Tal Cohen's Bookshelf: A Collection of Personal Opinions about Books
Le Ton beau de Marot: In Praise of the Music of Language / Douglas R. Hofstadter
Reviewed by Tal Cohen Wednesday, 30 September 1998
At least in appearance, Douglas R. Hofstadter’s latest book is reminiscent of his first, Gödel, Escher, Bach (“GEB”, reviewed here): chapters interwoven with brief sections of artistic playfulness. Each chapter elaborates on the themes presented in the interlude preceding it. In GEB, the interludes were dialogs between imaginary characters; in Le Ton beau de Marot, they are dozens of variations and translations (written by Hofstdter, friends, and family members) of a single ancient French poem. The poem is called “A une Damoyselle malade” (“To a Sick Damsel”), originally written by Clement Marot.

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.

(From the book) When I tackle a translating challenge, it is not in the least because I yearn to reveal to the poor deprived non-speakers of language X the hidden structure and meaning of some intricate passage in language X — no, for me, translating is simply the sheer joy of trying to do something deeply paradoxical: namely, to carry off in medium 2, radically different from medium 1, some virtuoso stunt that someone else once carried off with great aplomb in medium 1. That’s all, no more. It’s just a game, an exercise in creativity, a challenge that, if met with sufficient flair, provides a wonderful esthetic reward.

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.

(From the book) Indeed, one of my purposes in drawing together this book’s sampler of sparklingly diverse translations of one tiny poem was to issue a clear reminder of how subtle and complex the human mind really is. I hope thereby to convey the attitude that in AI and MT [Machine Translation], one should not expect full success overnight — nor should anyone want it.

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.

(From the book) Two experts, to explicate Meaning,
Penned a text called “The Meaning of Meaning”,
    But the world was perplexed,
    So three experts penned next
“The Meaning of Meaning of Meaning”.

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.

Find this book
A Word about Hebrew Words
Hofstadter claims that “Hebrew [...] has valiantly sought to resist the influx of Western words for all sorts of things” (p. 295). He goes on to say that “there exists an official council in Israel that is charged with concocting official pure-Hebrew expressions” for some words, and he provides a list of fifty “Western” words like electricity, racism, tin can, can opener, and junk-food as an example.

Of the list provided, more than one fourth have no Hebrew terms in actual use. For example, the word Hebrew speakers use for “radio” is simply “radio” (naturally, pronounced slightly differently in Hebrew than in English).

One has to remember that the Hebrew language was revived rather recently, after several centuries of no daily use. It was revived in a heroic effort generally attributed to a single person, Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, which had to come up with numerous words to use in daily conversation. But since there already are Hebrew words for “tin”, “can” and “opener”, I see no point in using non-Hebrew terms for “tin can” or “can opener” (which are some of the examples Hofstadter provides). Other words in Hofstadter’s list originate from ancient Biblical Hebrew. For example, the word for “race” originates in the Bible; it is only natural that that word would be used as the base form for “racism.”

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