|Le Ton beau de Marot: In Praise of the Music of Language / Douglas R. Hofstadter|
|Reviewed by Tal Cohen||Wednesday, 30 September 1998|
At first glance, Le Ton beau de Marot is a book about the art of translation, written by a computer scientist. However, this is a mistaken view. The book is, like most of Hofstadter’s previous works, a discussion of the nature of consciousness, the meaning of “self”, and the possibility of artificial intelligence, which is the author’s subject of research. It is simply that this book takes on the subject from a different angle, focusing initially on linguistic issues.
Hofstadter was apparently drawn into the world of translation when the first attempts were made to translate GEB to French, German, and other languages. Being fluent in several languages (he describes himself as “Pilingual”, fluent in Pi languages), the author took an active part in the various translation efforts. In GEB, the relation between languages, translation and the nature of the human mind was discussed in the dialogue “English, French, German Suite” and the following chapter (XII). In some ways, this work can be viewed as an elaboration of the theme.
Probably the most important claim about poetry and poetry translation presented in the book is that in a poem, the form is just as important as, if not more important than, the content. At times, however, it seems like the author takes the extreme view of attributing form with a level of importance that shadows that of content. I would consider some of the suggested translations for “A une Damoyselle malade” to be new poems influenced by, rather than translations of, the French original. But the battle between form and content rages not only within the boundaries of translating that single poem. In some of GEB’s dialogues (perhaps most noticeably the “Crab Canon”), Hofstadter gave greater priority to form, altering content to fit its needs. Most readers will agree that this was an acceptable artistic choice. However, in GEB’s chapters (as opposed to dialogues), form hardly had an effect on content. In contrast, in Le Ton beau de Marot, Hofstadter admits to have taken great pains to perfect the typographical layout of the pages. At times, the result is most pleasing (see, for example, the passage from The Catcher in the Rye, pp. 282-283), but in general, I personally find no place for typographical issues having such a large impact on a book’s content.
As a book about translation, Le Ton beau de Marot is sourly lacking. The decision to translate a single poem over and over again, while interesting, has imposed some limitations on the discussion. The poem is cute, and presents the would-be translator with several fascinating challenges, but these are by no means all the challenges a translator faces. Some issues in translation, like the translation of metaphors across different cultures, are hardly discussed (even within the context of “trans-culturization”). Yet as a book about AI for non-professionals, it is highly refreshing and entertaining, especially because of the unusual approach taken.
Some aspects directly related to AI appear early in the book. For example, Hofstadter’s “arch-enemy” John Searle (inventor of the Chinese Room experiment) is attacked as early as the fourth chapter. However, the book begins to shine only on Chapter 15, “On the Ununderstandable”, which begins a beautiful discussion of the real issues at hand.
One of the more interesting hypotheses presented in this discussion is the idea of identity-blurring and the “interpenetration of souls”. The claim presented is that each “self”, each “soul” if you wish to use that term, is not necessarily bound to a single physical brain; rather, it is distributed among several brains. Thus, in a way, when one physical brain ceases to exist, the person (or at least parts of him) still lives, in the brains of others. The idea certainly sounds poetic. Hofstadter realizes some people might claim the theory was developed as part of his attempt to cope with his beloved wife’s death, but he points to some of his publications, predating her sudden death, which presented essentially the same idea.
On the book’s back cover, Daniel Dennett claims that for years, Douglas Hofstadter “has been studying the process of his own consciousness, relentlessly, unflinchingly, imaginatively, but undeludedly”. It seems that of special importance is Hofstadter’s ongoing research of his own mistakes and linguistic slip-ups, leading to some profound insights.