what mushroom?

Derek uploaded a sound file with John Cage telling the story of translating a haiku from japenese into […]

Derek uploaded a sound file with John Cage telling the story of translating a haiku from japenese into english and it’s an extraordinary small moment.

Not only do the translations make for several lovely small poems all very unique and human, but the sound file reveals the perils in attempting translation. After listening to it I felt both happy and lonely. We are all so seperated from each other, but not only distance, but time, language, culture and the variations that come from being a complex being.

Anyhow, do listen.


Add Yours
  1. 1

    For as long as I care to remember, I’ve wished for a babelfish, the Douglas Adams imagined animal that lives in your ear canal and eats sound and excretes brain waves, thereby serving as a universal translator. Language is so fascinating, and if you understand a culture’s language, I think maybe you gain a special kind of insight into the culture. Unfortunately, there’s no babelfish, and equally unfortunately, I’m mostly monolingual (although I found I could understand about 50% of what the announcers were saying during Univision’s telecasts of the World Cup, so maybe my Spanish is a tiny bit better than I thought).

    Cage’s experience with the staggeringly different interpretations of a short piece and the translations that resulted point to why computer translation will never equal the efforts of human translators. Language is just too flexible. We bend it in too many different ways. Computers aren’t built that way.

    I’ve run into this more often in the past year or so as I’ve been researching my family history. I’ve found cousins in Poland. Unfortunately, they don’t speak English, and I don’t speak Polish. And as a Slavic language, Polish has fewer cognates with English than a romance language like Italian or French does, or than German or Dutch, which are also related to English. I can sometimes puzzle out the meanings of Germanic or romance language text, but Slavic languages are largely a blank for me. So my cousins and I rely on computer translation programs to translate between the languages in our e-mails. These are family members, and it’s so difficult to communicate with them. We can usually puzzle out what the other one is saying, but not always. It helps if I keep my language simple, much like the Special English broadcasts made by the Voice of America that use a limited (1500 words or so) vocabulary to express a tremendous range of concepts.

    (Fortunately for me, my boss at the job I just started is Polish, so I now have someone I can ask for help when I have trouble understanding the e-mails….)

    Even worse than the Polish are the letters I have from my grandmother’s collection that are in Ukrainian. They don’t even use the same alphabet. I know that one five page letter written by my great-great uncle is the story of his life. I’ve gotten a Ukrainian dictionary and worked out the first couple of paragraphs, so I know when and where he was born, and when he came to North America. But getting even that far took the better part of a month, and it’s exhausting work.

    I treasure the diversity that the cornucopia of languages provides, but the difficulty it adds to communication is frustrating. I want to be able to understand every language.

  2. 2

    How wonderful. How odd. Both the nature of the language and this longing I have to be with the humans in that room with John Cage.

  3. 3
    Derek R

    FWD: In John Cage¹s memory, who died ten years ago, on Aug 12, 1992

    In February 1992 someone had sent a bag of herbs from Turkey, asking me to deliver them to John. I lived in the same neighborhood. I called him and he said I could bring them over. He was in the center room, sitting at the table with a pile of paper in front of him. He said he was getting ready to leave for a concert on the West coast and was studying the score which the computer had just generated. He was excited. He said a woman had come up with a great idea: “she will fill water into large containers, add some pebbles and then freeze them. Then, she will hang these ice blocks from the ceiling of the performance space and place bamboo sticks (randomly) on the floor. When the ice blocks melt, the pebbles will begin to drop and, when they hit the bamboo sticks, they will produce sounds.” She had asked John to accompany this performance and that¹s where he was going. I asked him what he was going to play, he answered “long notes, of course, what else?” I had been going through some pretty depressing period; this time his enthusiasm and cheerfulness about this very typical sounding project puzzled me a bit.

    Then he asked me how I was doing. I said I felt very confused and lost and started telling how I cancelled my concert, how difficult it was to switch to electronic music and so on. I said I was thinking of finding a teaching job, he said “don¹t, it is a waste of time.” I mentioned my plan to sell national anthems to the new nations popping out here and there those days, he said THAT I should pursue. Then he abruptly asked my age. I said “I¹m forty now.” “I thought so,” he said, “you exactly sound like you are forty.” He told me to relax and be patient. “You are going through the most difficult year of your life. Just give it a little time, you¹ll see that in a year or two half of the unnecessities in your life will disappear and leave you in peace and everything will be wonderful.” It sounded like the best thing one could say to me at that point, said in the best of all possible manners. He leaned forward and said “guess how old I am!” I said “you must be in your late seventies.” “I am turning eighty this year.” “How does that feel?” “It feels like soon I will be left with no unnecessity

    Semih Firincioglu

    [Searchable Silence archives:
    [How to join, unsubscribe, etc:
    [or email
    with the text “info silence”]

  4. 5
    Lawrence Krubner

    The Babelfish, as I understand, translates other languages into your own. Which is a problem. So even if such a creature existed, it still wouldn’t get you very far. Because everything would still be a translation, with all the compromises and disappointments of a translation.

    Recently I’ve been trying to commit to memory certain poems of Pablo Neruda, both in their English and Spanish versions. Studying the two versions closely, I become more and more aware that even a good translation is still a bad translation.

Comments are closed.