If Ideas Had Shapes

A quoteblog ranging from philosophers in bathrobes to galaxy-rises

Category: Poetry

Douglas Hofstadter – Le ton beau de Marot (1997)

It has been my observation, culled over years and years of eliciting “Ma Mignonne” translations from relatives, friends, colleagues, and students, that those people who do the most imaginative, liveliest, and most polished jobs are invariably those with the best senses of humor. They are people who love to play with ideas, juggle words, take risks, laugh at themselves, be silly, let themselves go. I suppose it suggests that having a sense of humor is tightly bound up with a propensity for intellectual risk-taking.

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Douglas Hofstadter – Le ton beau de Marot (1997)

There is certainly no sharp black-and-white crossover line, however–no magic moment at which meaning suddenly attaches to a symbol that up until then had been totally empty. Rather, over a period of days, weeks, months, or years, symbols gradually acquire layers of meaning, like boats accumulating layers of barnacles.

Douglas Hofstadter – Le ton beau de Marot (1997)

Basically, the direction in which I am moving is toward the conclusion that there is not a simple one-to-one correspondence between human souls and human brains, but that instead each human soul is a distributed entity that is, of course, concentrated most intensely in one particular brain but that is also present in a diluted or partial manner in many other brains, and the degree of presence of A’s soul in B’s brain, not surprisingly, is a direct function of the depth of shared history and mutual caring between A and B.

Douglas Hofstadter – Le ton beau de Marot (1997)

Words are translatable among cultures to the extent that the worlds inhabited by their host languages are the same–and that extent is very high for many modern languages.

And yet, each language inhabits a world slightly different from all other languages, and so it has certain special terms whose meanings cannot be expressed concisely in other languages. They can be explained, but there is nothing like a terse corresponding expression.

Douglas Hofstadter – Le ton beau de Marot (1997)

To avoid the ironic fate of drowning in an ocean of your own micro-variants, you have to be courageous enough to part forever with lovely ideas that only a few minutes earlier you were terribly proud of.

(He was writing of translation, but it seems applicable to creative works in general.)

Douglas Hofstadter – Le ton beau de Marot (1997)

I’m not saying, mind you, that if queried explicitly, readers would deny a translation process ever took place–I’m just saying that translation tends to be one of those “out of sight, out of mind” kinds of things. Most readers take translators and translations for granted. And it would be wrong to think that the blame for this mistake falls solely on each individual who makes it; it is in large part the result of a collective attitude spread throughout our entire culture. We basically are taught–both by omission and by commission–to ignore, forget about, and disrespect translators.

Douglas Hofstadter – Le ton beau de Marot (1997)

Every task involves constraint,
Solve the thing without complaint;
There are magic links and chains
Forged to loose our rigid brains.
Structures, strictures, though they bind,
Strangely liberate the mind.

James Falen’s “odelet in praise of constraints”, quoted in DRH’s book

Douglas Hofstadter – Le ton beau de Marot (1997)

All readings are partial and approximate, and we must content ourselves with whatever joy and insight we can derive from deep ideas rendered clearly in beautiful language, knowing that our derivative response and the author’s original vision will never be perfectly aligned.

Douglas Hofstadter – Le ton beau de Marot (1997)

…the nice thing about having a brain is that one can learn, that ignorance can be supplanted by knowledge, and that small bits of knowledge can gradually pile up into substantial heaps.

Douglas Hofstadter – Le ton beau de Marot (1997)

I could not conclude my anecdotes about dictionary look-up without sharing one special moment of delight, which was when, trying to decode “pad a slang”, I looked up “slang”, found the very promising-seeming meaning of “traveling show”, and noted, with much amusement, that this meaning was classified as, of all things, “archaic slang”.