Talking to Aliens: A lesson from Arrival about biblical translation

(system) #1
In the beginning was the Word. But it didn’t come with a dictionary.
This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at

(James Stump) #2

Anyone interested in talking about Arrival or the potential pitfalls of translation? If you’ve seen the movie and discuss details about the plot, start your comment with “Spoiler Alert”.

(Christy Hemphill) #3

What I find really interesting is how our models of communication (which are essentially metaphors to describe how we make meaning out of communication) influence how we understand the process of meaning and translation. We often fail to acknowledge how idealized and incomplete our metaphors are. Like when your fellow German student thought translation was basically a one-for-one substitution of meaning units. Kind of like Legos. If I have an object made of green Legos (English) and I want to change it into red Legos (German) I just need to find a red Lego that matches the green Lego of my original object in size and shape (meaning) and switch it out. When everything is switched out, I’ll have German. Not a good model, but a lot of people think that is how translation works. But even the prevailing model of communication in linguistics is more and more being recognized as deficient and misleading for capturing what actually happens in communication, and other models are being tried out or patched into the old one.

For years the prevailing model of communication in linguistics and other disciplines that involve hermeneutics has been the code model. In case anyone is a supernerd, there is a dissertation that examines the development of the code model and its preeminence in the metatheory of linguistics. (Perry Blackburn 2007) [quote] " Specifically, the study is a review of the history of a particular idealized model of communication, which has been employed within the discipline for nearly fifty years. It is an examination of how that model developed, spread, and gained influence within the discipline, and how, on some fronts, that influence has begun to wane. The model in question has been called the code model of communication. It is a basic model of communication and expresses the idea that communication is the transmission and reception of information between a human source (encoder) and receiver (decoder) using a signaling system (Blackburn 2007).[/quote]

Balckburn’s Chapter 5 offers critiques and alternatives to the code model. (Langue and parole are Saussure’s designations for the abstract conventions of a language system compared to an instance of language use by a speaker.)

This is the heart of the problem that comes up in Bible translation. All we have access to is the parole.

(Mervin Bitikofer) #4

Would you help me wrap my mind a bit more around the concept of “parole”?

Am I correct to think of it as more like a single and necessarily anomalous instance of a “langue” (i.e. one communicating individual within that culture)? So that instead of having some clean rule-book (langue?) for how one dialect works, we have instead a messy hodgepodge of millions of instances that loosely get lumped in under that umbrella such as “German” or “French”?

Is an author of a text like Obadiah, then, better seen as a “parole” rather than a standard Hebrew writer?

(George Brooks) #5

I think the closest parallel the movie makes to our concerns is the Greek LXX … vs. the Hebrew version.

A study between these two texts are endlessly fascinating … sometimes the Greek version makes more sense … and sometimes the Hebrew version does.

And I think, if I recall correctly, there are a few cases where only by knowing both can you arrive at a synthesis of what was intended by the original writer(s).

(Christy Hemphill) #6

On langue and parole: All texts or instances of speech are parole. Langue is the abstraction-- “English” as it exists theoretically as a shared system governed by rules and conventions. Parole is what I am typing. I am using English in a concrete communicative act. Theoretically, to the extent that you and I both have access to the langue English, we will understand each other’s parole. But communication really is more complicated than that.

(Christy Hemphill) #7

To clarify a little better how the concept of langue and parole relate to translation, when we are studying Hebrew or Greek or Aramaic texts, we are studying parole. We can pretend we have access to the langue by attempting to reconstruct a model of it. We deduce rules and conventions from examples, we flesh out what we assume were shared concepts. But we never actually have the langue .


thanks for this Christy

so much for perspicuity of Scripture as it is practiced by lots of conservatives.

Larry Schmidt

(Mervin Bitikofer) #9

Ahhh – so the resolution just took a quantum leap towards being even finer than what I had in mind. Every time a write something (sentence, paragraph, paper or book) … those are each ‘parole’. So it sounds like ‘langue’ is such an abstraction, then, perhaps to the point of people even debating its actual concrete existence. We use it obviously, but it sounds like it would defy precise definition especially around the blurry boundaries of any big language grouping, and more than that, even challenges our sense of thinking we could at least find a “center” (or archetype) solidly ‘inside’ of what it means to be French or German. Is this closer to an accurate conception?

What an unsurprising echo of the traditional science side of things where neat categorical boundaries continue to erode under the onslaught of reality!

(Mervin Bitikofer) #10

I just returned from a regional ACSI educators’ conference where I was able to attend a variety of profitable (some more than others!) workshops on various subjects. One of them I couldn’t stay away from was about “Heresies Christians too easily embrace”. (Was that a click-bait workshop name or what? – it worked on me and quite a few others). We were half-wondering if there would be names named and maybe an excommunication or two (if not an actual burning at the stake) to maintain the pure unity of our mission. I’m happy to report I’m still here, though I may have been a bit nervous going in as an Anabaptist. It was about some of the classic heresies of the 0-400 A.D. range and their modern manifestations and how the creed (mostly around the trinity) was hammered out. It was impressed upon us how importantly the church took these creeds (and how important it is for us to carefully attend them now).

I didn’t express it in class at the time, but was thinking to myself afterwards that I should be looking for the gospel passage where Jesus, after healing a desperate supplicant, tells them, “Go in peace, your faith has saved you … or will save you once you are able to believe and recite the precise creedal wording concerning exactly who I am.” There are four gospels recording Jesus teaching us very essential things, so it must be in there somewhere. I’ve come up dry so far, but I’m sure others here will be able to help me out.

But hey! Perspicuity in general can’t be a bad thing, can it? Far be it from me to argue that such things shouldn’t be (or weren’t) hashed out at great cost and for substantial profit. (As an educator I really do believe in clarity, but I also add this so that nobody starts moseying my way with pitch forks and torches. --can you tell I’m influenced by Heretic Enns in all this? :fire: )

The Bible teacher who gave the lesson also concluded the session by showing us this humorous video that actually incorporated a lot of what we’d just discussed!

(Christy Hemphill) #11

Right, it doesn’t have a concrete existence.

We need abstractions and metaphors to think about complex things. The problem is that when a metaphor becomes so ingrained in our consciousness, sometimes we forget it is a metaphor and start treating it like it’s a concrete reality. That is what has happened with our metaphors for language and communication and meaning. We need to remind ourselves sometimes that the abstractions, while they are useful and necessary, are not one and the same with the concrete realities.

(Mervin Bitikofer) #12

And before I’m justly accused of derailing yet another thread, I must thank Jim for drawing my attention to this movie. I kind of selfishly hope it won’t be a huge splash if that means it gets released into video sooner so I can see it then. We are a a geeky family who would enjoy seeing a sci-fi show that finally is a tad more realistic on how complicated real interpretation would have to be – especially with beings who have never even lived on your planet!

(Jay Johnson) #13

I’m very much with Wittgenstein on this.
A ‘picture’ held us captive. And we could not get outside it, for it lay in our language and language seemed to repeat it to us inexorably.

(James Stump) #14

I’ve been reading another German philosopher recently, Ernst Cassirer, on the role that symbols play for us today. He said,

No longer in a merely physical universe, man lives in a symbolic universe. . . No longer can man confront reality immediately; he cannot see it, as it were, face to face. Physical reality seems to recede in proportion as man’s symbolic activity advances. Instead of dealing with the things themselves man is in a sense constantly conversing with himself. He has so enveloped himself in linguistic forms, in artistic images, in mythical symbols or religious rites that he cannot see or know anything except by the interposition of this artificial medium. (An Essay on Man, p. 25)

(Phil) #15

Thanks for bringing the movie to our attention
We saw it this afternoon and really enjoyed it, though had to read a bit to understand what I just saw.
It does make you respect those who translate ancient texts, and the scholars that study them.

(Mark W. Ingalls) #16

“God speaks to us through his word regardless of our educational level and background. But that claim must be balanced with this: we must find people we trust who have formally studied…” – Jim Stump

So, slightly out of context, but - Really?

Once upon a time I happened to join a Bible study led by one such person. The NIV was de rigueur because it was easier for the leader to parse for us un-edumacated.

I devilishly read from The Message at my turn. :wink: Whoa!

I wasn’t kicked out or made to stand in the corner. Instead, we received the (expected) declination of questionable Biblical translations. As the leader turned his gaze upon me, I shrugged and said, “Gee, Pastor, I like to think God’s Truth transcends human error. Don’t you?”

Arrival sure does sound like a cool movie, just like the one with the Blue People a few years ago. But the coolest thing is that God knows our inward thoughts, enabling us to pray to Him “in an unknown tongue.” No translation pitfalls there, eh?

(Phil) #17

Spoiler Alert!!!

Thinking about the movie leads to musing about how God may well see time in a non-linear fashion much as the movie is structured. I suppose it has some bearing in whether you are Calvinistist or Armianistic, or an open theist as to how that works. To have foreknowledge of our rebellion and to go ahead with creation anyway speaks to his love.

(George Brooks) #18

Interesting that the aliens would be called Heptapods…

(Phil) #19

Spoiler alert.
I was just thinking about the cephaloheptapods this morning, wondering what biological system could lead to a an organism without symmetry, one with 7 legs. Guess I identify with Morris’s book Life’s Solution in which he concludes that alien life forms would look a lot like us, simply because of limited options that work biologically, and which we see with convergent evolution.
The movie really touched me in bringing out the issue of whether you would have kids, knowing their eventual pain. And yet, ultimately the movie seems to answer that indeed it is better to have loved and lost, than never to have loved at all, at least for the main character.

(George Brooks) #20

I think there is a biological logic for 7 like there is jurisprudence logic for a Supreme Court with 9 judges.

If the early form of life had a 7th sensory arm … it would be the physiological equivalent to a “pointer”.