…”

    That’s not just white people Zen, that’s Zen Zen. Dahui Zonggao burned the Blue Cliff Record when he found his students discussing and analyzing it. He thought that kind of thing distracted from attaining enlightenment. That’s the Zen attitude towards texts and scriptures in a nutshell. Zen is not about accurately transmitting a cultural tradition.

  19. I don’t find the phrase “Confucianism taught that when the government is bad, one should head for the hills” plain, nor very clear. Head for the hills is, I believe, an idiomatic expression. Idiomatic expressions are generally difficult for foreign language learners to master, and not surprisingly, English is my second language, which would explain it.

    Hopefully researchers can speak about their research in academic language as well as plain language. Depending on the context, they could use different combinations of one or the other.

  20. I don’t find the phrase “Confucianism taught that when the government is bad, one should head for the hills” plain, nor very clear.

    With the internationalisation of English this kind of problem could become increasingly common. The question is, to what extent does English need to be bleached of its cultural background to be suitable for international use? Should English-speaking writers exercise self-censorship to ensure that their work is widely understandable?

    I don’t think this will happen. English usage won’t be determined by consideration for those ‘outside the tent’; it will be determined by cultural trends of one kind or other. “Head for the hills” might disappear, but it will be replaced by other expressions, for example, references to movies or music (“You can take the red pill or the blue pill”) that you either know or you don’t know. In order to know, you have to be exposed to some kind of cultural milieu, even if it’s an internationally familiar one — like movies or music. New idioms will arise and spread (like “Shit happens”), and while foreign learners exposed to modern cultural trends might be more familiar with them, they still have the problem of being culture and language specific.

  21. @Bathrobe: For example, “outside the tent” is, in some circles, already strongly associated with this quote from Lyndon Johnson (in reference to J. Edgar Hoover): It’s probably better to have him inside the tent pissing out, than outside the tent pissing in.

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