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Le Ton beau de Marot - Douglas R. Hofstadter [Jul. 22nd, 2012|01:40 pm]


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Title: Le Ton beau de Marot - In Praise of the Music of Language
Author: Douglas R. Hofstadter
Genre: Poetry, Language, Translations, Science
Publisher: Basic Books, 1997
Pages: Paperback, ~700 (including poetry)
Language: English
Rating: 8/10
Summary: Hofstadter analyses the art of translation and shows there is more to it than simply transcribing words. Is it possible to truely express the same sentiment in another language? Will a computer ever be able to convert text as a human would?

[Review + Cover image]

I've been a fan of Douglas R. Hofstadter ever since I read Gödel Escher Bach and you may remember my emotional review of Metamagical Themes.
Even so, I must admit I was a little apprehensive about Le Ton beau de Marot, seeing as Hofstadter starts off with dissecting poetry and I'm not a fan of that. But he uses the poem as an example through out the book, to explain that understanding the meaning behind the words is one of the keys to a succesful translation.

He makes different versions of a French poem by Clément Marot. He begins with a literal word for word transcription in English and ends with several attempts to capture the spirit of it in other languages. He also lets other people translate this poem to show different interpretations cause different versions that nevertheless all can be qualified as a truthful translation.

As Hofstadter's extensive research and discussions show there is more to translating than transscribing one language into an other, so he argues it is nearly impossible for a computer, a machine without conscious thought, to add an interpretation to the translation and to appreciate the beauty and complexity of language.

What I like about Hofstadter's books is that he often takes a detour into other sciences to compare and check theories. He also uses anekdotes to clarify and sometimes seems to go completely off track with a story before making a point. This book was even more personal because it's dedicated to his wife, who died while he was writing the book.

By writing the book as he did, Hofstadter proves his point about computers even better than by simply (de)constructing the poem in different languages. The connections he makes between different cultures, points of view, or personal baggage that may influence the interpretation of text, seem impossible to imitate by a machine.

Despite the poetry-angle this was probably a subject I could relate to best out of all of his books. As I am writing this review my brain is constantly switching between my own language and English. I started with translating part of a Dutch e-mail I sent to a friend about this book and even that was not easy. Even though I have years of experience and sometimes even think in English, it still takes me a long time before I'm satisfied a post expresses my feelings as it would were it written in Dutch.

I'm fascinated by the way computers translate and learn, but surprisingly not much progress has been made in that area since Hofstadter published his book more than 15 years ago! Just check Google translate and you'll find it still struggles with all the subtle differences between languages.

Definitely read this book if you're bi- or multilingual and give it a try if you ever wondered about people who speak another language than you.

Please feel free to correct me on any word of phrasing. I love to learn:)