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Translator's Preface

    Note: In what follows I have attempted to bring together and synthesize the three major passions of my life: Theatre, Linguistics, and Translation. The first section is concerned with the meaning of Weiss’ The Investigation for today, the second and third sections deal with the technical and linguistic aspects of its  translation.


I first translated this play from German in 1965, and only a few months ago I was asked to translate it once more, this time from the French. This seems enough of a paradox to me to require an explanation. (Note 1)

What's more, each translation involved an urgent commission stemming from an imminent production.  And each case was grounded in a major international crisis.  Just as the first presentation of this play helped to launch a whole new theatrical movement, the so-called documentary school of theatre, so this new adaptation from the French has the potential for modernizing, internationalizing, and even universalizing the appeal of this play. That is largely because the co-author of this French adaptation, also the chief actor and director, is a citizen of Rwanda, as are the other six members of his company, a nation that has recently gone through its own trial by genocide. 

The play in question is Peter Weiss's The Investigation.(Note 2)

The major international crisis leading to the first production is as follows. Forty years ago under prevailing German law, all criminal prosecutions were subject to a statute of limitation of twenty years, making it impossible to bring known criminals to trial after that period and permitting them to go scot-free.  Since World War II ended in 1945, this meant that German war criminals would no longer be brought to justice after 1965. This gave rise to a bitter struggle between two major factions of German society, those who felt this must not be allowed to happen on the one side, those who had permitted, condoned, or actually committed war crimes on the other.  It was a struggle that quickly turned international in scope, joined by citizens from many lands who had suffered at the hands of the Germans.

This massive confrontation inspired Peter Weiss to write a truly massive play, based on verbatim testimony from the Frankfurt War Crimes trials that began in 1964.  It presented on stage not only the very words of the defendants but the defendants themselves as portrayed by actors, providing overwhelming evidence for continuing these prosecutions. Indeed, the play's very last line pointedly attacked the campaign by Nazi elements to maintain the Statute of Limitations.

The play was so massive in its dimensions that it became something of a sacred icon in theatre history--though praised by countless critics, it came to be produced only occasionally over succeeding decades.  Weiss's reputation was never great outside Germany, and despite the success of his Marat-Sade, it has begun to dwindle over the years.

The political aspects of this play can scarcely be overestimated.  As part of the campaign to abolish the German statute of limitations on war crimes, the RSC premiere of this play was timed to coincide with premieres in some forty other theatres throughout Europe.  But the play was so overwhelming in its impact that even in London we felt obliged to cut almost one-third of the text, as English audiences preferred to regard the theme as a German-Jewish problem that did not truly concern them.

Now a new version of this play has arisen, and if anything the political and social conditions inspiring its creation are even more pressing.  Where earlier versions dealt mainly with the Jews and the Germans and the horrors of the Holocaust during World War II, the lessons learned during that time have once again come to be forgotten, doubted, and even denied by a  significant segment of the world's population.

But in this new production those lessons can no longer be doubted, denied, or even forgotten, for it becomes amply clear that they affect every nation on the planet.  Based on a French translation from the German, it omits almost two-thirds of the script and combines tasteful musical effects with vibrant acting and excellent lighting to bring the text to stunning life.

As noted, its author has every right to introduce these changes, for  he is a citizen of Rwanda, a Black African brought up Catholic but for a time a convert to Islam, someone who has seen his own parents, relations, and countless friends fall victims to the Rwandan genocide of 1994, a conflagration that annihilated thirteen percent of the Rwanda population. 

His production has already been performed both in Belgium and Rwanda and will open in Paris (on January 17 of 2007), presented by Peter Brook at the Théâtre des Bouffes du Nord. At a time when cries of genocide have been heard from Darfur, Iraq, Burma, and Indonesia, when both France and Poland have recently passed laws making it a crime for their citizens to deny respectively past genocides in Armenia and the Ukraine, when fresh genocides against other peoples are actively threatened by sovereign states, it is hard to see how the enormous truth presented by Weiss' play can continue to be denied.

What is that denial, and what is that truth?  

Its denial is perhaps best suggested by the reaction of a defendant's mother, when her son starts to tell her about his work:

      Once on leave 
      I told my mother 
      She couldn’t believe it 
      That isn’t possible she said  
      You can’t burn human beings 
      because flesh doesn’t burn

"Flesh doesn't burn" is only one form this denial can take.  Others include:

    "No nation could possibly have been guilty of such horrific crimes."

    "There is no way a massacre of such magnitude could possibly have been carried out in practice."

    No human being could possibly have issued the order leading to such barbarism.

    The camps were purely a creation of the German personality.  No British, Americans, Frenchmen, _____ (fill in the blank for yourself) could possibly have been guilty of such horrific behavior.

    "The extent of the slaughter must surely be exaggerated."

    "Yes, perhaps there were crimes, but the victims must have been guilty of something."

    "Many different cultures have been guilty of mass murder throughout history."

    "It never happened.  It is all a Zionist plot to take over the entire Muslim world."

Its truth, still as shocking today as it was then, is conveyed by this adaptation's final speech, delivered by one of the witnesses who survived these events:

      If we speak today about our experiences 
      with people who were not in the camps 
      these people always regard them 
      as something unimaginable 
      And yet it was the same men there 
      who were both prisoners and guards 
      ...if they hadn’t been called prisoners 
      they might just as easily have been guards 
      We must get rid of our exalted attitude 
      that this camp world 
      is beyond our comprehension

This harrowing statement about human nature has been confirmed under laboratory conditions by two famous experiments, the first performed by the psychologist Stanley Milgram in 1961. Milgram solicited students to take part in a learning study by asking them to act as "teacher" to a "learner" visible to him/her in an adjoining room, strapped into a chair with an electrode attached to one arm.  The "teacher" was presented with a "generator" with 30 switches, labeled from 15 to 450  volts.  The "teacher" was then requested to ask the "learner" questions.  If the "learner" failed to answer these questions correctly, the "teacher" was instructed to administer an electric shock, starting at 15 volts but soon skyrocketing all the way up to 450.  The "teachers" clearly enjoyed their role, and only a minority of them refused to inflict punishment at the higher levels. The "learner" was in all cases a trained actor who simulated appropriate pain as the shocks increased in intensity.

An even more conclusive experiment was carried out ten years later by Professor Philip Zimbardo in the basement of the Stanford Psychology Department, where student volunteers were arbitrarily assigned the roles of guards and prisoners.  The guards were issued khaki attire and clubs, the prisoners were locked inside "cells," rules were posted, and the guards began to assign punishments for all infractions, real or imagined.  Guards worked in shifts and could return to their homes at night, prisoners had no such privilege. Sadism quickly blossomed, a riot among prisoners broke out on the second day, and the prisoners began to experience genuine emotional disturbances.  Zimbardo became immensely proud of his experiment and on the sixth day invited his grad student girlfriend to witness how well it was going.  She took one look and told him to close down the experiment immediately, or she would refuse to continue their relationship.  Which brought an end to the project after six days.  The episode was far more horrific than this brief sketch can suggest, and those who wish may learn much more by searching the web for wikipedia zimbardo.

Which brings us to recent events at the Abu Ghraib prison in Baghdad, providing even more compelling evidence that the concentration camp mentality still survives among all of us. Here too limitless denials were heard from many sources, generals, political leaders and journalists prominent among them.  These could not possibly be normal, compassionate Americans who committed these crimes, it was claimed, they were surely only "a few bad apples," total exceptions to the rule.

But the truth is that they were not "bad apples" at all, they were typical of how the great majority of us could be expected to behave if our leaders provided no true ethical principles to guide us.  The most frightening revelation of The Investigation in both its earlier and its more recent productions is that the very same human desire to cooperate with others, to please one's companions and oblige them by following instructions can lead us both to glorious, peaceful achievement and to mindless, organized sadism.

This is probably one the most frightening of lessons any of us can learn, and it is perhaps not totally surprising that many people still refuse to accept it.  But it may still provide some insight into why so many war criminals so often claim that they were doing nothing wrong: after all, they were simply following the usual order of humanity by cooperating with those around them.  Of course many also claim that they were working under impossible pressure or made some half-hearted attempt to resist, while others are simply dissemblers. In the last analysis the crimes of the camps remain inexcusable.

To conclude on a slightly more optimistic note, one fascinating aspect emerged from this play's production in the capital of Rwanda, where a translation into kinyarwanda by Dorcy Rugamba was performed.  Against the background of that nation's disastrous recent history, audiences were amazed to discover that a comparable genocide could ever possibly have taken Europe.  It may also prove to be of more than marginal interest in the future—and here I speak only for myself—that the co-author of this work has been exposed to Islam.

I believe all nations everywhere may owe a debt of gratitude to Rugamba and to co-adaptor Isabelle Gyselinx for providing us with this remarkable new perspective on our own history, indeed on all of current world events. Thanks to their efforts this play no longer belongs to Jews alone but will come to take its place as a sacrificial offering intended for all humanity. For far too long Weiss' The Investigation has been viewed as a holy behemoth, too painful to perform, too powerful to alter in any major way. 

This new production breaks down that sacred taboo once and for all.  Reactions to the play by Rwandans may also prove remarkably prophetic of what could occur in future productions, as is perhaps the time when its co-adaptor experimented with Islam.  Clearly  this production cannot be seen by everyone everywhere, though TV and film might one day alter this to some extent in yet other spin-offs.

My authorized English translation of this work was commissioned in the first instance to supplement a dvd of the presentation in Brussels and provide assistance to theatres that will soon be touring the French production in North America. In the second instance it is intended to serve as a source for English supertitles that will be projected during that tour.  While I hope that my version may also find a use in further theatrical productions, in the long run it little matters whose translation or whose adaptation may come to be used over future years.  Through their innovations Rugamba and Gyselinx have opened the way to creating multiple new productions of this play in other lands as well. 

Where one-sided pleading, political pronouncements, or unvarnished statistics can fail, this production succeeds in conveying the undeniable reality of the concentration camps by presenting them in the genuine words of those who took part in them, witnesses and defendants, victims and oppressors alike. I may be an incurable optimist and I speak only for myself and not the adaptors or  the producers of this play, but it is my hope that over the next years and decades we will see translations and adaptations of this play not only into other African tongues but also into Arabic, Turkish, Farsi, Urdu, Burmese, Indonesian. and many other of the world's languages.


Technical Translation Notes

Since three languages rather than the usual two were involved in this translation, we are probably dealing with the sort of decisions that scholars could debate and criticize interminably, long after the work itself had been completed.  Academic linguists could also easily add fuel to such a controversy, for the problems encountered and the solutions reached during this translation process stand out in almost total defiance to the accepted truths of “mainstream” linguistics.

My first priority in this task, as in so many other translations, was to create a rough draft of L'Instruction in English.  The next course of action for most translators would usually be to polish that rough draft until it becomes readable—and being a play, also actable—in its adopted language.  And if I had known only French and English, this would indeed have been my very next step. But as luck would have it, I not only knew German as well but had many decades earlier created the very first English translation of this play, Die Ermittlung in its German title.

My next step was to compare my rough draft from the French with my produced and published version from the German. This presented a few difficulties, for the adaptors had cut almost two-thirds of the original text and reduced Weiss’ arrangement of eleven cantos, each with three parts, to a total of 14 sections. To assist me, I found it useful to make a map of both versions in the form of a table, listing in the first column the names and numbers of the eleven defendants, and a second table listing the numbers of the six witnesses (18 defendants and 9 witnesses in the earlier version).  In the second column I wrote down the page numbers where each character appeared in my rough draft, in the third column the page numbers for these same characters in the 1966 book version.  This enabled me to look up the various speeches in both versions with relative ease.

Almost immediately I discovered many discrepancies not only between the German text and its French translation but also between my rough draft from the French and all existing English versions of this play, including my own.

I realized of course that no blame for these discrepancies could be attached to the play's adaptors nor to the famous French philosopher and social theorist Jean Baudrillard, who had translated it from German.  Rather, the basic problem lay almost entirely in the comparative suitability of French and English as a medium for translating German. 

Such a claim amounts to little less than heresy, not only to many French language chauvinists but to the ruling theories of mainstream linguistics, which declare all languages to be equal, with no language superior to another in any manner.  What all linguists agree on is that French and English share thousands of words and even phrases, though often pronounced rather differently. And they have also shared a closely related historical development ever since the Norman Conquest. 

But the basic grammar of English remains Germanic in nature, with many of the same sonorous three-part verbs (singen, sang. gesungen vs. sing. sang, sung) and compound-building methods as German. And many words in the two languages remain so close that they are still pronounced almost identically.  More important, while French strives for concentrated, generic, and seemingly precise meanings derived from Latin sources, both German and English share a preference for earthy, monosyllabic nouns and verbs brimming with consonants and sub-contexts.  This can lead to a number of problems in translating many texts between French and English—this is by no means my view alone but one supported by perhaps the most authoritative book in this field, Stylistique Comparée du Français et l'Anglais, Méthode de Traduction, a work so influential among translators that it has recently even been translated into English. [Note 3]

The French preference for a more concentrated vocabulary and an idealized form of expression has been even more prevalent in the theatre than elsewhere, encouraging Racine and other classical French dramatists to write their plays using a vocabulary estimated by authors as diverse as Paul Auster and Georges Simenon as fewer than 1,500 words. [Note 4]  Even Voltaire, surely one of France's most liberated authors (and also considered the greatest French playwright of his time), was quite stymied by highly formalized French verse forms when he came to translate Shakespeare's Hamlet. And although Victor Hugo ended much of this stylistic tyranny with the 1830 premiere of his play Hernani—which actually caused fist fights in the audience—this French longing after generic idealism still lives on. [Note 5}

It's time to back up these theoretical claims with concrete evidence, starting with the very first line of this adaptation:

Nous avons marché pendant cinq jours

Though I probably ought to have been a bit more reflective, being at the very beginning of a long draft and anxious to make headway—and also knowing that I would have ample chance to correct any errors later on—I naturally typed out, as would many other translators:

      We marched for five days

But this makes no sense at all in the context of the rest of the speech, which concerns 89 human beings herded together like cattle and shoved on board a freight car en route to Auschwitz.  Obviously the word marché cannot possibly mean marched in this context. Consulting my 1965 translation from German, I found that I had written:

      We traveled for five days

And further consulting the German original, I found:

      Wir fuhren 5 Tage lang

Which is a good deal closer to what I wrote in my 1965 version.  

While marching is certainly a form of travel, neither the English verb march nor its German cognate marschieren specifically contains the idea of travel.  But the French word marcher provides the following dictionary meanings according to Cassell: to walk, to go on foot, to go up, to advance, to move on, to progress, to step, to tread, to go, to travel, to march, to sail, to run, to ply, to flow, to work.  My Petit Larousse yields a similar plethora of meanings. Perhaps the only remotely precise meaning for this verb in English would be "to be or set in motion."  The German verb  fahren (past tense, fuhren) also covers a fairly broad range of motion but one that coincides with  French distinctions only here and there.

This is what I mean by a concentrated, generic word.  And this was only the first line of the play.  I would encounter this problem throughout the text, and two other excerpts reveal this tendency even more tellingly (in my rough draft I used the symbol "[" to indicate confusing words or passages I intended to return to):

From the French, 2006:

      The passages[ of crematory ovens 
      Were raked in two ovenfuls[ 
      They were bordered by sculpture thickets[ 
      and in the grass above the underground gas chambers 
      there were large clumps[ of flowers 
      Mengele arrived with his dapper air

From the German, 1966:

      They would rake the roads 
      to the crematorium smooth 
      in between the batches 
      There were well-tended hedges 
      and flower beds laid out amidst the grass 
      above the subterranean chambers 
      Mengele came along in his dashing manner

From the French, 2006:

      Defendant 1-Mulka 
      We were convinced
      that these orders aspired[
      to the goal of a hidden war
      Your Honor
      All that broke down my nerves
      I grew so ill from it
      that I was due to be transferred
      to the hospital 
      But I want to declare here
      that I saw all that from the outside
      and that I never got mixed up
      in that story High Court[
      I was against this affair 
      I was myself 
      someone persecuted by the system

From the German, 1966:

      Defendant 1-Mulka
      We were convinced
      that by obeying these orders
      we were working towards the attainment
      of a secret war objective
      Your Honor
      I was almost
      torn apart emotionally
      I became so ill from it
      that I had to be sent to the infirmary
      But I must emphasize 
      that I saw everything only from outside
      and I held my hand free
      from the doing itself
      Your Honor
      I was opposed to the entire concern
      I was myself
      one of those persecuted by the system

I believe this contrast alone should make it clear why I no longer felt I had the option of simply polishing the rough draft into a more finished form.  Proceeding from the French alone, with no reference to either the German or my translation from it, I would simply not have known which of the many nuances among so many generic verbs and nouns to choose from, and I would undoubtedly have been obliged to guess which of these nuances was intended, committing many errors in the process.

I therefore decided that my next step was to create a second draft, substituting my lines and speeches from my original 1965 translation wherever I believed they might provide greater clarity and fidelity to the German playscript.  The changes I made extended over a large portion of the text, and I felt a twinge of guilt that I also ought to try and weigh each line in both versions carefully before deciding which was preferable.  The time limitations imposed by a deadline—a practical theatre problem most scholars rarely encounter—made this unworkable in all cases, but as the penultimate stage in my work I was able to use the graphic possibilities of the computer to provide at least a partial solution. 

I divided my screen into two horizontal windows and placed the rough draft in the top window, the new version based on my earlier translation in the bottom one, and then conscientiously compared the two texts line by line, which led to readmitting some lines from the rough draft where they seemed preferable to the older version or I spotted a way of improvising a new solution suggested by the contrast.  This means that my final draft ended up about 75% similar or identical to the 1965 version, with about 25% of the text  being either the same—or close to the same—in both versions or representing lines influenced by the rough draft. As the final stage in this translation, I compared the relatively few remaining problems with the German original, which made it possible for me to resolve them.

I want to emphasize that this decision was in no way related to value judgments about the French language—French is a truly remarkable and powerful language in its own right.  It is capable of quite remarkable and intriguing feats of analysis and juxtaposition of ideas. But both here and in the case of Voltaire’s Hamlet, French may not in all cases be the most perfect medium for translating Germanic plays.  I could not help but feel that my ultimate loyalty could only be based on fidelity to the original German text. 

It would be truly useful if our linguists would cease their claims that all languages are equal and cannot differ in their capabilities, for which there is no evidence visible by translators, who are the only specialists likely to discover such evidence.  Rather, languages can perhaps better be viewed as different schools of painting: no one would expect a painting executed in the pointilliste manner to have the same effect as one following the school of tachisme, much less fauvisme, even if all three works displayed the very same scene.  And even less so if the scene were portrayed in a Renaissance or Rococo manner.  Once our linguists come to this realization, we might at long last begin to build the basis for the study of language.

(...more to follow...)

Linguistic Implications

Those concerned mainly with this play’s production 
and translation are advised to skip the following section.

And that is the story of how this translation came into being.  But it is only the beginning of the story of how translation fits into the overall study of language and how translators are viewed by today's academic linguists.  According to the theory dominating linguistics today, not a single one of the steps or stages I followed in creating this translation ought to have been necessary.  This well-funded and widely-held theory insists that there is basically no difference between languages, since they are all unified by a "universal grammar." 

Based on this theory, I ought to have found no major differences between my rough draft and my 1965 version.  The mapping procedure I followed to draw together the lines in the two translations ought not to have been necessary beyond locating the passages themselves.  And I should not have felt the need to consider the differences between the two drafts in order to create a final version. This is because language is held to be an innate part of the human brain, making it all but certain that mainstream linguists will soon understand the inner wellsprings of language so completely that they will be able to duplicate these processes any day now on an intellectual and digital level. 

Thousands of linguists are actively engaged world-wide in this effort, though mainly in the US and Canada, tirelessly collecting and analyzing the data that will make this ultimate resolution of the language problem possible. Their shining goal is the creation of a truly accurate system of "MT" or Machine Translation, and even though this goal has eluded them for the past fifty years, MT zealots still occupy powerful positions within the world of linguistics. 

Each year we hear renewed publicity that perfect or near perfect MT is just around the corner, at worst only a question of time. What drives these true believers in this unswerving quest after their philosopher's stone, their magic elixir, their holy grail?  Can it be true idealism and devotion to a cause, or could something else be involved?

The truth may indeed revolve around considerably less praiseworthy motives. 

It is just as likely to be grounded in an incestuous convergence between the availability of government funding and eagerness among linguists to obtain that funding, regardless of whether the projects funded can ever be truly realized.  Ever since the beginning of the Cold War, the Department of Defense has sought any advance in the understanding of language that could possibly provide an edge in battle or espionage.  Perfect MT would earn the golden prize in attaining this goal, but there are many smaller awards along the way towards achieving that prize.  Under these circumstances, not too many linguists have been willing to refuse work on such projects or to suggest that that the goals of these projects might be unrealistic. In a definitive piece on machine translation Sheldon Silverman estimated in 2000 that MT research alone has “burned through billions of dollars.” [Note 6]

Thus, it is altogether possible that much work in mainstream linguistics is in large measure motivated by the continued presence of this funding. A situation has been created where almost any research appearing to embrace these goals, whether or not it is likely to succeed, has a fair probability of being funded. Even the high priest of mainstream linguistics, Noam Chomsky, for all his well publicized anti-government activities, may be no exception to this conflict of interest.  Chomsky has never ceased to embrace the MT ideal, however subtly he may appear to deny it and however indirectly he may phrase it.  As recently as 2000 he visualized language as a

    "`switchbox:’ When the switches are set one way, we have Swahili; when they are set another way, we have Japanese. Each possible human language is identified as a particular setting of the switches?a setting of parameters, in technical terminology. If the research program succeeds, we should be able literally to deduce Swahili from one choice of settings, Japanese from another, and so on through the languages that humans can acquire...'  [Note 7] 

This entire statement, like much of Chomsky’s work on language, simply reeks of pseudoscience, though perhaps there are still those among linguists who remain naive enough about computer science to suppose that this enunciation of the truism about “a setting of parameters” possesses any profound scientific value.

The findings of most translators have been quite different. As we have seen, even in two languages as closely related as English and French, or English and German, the "settings" are in fact extremely difficult to "set."  When we look further afield at more distant members of the Indo-European language family, such as Celtic or Slavic tongues or even more distant relatives like Farsi and Hindi, the settings become even more difficult to manipulate.  And when we go totally beyond this language family into truly unrelated tongues like Chinese or Cherokee, we see our familiar pattern of settings fall apart almost totally. If one has been brought up within only one or two cultures or languages, it is easy enough to imagine that all other languages and cultures must be basically the same. 

In much the same way amateurs of the arts may imagine that all painting everywhere--or all music, or all dance--must be basically the same.  And while in one sense they may be, in another they are so different as to be baffling to those not brought up in their midst. We know from our own experiences and those of our friends that coming to appreciate the music, dancing, or art of other cultures can be a very long and difficult process.  For many, coming to appreciate even various periods of classical music or contrasting stages during Western culture can be a remarkable challenge.  It is much the same with foreign languages.

What we have seen here is merely another instance of the Chomskyan obsession with the notion that knowledge of languages is somehow "innate," that it is a “hard-wired”  set of switches within the human brain.  Dorcy Rugamba, co-author of this new adaptation, has provided an authoritative and persuasive reply to this claim in a published interview, accessible on the web: [Note 8]

Rien n'est innée, tout s'apprend.

(Nothing is innate, everything is learned.)

Perhaps still not the whole truth about either language or human behavior.  But a lot closer to it than most of the claims advanced by "mainstream" linguists.

It is likely that more can be learned about the nature of language from reading works on translation than attempting to decipher the literature of linguistics. It is not as though there has been any shortage of knowledge about translation throughout history. [Note 9] As early as 413 C.E. St. Augustine mentions that "interpreters, far from being scarce, are numberless," the Semitic root naming this profession dates back to the Fourth Millennium B.C.E., and the highly literate ancient Sumerians had words for both "interpreter" and "translator."  But sadly enough, little of this knowledge seems to have made it down to modern scientists, who have had no choice but to start from scratch on the basis of their preconceptions. [Note 10] Thus we see that what we have in this new adaptation of Peter Weiss' classic is not merely an important political play and a  major step forward in the theatre but can also form the basis for setting a whole new scene in the world of linguistics as well.

If anyone supposes I have been unduly harsh in my treatment of mainstream linguistics, it might be useful to consider how linguists themselves tend to view translators.  From their perspective the compliment has been returned many times over.  It has become a cliché of today’s rhetoric that researchers belonging to one camp may attempt to vilify those in the opposing camp by likening them to fascists, sometimes even to Nazis.  I do not believe that mainstream linguists are either, so I do not intend to fall into such a trap.  Yet since our play under discussion is concerned most centrally with Nazism, it could just be that it can help us to discover a few similarities between the camps and mainstream linguistics today.  As one defendant at the Frankfurt War Crimes trial says in his defense:

      Defendant 12-Stark
      Your Honor
      I should like to explain for once
      Every third word in our schooling
      was concerned with those
      who were guilty of everything
      and who must be rooted out

No, linguistics does not follow quite the same logic, nor has any linguist ever suggested that translators must be physically liquidated.  And yet one may still find a similar cult-like tendency among mainstream linguists, who have been educated to believe that they are the only ones qualified to make “scientific” statements about language, that anyone else who advances views different from their own can only be an amateur, a charlatan, at best what many linguists, following Pinker, call a “language maven.”  And if that language maven also happens to be a translator, then their contempt can know no bounds.  How do many of these linguists view translators, even those linguists who have occasionally performed translation-related tasks? 

They view them not precisely as Germans regarded Jews, but the level of their opprobium can sometimes still hit the ceiling.  Translators are only accidental linguists, it is believed, caught up in the confusions of a single language pair, servants called in to perform a menial and unpleasant duty, at best merely technicians.  They have no genuine claim to knowing languages, no theoretical education in the true intricacies of language.  Often they hold no degree of any kind, and only rarely an advanced one. They can enjoy no lofty overview of the totality of language, as can those true "professionals" in the field, advanced academic linguists. 

Perhaps most appalling, these translators may be only pitiful dead-ends in the history of language, temporary expedients who will soon no longer be necessary at all, once the unstoppable research of true linguists reaches its true culmination in the final perfection of Machine Translation.  More than a few of these savants have been caught over the decades in empty boasts that human translators can, will, and must—like the Jews of Europe—finally be wiped out altogether.  Thus, though there is definitely no scheme afoot to imprison and do away with anyone, mainstream linguists definitely do have a plan for the “final solution of the translator problem.”

Unfortunately reality has not borne them out in these predictions and shows no sign of doing so in anything like the immediate future.  All of which, from their point of view, simply means that research into the essential nature of language has not yet gone far enough and that further research—and funding to support it—is urgently required.

The deepest obstacle to these fantasies is that computers—which linguists believe will finally solve all their remaining problems—may not be very effective tools for describing or recording language.  And may not truly be able to solve major translation problems at all.  It is true that an MT program can readily resolve simple confusions between languages, such as “false friends”—for instance, French words like contrôler, avertir, and actuellement that do not mean “control,” “avert,” or “actually” in English but rather to check or  regulate, to warn, and right now.  Or German words such as stark, gross, and After which actually mean strong, big or great, and rectum.

But entire categories of words and meanings, such as those we have seen in marcher, fahren, and English verbs of motion are almost totally inconsistent in their usage across these three languages.  The “false friends” examples can be computerized because they are predictable, consistent, and logical.  But these verbs of motion are neither predictable, nor consistent, nor logical—hence, they cannot easily be diagrammed for conversion into computer code.  Furthermore, there are many similar networks of words and concepts strewn all over our languages—even our most closely related languages—that simply defy categorization.  Such semantic storms can only be navigated by skillful human translators, and even they may sometimes fail.

It is unresolved problems such as these that have long created at least part of the clumsiness we see in so many computer translations.  Unfortunately, those who are best informed about language often possess poor computer skills, while trained programmers and computer scientists frequently know little about language.  I am aware of one possible exception here, namely the computer scientist Douglas Hofstedter, but the book he has written about translation is both interminable and irrelevant. [Note 11]

I want to stress that I have not been alone in voicing such criticisms of mainstream linguistics over the decades, but so far nothing any of us has said about the matter has ever made any real difference.  For instance, the translation editor Per Dohler once took a poll among translators and discovered that their reactions to linguistics in general ranged  "between indifference and outright scorn," that it belongs to the "pseudo-sciences" or "fields that don't yet have their jargon under control."

More to the point, one of the most highly respected of linguists, the late Larry Trask, an American professor who worked in the UK, voiced the following view when interviewed by The Guardian in 2003:

    "I have no time for Chomskyan theorizing and its associated dogmas of 'universal grammar'. This stuff is so much half-baked twaddle, more akin to a religious movement than to a scholarly enterprise. I am confident that our successors will look back on UG as a huge waste of time. I deeply regret the fact that this sludge attracts so much attention outside linguistics, so much so that many non-linguists believe that Chomskyan theory simply is linguistics, that this is what linguistics has to offer, and that UG is now an established piece of truth, beyond criticism or discussion. The truth is entirely otherwise." [Note 12]

One other perhaps superficial similarity between Nazism and mainstream linguistics: they can probably both be legitimately described as cults. And what might possibly be one final likeness: just as many Nazi followers expressed great confusion or incredulity when it was suggested that their faith in their doctrine could have been mistaken and their acts irresponsible, so our mainsteam linguists resist any suggestion that the faith they follow and the research they continue to pursue could possibly be groundless.  After all, just as Germans of all classes constantly attended meetings, indoctrination sessions, and even mass rallies reaffirming their beliefs, so our mainstream linguists never cease to study the words of the movement's high priests and attend public conferences devoted to reconsecrating themselves to the commandments they follow.  Thus, while mainstream linguistics is no Nazism and Noam Chomsky is certainly no Adolf Hitler, these various points of similarity cannot continue to go totally unexamined.

The most promising aspect is that genuine scientists in other fields may have also caught on that much of linguistics does not belong among genuine sciences.  Three of the most prominent mainstream linguists recently got the shock of their lives when they submitted a letter to the editors of Nature, protesting the details of a published piece about linguistics.  Their letter was rejected in a matter of hours. 

Their immediate reaction was to post complaints about their rejection in online media read by other linguists.  Reports of similar rejections by other scientific journals were also heard, leading to a request that steps be taken at the next general meeting of the Linguistics Society of America to infiltrate the membership of one major scientific society to ensure that that similar mishaps should not occur in the future.  The matter is to be seriously considered this year at the Society’s national meeting in Anaheim, even though it should be obvious that any attempt to change the policies of these journals could be seen as interference in the fairness and impartiality crucial to the workings of science. Several of the linguists involved have been closely connected with work on machine translation.  [Note 13]

And yet major realities of language are still avoided and pointedly ignored by these savants, who continue to suppose that all languages  are—or can one day be—readily convertible into one another.  Translators and interpreters have no choice but to deal with the sometimes harsh realities of language, while academic linguists remain free to foist whatever theories and fantasies they may choose on students, peers, and government funding sources, all of whom are likely to be willing co-conspirators.

How has it been possible for mainstream linguists to have gone so far astray in their research and their conclusions?  The main reason has been the widespread illusion that language must on some level be "simple."  While we are willing to grant almost unending complexity to the structure of the universe, the secrets of the atom, and the mysteries of our own physiology, most of us still insist that language can only be "simple" by comparison.  As a result vast numbers of us are still ready to buy into any quick-fix weekend gimmick for "learning" a foreign language, however superficial it may be. In a closely related manner, the widespread availability of public funding to support this conclusion has made it a foregone conclusion that linguists would also buy into to its plausibility.

After all, or so goes the reasoning, languages may seem to differ, but the basic, underlying reality of what they mean can only be identical, or so close to identical, that adjustments can easily be improvised.  Most of us would like to believe that reality can only be the same everywhere, perhaps even through all of history and prehistory.  After all, this is merely “everyday commonsense:” plus ça change, plus ça reste la même chose. 

This attitude towards language is almost entirely incorrect.  Realities can and do change not only between nations and cultures but over the centuries and millennia it took our cultures to evolve. Our languages, which reflect these changing realities, cannot possibly be an exception.

And yet we encounter something remarkably similar to this widespread attitude in the "advanced" theories of our theoretical and computational linguists: somewhere deep down in the structure and development of our languages it must actually be possible to build a "switchbox" for converting one language into another.  Unfortunately the reality of language is not “simple” at all but multiplex, both inter-related and intra-related, and co-extensive with countless millennia of development.

Working towards a conclusion, I believe the reason why mainstream linguists continue to believe in these myths is that they have rarely been exposed to the day-to-day practical problems faced by translators and interpreters in making conversions between even the most closely related of languages. Foreign language teachers face a  related problem whenever they try to explain the workings of a new language to their students. Our mainstream linguists usually—though not invariably—become more or less proficient in two or more languages, but the hard, nitty-gritty problems of daily language use often elude them.

Thus, it may soon prove evident that the real “language mavens” among us are not translators, language teachers, or honest though perhaps limited commentators on language—but that those best qualified to bear this title are rather those self-proclaimed experts known as mainstream linguists, who through their interminable babblings and scribblings over three generations have brought chaos and confusion into the study of language.  And those who want to find the ultimate in pointless pedantry and prolixity may no longer need to go backwards in time to seek out medieval scholars in their unstoppable debates about how many angels can stand on the head of a pin. Their perfect reincarnations are alive and well and endlessly active among us in the field of mainstream linguistics.

With thanks to the English linguist-translator Paul F. Wood for his many suggestions.

NOTES (Including References)

1 The 1965 version was produced at the RSC under the direction of Peter Brook.  In 1966 the published version appeared: The Investigation, Oratorio in 11 Cantos by Peter Weiss, English version by Alexander Gross, Calder and Boyars, London, 1966. [back to text]

2 If you first received this preface in printed form, you can print out additional copies or save an electronic copy or send one to a colleague from this website. [back to text]

3 Vinay & Darbeltnet: Stylistique Comparée du Français et l'Anglais, Méthode de Traduction, Editions Didier, Paris, 1963. 

 Comparative Stylistics of French and English: A Methodology for Translation (Benjamins Translation Library, Vol 11)by Jean-Paul Viney, et al. (date not given).  [back to text]

4 Auster:

Simenon:    [back to text]

5 Search for Voltaire and Victor Hugo at:    [back to text]

6 The piece appeared in the May, 2000 issue of WIRED Magazine.  It might be of interest for someone to write a doctor’s thesis probing this figure further, but the final total for MT funding may be difficult to arrive at.  Since countless researchers have been increasingly active in this work over the last fifty years, the final total cannot be small. Whoever composed such a thesis would need not only linguistic skills but would also require the ability to probe through government and military budgets over the decades to ferret out the total cost of this research in a realm where figures are known to have been obscured to confuse potential adversaries.  This researcher would also need to possess skills in accounting.  For some reason there does not seem to be any sense of urgency among linguists to commission such a research topic.  [back to text]

7. Noam Chomsky: New Horizons in the Study of Language and Mind, Cambridge University Press,2000, New York.  [back to text]

8    [back to text]

9  At least some of this information may be found by looking under the translation and linguistics menus on the author’s website at:
and    [back to text]

10 Search for “Sumerian” at   [back to text]

11  Le Ton Beau De Marot: In Praise of the Music of Language by Douglas R. Hofstadter (Paperback - May 1998)   [back to text]

12,12982,984721,00%20..html    [back to text]

13  To confirm this account, log onto the discussion group at Linguistlist, probably the principle online forum among linguists, and search for the word "starlings." Then read several of the neighboring messages.  Linguistlist is located at:   

The four linguists advocating this policy were Geoffrey Pullum, Ray Jackendoff, Mark Liberman, and Annie Zaenen (along with Pullum's wife the philosophy professor Barbara Scholz).

[back to text]


This preface and and play excepts
are Copyright © 2007 by Alexander Gross
Portions are also Copyright © 1966.  It may be
reproduced for individuals and for
educational purposes only. It may
not be used for any commercial (i.e.,
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