David's Reviews > Le Ton beau de Marot: In Praise of the Music of Language

Le Ton beau de Marot by Douglas R. Hofstadter
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it was amazing
bookshelves: top-20, read-in-2007, words-and-language

Another one of my all-time favorite books, this is by the author of "Godel, Escher, Bach". Impossible to categorize accurately, it's a kind of extended riff on the difficulties and challenges of translation, carried out with a kind of beguiling enthusiasm. It shares the playfulness that characterized "Godel, Escher, Bach" but I found it more accessible and more interesting.

Starting with a single unifying thread that winds through the entire book (various* translations of a single 28-line poem by the French author Clement Marot, Hofstadter weaves a fascinating tapestry about the challenges facing a translator. There is a whole chapter dedicated to translations of Eugene Onegin; another discusses various efforts at translating Dante. Along the way there are fun digressions about such challenges as translating lipograms (text written with the constraint that one or more letters of the alphabet are never used), the paradoxical usefulness of writing under constraints of various kinds, be they artificial as in lipogrammatic writing, or metrical constraints, as in Pushkin, Dante, or the sonnets of Shakespeare, difficulties in writing translation software, linguistic issues such as the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis**, how one would translate a 'dirty' joke to a clean version, while preserving the humor.

*: I haven't counted, but there must be at least 50 different translations. Oddly enough, the accumulation of so many is not boring, but fascinating - Hofstadter's boyish enthusiasm helps to charm.
**: (very) roughly, the linguistic notion that how we think is constrained by language. Dismissed by Steven Pinker in his book "The Language Instinct", though I think Pinker's case is less than convincing.

A fascinating tour-de-force, it is also the kind of book one can dip in to from time to time and be entertained by any one of its chapters.
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Reading Progress

Finished Reading
July 3, 2007 – Shelved

Comments Showing 1-3 of 3 (3 new)

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message 1: by Lena (last edited Aug 25, 2016 01:42PM) (new)

Lena Why do you think Pinker's case is less than convincing?

message 2: by David (last edited Aug 25, 2016 01:42PM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

David Lena:

A couple of reasons. First, I think that Pinker attacks the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis as stated in its most extreme form. He appears to seek out quotes which present the strongest form of the theory and essentially pokes ridicule at them. But demonstrating that an overstatement of the theory doesn't hold water is not the same (to me, at any rate) as establishing that there is no truth whatsoever in it. Also, and I find this to be generally true of Pinker's writing, he has a way of stating what essentially amounts to just his own opinion as if it were something more (i.e. something that had been empirically verified). Since he is a fluid, persuasive writer, it is easy to be seduced by this "opinion as evidence" trick.

His most convincing arguments against what he calls "linguistic determinism" are in those areas where cognitive reasoning is most amenable to scientific study - e.g. how people perceive colors, think about geometric constructs, and so forth. But I think there are still areas of human cognition, particular in the sphere of emotions and feelings, where empirical knowledge about the processes involved is far less advanced than Pinker would have us believe. Conveniently for his argument, he chooses not to consider these aspects in detail. But it seems reasonable to me to think that the ways in which we process emotions and feelings may well be influenced by language.

In other words, Pinker makes an argument for a strict separation between language and cognitive processes, one which seems overstated and based on a selective consideration of cognitive processes. It is telling that, when you sense he is reaching the point where his arguments might break down, or where their validity is less obvious, he has a tendency to engage in a kind of condescending, dismissive throwaway remark, or to remind us that he is the expert. For instance, this sentence:

"As a cognitive scientist I can afford to be smug about common sense being true (thought is different from language) and linguistic determinism being a conventional absurdity".

This smacks to me of "argument by attempted intellectual intimidation", an approach which, for idiosyncratic reasons of my own, I have never found convincing.

More than you cared to know, probably :-)

message 3: by Lena (last edited Aug 25, 2016 01:43PM) (new)

Lena On the contrary - thank you for taking the time to detail it so clearly. I'm fascinated by Sapir-Whorf but hadn't taken the time to really study it in part because I'd read that it had already been discredited. But my own experience with how differently I process thought and emotion when I am regularly speaking German leads me to agree with your comments about the influence of language on emotion. Definitely an area worthy of more study, I think.

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