What the Universal Translator gets wrong

by Carl Dyke

One of the necessary little tricks in Star Trek is a device called the Universal Translator. What it does is something something something, and as a result all of the characters from all of the species and cultures in all of the galaxy can immediately and seamlessly hear and understand each other without having to labor over a lot of language acquisition. Handy!

In one of my favorite episodes of the Next Generation series of the show, the Enterprise encounters folks who speak entirely in metaphors (unless they are allegories, or even better, strategies, as Ian Bogost argues). Because the Universal Translator has no database of the original referents for the metaphors/allegories/strategies, it can render the words and names of the imagery but is confounded on their purpose and meaning. Frank incomprehension ensues. Brilliantly, the alien captain beams himself and Picard down to the local planet, where they are forced to work out an understanding under pressure from a belligerent prop critter (which makes no attempt to understand them, or vice versa). Even though Picard learns only a phew ‘phrases’ of the alien language, it is enough to stand down tension — although not to ground a relationship, so off the aliens go again.

So in effect, they get to the level of ritualized small talk, and like so many of our encounters in real life, that’s as far as they’ll ever get. What the Universal Translator gets wrong is that you could ever advance to understanding of another person or culture or conceptual complex just by translating the words without all of the unarticulated paratexts that give them meaning and purpose. This is also a thing that all of those lists of ‘untranslatable’ foreign words get wrong from the other side. No word is untranslatable, although sometimes it takes more than one word to do it. What’s tricky is all of the stuff embedded in the word that doesn’t come with it in the verbal substitution.

A good recent example is Paul Berman’s takedown of cross-cultural misunderstanding over French banning of Islamist dress and particularly the ‘burkini’, full-cover swimwear for women. Berman focuses on the French word laïcité, which is routinely described in American commentary as an untranslatable mystification justifying all manner of offenses against fundamental values like personal freedom. So Berman notes that the word is not at all difficult to translate, ‘secularism’. But what is hard to convey is the thick concept embedded in the thin word by the long history of the French working through all of its permutations in exhaustive public debates on the way to installing it as one of their fundamental national values. Not secularism, secularismSecularism, get it? Which means those women are not just exercising their personal rights of choice on those beaches, they are directly and explicitly attacking the French nation as such.

Berman does not go on to discuss how this kind of argument works pretty much the same if we’re talking about Americans freaking out over Muslim immigrants trying to get the schools to take Sharia law into account in dress codes and menu options and such, but if he did he might reasonably reply that in this context the fight is over which religious fundamentalism will dominate public spaces rather than its complete removal therefrom. And the profound differences between a liberal conception of serial diversity vs. a republican conception of compelling moral solidarity and a conservative conception of wholesome homogeneity.

What strikes me here is, yet again, that the same words can have not just different meanings, but completely different existential and conceptual underpinnings, different logics of practice to use a concept given meaning via Bogost, Bourdieu, and eventually Marx. Both the United States and France assert secularism as one of their core values. But it turns out that looks very different if you actually mean it. So what we’re seeing with France is an experiment in making secularism a finally deciding principle, rather than a nice bonus as long as nothing else important is at stake. In France, secularism grounds individual rights. When individual rights don’t express secularism, it’s the rights that must lose. In the U.S., individual rights can include secularism, but often don’t. Ours is the liberal secularism of not taking sides, in fundamental contrast to the republican secularism of defining a moral order prior to individual choice or group affiliation. But then, individual rights for us are themselves a fundamentalism.

All of this emerges from evolutionary histories. As Berman notes, France makes a lot more sense if we remember the religious wars that shredded Europe for a couple hundred years. Then the revolutions made the blood flow. Then primitive ethnic nationalism twice mixed blood and soil. Then the empire agonizingly collapsed in the blood rivers of identity politics old and new. France has tried out a whole bunch of extremisms, and is now extremely extremism averse. Well, except for the National Front, who don’t so much miss the lessons of history as proudly embrace their gruesomely formative slaughter. They relish the fight. They don’t want to ban burkinis, they want to throw the Muslims into the sea. To secularism fundamentalists, burkini bans are congenially available as a moderating response to that kind of extremism. Two birds with one stone. To rights fundamentalists, burkini bans are unthinkable, uncanny, horrific. Polluted and polluting. Their range of understanding and response are restricted accordingly.

Oddly, or maybe not at all oddly, I find myself in the same predicament in my sabbatical project, and especially trying to explain my sabbatical project. “A history of theories of complex systems,” I say. Most people know what all these words mean. They can use them creatively in ordinary conversation. After all, complex systems are all around us. I mention examples. It’s easy. A farming colleague has begun teasing me about how everything is a complex system. It reminds me of the old joke about Clifford Geertz, who after writing about ideology as a cultural system, religion as a cultural system, chickens as a cultural system, politics as a cultural system, and your face as a cultural system (ok, I made that last one up, but it’s plausible enough), was supposedly working on his magnum opus, “Culture as a Cultural System.” Haha, Carl and his complex systems.

But no, look, not complex systems, complex systemsComplex systems, get it? The difference is what happens if we start to take this seriously as a conception of the world. It’s not that things are complicated or that they can get unruly. It’s not about adding a variable or two to approximate a more complete analysis. It’s not that there are sometimes multiple factors and causes and motivations, and it can be tough to untangle them. All of that is sort of true-ish, but still completely missing the point. It’s taking complex systems and making them the rule, not the exception. It’s that actually, situations about which you could say the foregoing entirely truly are vanishingly rare and exceptional, and generally require massive inputs of effort and selective attention. The conceptual foundation of complex systems analysis is fundamentally alien and opposite to the way most of us have been taught to think about the world, which is in terms of isolating effective causes, and making shit up when that doesn’t work. God(s) did it, Fate did it, the Jews did it, The Man did it, men did it. Obama did it, Ike did it, Reagan did it, Hitler did it, Lincoln did it, MLK did it, Susan B. Anthony did it. Fertilizer did it, antibiotics did it, free trade did it, rational choice did it, the bourgeoisie did it, Bretton Woods did it, Socrates did it, Kant did it, Helen’s face did it.

Can you change your life by changing your diet? Sure. Will dropping red meat and eating yogurt with probiotics do it? Gosh, where to start. Maybe let’s talk about how we used to eat the stuff that the animals we ate were digesting. How paleo can you go? Yogurt, um. There’s a food system, there’s a culture of food system, family recipes and such, there are politics and economics, markets and climates, there are a lot of habits to talk about, there are billions of beasties doing a whole bunch of interrelated work in the soil you may not want to wash off that produce and in your guts, your guts include your skin by the way so let’s talk about soap and makeup and moisturizer. Will Donald Trump ruin everything, or fix everything? Which everything. Are we starting with checks and balances? Will we talk about the relative advantages and disadvantages of large and aging human populations? How exactly is he going to make the Mexicans do anything? How’d his first two marriages go? You say at least he tells it like it is? Gary Johnson, the candidate of choice! Jill Stein, for moral purity! I can’t even get there from here. Shaka, when the walls fell.


9 Comments to “What the Universal Translator gets wrong”

  1. While we lived in Nice there was another family, friends of ours from Boulder, who lived in Avignon. The husband/dad was kicked out of the local public swimming pool for wearing American-style baggy swimming trunks instead of a Speedo. He was told that his attire was inappropriate and unhygienic. Apparently this rule still applies at the pools. So when the beach police ban the burkini, there is a secular precedent. While we lived in Nice we saw the gradual replacement of Speedos by baggies at the beach. Mostly it’s the tourists who sport the improper attire.The locals sunbathe, but rarely do they go into the water, which they regard as too dirty because of lax sewage discharge into the Sea. And they’re no doubt right, since we swam amidst all sorts of flotsam on the Cote d’Azur. So the anti-burkini policy is almost surely gauged less toward assuaging French laicite sentiments and more toward reassuring the foreign tourists (and the money they bring in) that the Nicois catastrophe will not be repeated. There’s plenty of traditionally garbed “Francais bronzees” to be found all over town mingling on the streets with the “Francais Francais,” if you happen to stray a couple of blocks off the beach and into the city.

  2. Wait, you mean there are a couple more factors in play than what I covered? Maybe a dynamic or two? Quelle horreur!

    So yeah, I thought (and you knew) the chances that morally purified concepts of final deciding value were driving all of this were slim and none. Why would we even talk about these things that way when it’s so obviously a placeholder for real analysis? (That’s right, I said real. Come at me.)

  3. “It’s not about adding a variable or two to approximate a more complete analysis. It’s not that there are sometimes multiple factors and causes and motivations, and it can be tough to untangle them. All of that is sort of true-ish, but still completely missing the point. It’s taking complex systems and making them the rule, not the exception… The conceptual foundation of complex systems analysis is fundamentally alien and opposite to the way most of us have been taught to think about the world, which is in terms of isolating effective causes…”

    Why wouldn’t an analysis of the burkini ban include laicite, terrorism, tourist economics, and squeamishness about hygiene as discrete causal factors? Is it the abstraction that bothers you, or the tacit commitment to causal determinism of unprecedented events, or the quantification bias of building multivariate models, or are am I completely missing the point?

  4. Well yes! It would include those things, and many more besides. So I’ve suggested that laicite has this world of stuff packed into it. And you add that laicite is itself only a bit of what’s going on with burkinis. We may be getting somewhere. Meanwhile, in the public commentary we’re told the French are simply racists. Which is accidentally all kinds of true, false, relevant, irrelevant, productive, counterproductive, and so on.

    So at the moment the contrast space of analyses in view runs from ‘moral failing’ to ‘cultural essence’ to ‘filthy lucre’ to ‘single axis emergent cultural complex’ to ‘situated multiple axis emergent cultural/economic/geopolitical complex’. And what I’ve further suggested is that once you get to emergence, the isolation of causal factors becomes a critical barrier to further understanding. The causal factors are not isolated; in fact they’re not even causal, in that old linear sense. Because what’s causal, or really just what’s going on, is the particular assemblage and configuration of interactions among many, many ‘actors’ in a broad, Latourian sense; which themselves are by no means definitely delineated. The factors are interactively, interpenetratively nonisolated all the way down.

    So like say we consider both the insideness and the outsideness of poop, its microbiological relation to mood and well being, its buoyancy and dispersal rates in coastal sea water, its differential uptake potentials in various volumes, compositions, and draperies of swimsuit fabric, and its various meanings and emotional associations and expressions in the various cultures and cultural fractions that are located or drawn, for various reasons, to Nice. Now, are burkini bans happening because racist French people associate dark Muslim bodies with poop? That is an argument that’s made; in every respect it’s a makeable argument. I might even say it’s true-ish. And yet, sheesh.

    Can we make that a better argument by adding in tourism economics? Well, are the tourists also racist coprophobes? You can’t fix that kind of analysis by adding factors, even if they’re ‘the right’ones. There are always more factors but again, it’s how they interact on site that makes or breaks them as ’causes’.

  5. The burkini ban is itself an attempt to diagnose and ameliorate causal factors: reduce fear of terror among beachgoers, reduce likelihood of terrorist attacks via intensified visible police presence, send a message to the moderate Islam community to police their own, perform zero-tolerance political toughness to the local voting constituency, etc. etc. Some causal factors shaping intentional acts are time travelers arriving from alternative possible futures.

  6. Shaka when the walls fell.

  7. Beyond agreement in a language we accidentally picked up, it’s hard to know what to say. One thing I have kept pointing out is that while it may sound paradoxical, the mark of a viable complex system is that it can self-simplify. For example, for all the disparate stuff that’s going on in your brain all the time, you can focus and concentrate enough sometimes to get a single job in focus, and successfully dealt with — or remember what it was that you came upstairs for. Or, cells can, at the appropriate time, stop doing what they normally do and get about the business of dividing. Multi-dimensional interactive systems that can’t focus when they need to are, in my view, complicated but not complex. When they’re in trouble, instead of “intelligent” problem solving you get (a) chaotic thrashing around, and (b) locking into one of a stock of more or less default linearities. Self-simplification is always at the edge of pathology; making things worse always a nearest neighbor of making things better. Economic growth, for example, evolved in modern economies as a default strategy, or, rather, a small handfull of default options (currently being mouthed by a couple of clueless bleached blondes). But those defaults turned out to live in a much smaller window of viability than had been imagined. The complicated tangle of default expedients, secularization as a representative subset, have shifted from making things better to making things worse. When we were rich, or thought that most of us could eventually be so, then toleration prevailed in the near absence of tolerance. So the conditions for tolerance as such were never seriously confronted. The town was big enough for both of us, homber.
    I hate to bring up what you hate me to bring up, Carl, but the Malthusianism of food is trivial compared to the Malthusianism of pluralism — the radical scarcity of the room for us to be ourselves should force us to take tolerance seriously, but since we’re not awfully good at tolerance, suppression of difference and genocide (re)emerge as simplifying default.options.

  8. Allow me to make a radical suggestion. Carl is onto something important here, and thrashing around the particulars of the Burkini case isn’t getting us much beyond the usual blind men and the elephant problem. Suppose that we stepped back and tried to establish a shared understanding of what complex systems are and how they are studied by people who dedicate their careers to thinking about complex systems? Starting with the offerings at https://www.complexityexplorer.org would be a good place to start. Even simpler would be to start with Melanie Mitchell’s YouTube lecture: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GYChwJq0310. If you like the lecture you can take her complexity explorer course when it comes round again or, if you are in a hurry, just read her book: Complexity: A Guided Tour, available on Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/Complexity-Guided-Tour-Melanie-Mitchell/dp/0199798109. I am just now in the middle of taking William Rand’s Complexity Explorer course on Agent Based Modeling using NetLogo and finding it fascinating to see how modelers approach complexity, through radical simplification followed by adding complications in small, individually easy-to-model steps.

    What I am advocating here is not bowing down to authority or swallowing these offerings wholesale. What I am suggesting is that it will improve our own discussions if we share a common ground of understanding what these folks are up to.

  9. Complex systems built on poor logical foundations tend to show their flaws. In the US you have every right to be a religious radical (this country was founded by religious radicals like the Quakers) on the theory that you can believe and dress as you like as long your actions are peaceable; in France the state decides what is an approved culture (i.e. what you’re allowed to wear or believe) on the theory that they will thus impose peaceableness upon you. The results of this marriage of statism and multiculturalism speak for themselves, and they tend to shriek “allahu akbar!” while hurling Molotov cocktails.

    Coercive thinking is tragically popular on the other side of the Atlantic, which is how the injustices of feudalism became the horrors of Communism, and the attempt at Versailles to redress the terrors of German imperialism birthed the monstrosity of Nazism. Of course if you’d told people in the 1940s that the Prussians and Nipponese would be dedicated liberal pacifists in 2016 they’d have found flying cars a lot more believable, so there are probably more opportunities to get things right than you might think.

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