Friday, 19 December 2008

Chinese Whispers

I remember being completely thrown by the discovery that all the cells in a human body are replaced on a five-year cycle. In other words that, although you are clearly still you, you may not be who (or what) you thought you were. Although this may not be strictly true (I think the latest view is that the average age of the body's cells is about 15 years, and they don't all get replaced in the same "wear cycle") it still means that we are all walking examples of the "Grandfather's Axe" paradox.

You know the one: is this still my grandfather's axe, despite the fact that my father replaced the handle and I replaced the head? It's also known as "The Ship of Theseus" or "Locke's Socks" paradox (look 'em up, the Wikipedia article also gives a nice example from Douglas Adams).*

I suppose a fossil is the ultimate example of the metamorphosis of something into another thing "identical but completely different", in which every molecule of a creature has undergone a sea-change into something rich and strange, and yet is still recognisably itself.

Souvenirs of Easter at Llandrindod Wells

If you are also intrigued by this sort of thing, a good game for an idle moment is to use the Google translator to translate poetry. It's like linguistic photocopying, or the game we used to call Chinese Whispers, each copy slightly more corrupt (or different, I should say) than the last. Here is a famous poem by Goethe, passed back and forth between languages a few times:


Über allen Gipfeln
Ist Ruh,
In allen Wipfeln
Spürest du
Kaum einen Hauch;
Die Vögelein schweigen im Walde.
Warte nur, balde
Ruhest du auch

First English translation:

Over all summits
Is Ruh,
In all Wipfeln
You feel
Hardly a hint;
The Vögelein silent in the forest.
Just waiting, and soon
You also Ruhest

English to French:

Au cours de tous les sommets
Dans tous les Wipfeln
Vous vous sentez
À peine un soupçon;
Vögelein Le silence de la forêt.
Tout d'attente, et bientôt
Vous avez également Ruhest

French to German:

Während alle Gipfel
Ist Ruh,
In allen Wipfeln
Du fühlst
Kaum einen Hauch;
Die Vögelein schweigen im Wald.
Zum einen wartet, und bald
Sie haben auch Ruhest

German to English:

While all summit
Is Ruh,
In all Wipfeln
You feel
Hardly a hint;
The Vögelein silent in the woods.
For one wait, and soon
They have also Ruhest

Just like the replacement of cells in the human body, you can see a sort of ageing process at work. Or maybe it's an evolution?

Once, long long ago in a galaxy far away, I was interested in the way the "cultural transmission" of literature can be seen as a form of Chinese Whispers passing from generation to generation. Just like the languages we speak, all cultural artefacts undergo small but real changes as they are passed on, until one day they both are and aren't "my grandfather's axe." As Alexander Pope put it: "As Chaucer is, so shall Dryden be" (and not a moment too soon).

Memories of Lascaux

* Oddly, the "socks" paradox is virally present all over the Web and is always attributed to Locke, but I can't find any reference to socks or stockings or darning or patches anywhere in Locke's actual writings. In fact, I suspect it may originally have been a satire aimed at Locke and his Whiggish understanding of the Self as a construct, but is such a memorable illustration of Locke's point that its ownership and satirical intention have gone into reverse.

No comments: