On learning German: translation challenges

Some time ago in the underground I overheard a conversation between a girl with socks decorated with avocados and a guy with a postage-stamp tattoo. The girl mentioned her German course and he got the idea to improvise a translation quiz. It went approximately like this:

Guy (opening the girl’s notebook with the list of words she learned so far): So, how would you translate “silent”?

Girl: I think it’s “still”.

Guy: No, not in that sense – not in the sense of “mute”, either – no, maybe “quiet” would be a better word…

They took at least two underground stops to agree on which meaning of “silent” should be translated to German. I had to get out at my stop and I still don’t know if they succeeded 🙂

I am often in similar situations when I have a word in English or Italian in mind, and need to find its German equivalent. Unlike the other languages I know, there is rarely a 1:1 match, and the search for the appropriate translation becomes a quest full of surprises: how many translations are there for Blatt? See this post from Your Daily German! And how many for Anhänger? Check Wiktionary, and find out that it can mean either “trailer”, or “party member”, “fan”, and even “pendant”… And what about Gewalt? It is translated with either “power” or “violence” – I found it dangerously ambiguous at first, but then realised that “Gewalt” then automatically includes the possibility of misuse, which sounds to me a healthy warning sign.

My journey with German is then at the same time a journey of re-discovery of my known languages. I discover how German chooses words according to the functionality, and that apparently distant concepts look suddenly close, like in a perspective trick. French and Italian have less apparent connections among words, also because Latin and Greek roots are much more common and they don’t show their meaning so clearly as German does. As an example, I laughed a lot when I learned that “isosceles” is translated in German as gleichschenkelig – literally “with the same legs”. An isosceles triangle is “same-legged”! Then I checked what “isosceles” means, and it’s the Greek word for precisely “with the same legs”…

I like travelling in the meaning of words across languages. Sometimes I discover different points of view on a given topic, or the effect of a grammar rule that sometimes forces words to get a nuance they won’t get otherwise (I think mostly of grammatical gender). I think I didn’t get that 3D effect when I learned Italian and French, because they are very close, and I learned English mainly by translating 1:1. German doesn’t allow that so easily, and I am glad to be required to change my mindset and expand my views.

M. C. Escher: Magic Mirror (source: Wikiart)




Winter School of Ethics and Neuroscience – day 2: introduction to ethics

The second day of the winter school was split in two tracks, one focused on philosophical matters, the other on practical applications. I chose to attend the philosophical track, where we talked at first about definitions of ethics, morality, judgment, and so on.

The discussion was not easy, especially for me as a newbie of the field (except for some memories of high school’s philosophy class). In these discussions, words are sharp weapons – I felt that every sentence needed to be composed with care, in order to minimise misunderstanding or ambiguity (the fact that we discussed in English and that it was not the most fluent language for most participants did not help). This reminded me of Quantum Psychology and its aim of making English less dangerous when talking about ethical principles and everyday facts.


Trolley problem


We talked about standard ethics exercises (trolley problems), but the reasoning got quickly overridden by emotions. It is not surprising, as the trolley problem is a way of putting a lot of pressure to make the “right” decision about other people’s lives. I personally could not really get into the mindset of that experiment, because lots of variables were missing or were unrealistic (the people on the tracks were all equal and unknown to me, the trolley could not be stopped in any way, I was the only one able to do something, etc…). That left space to a lot of “moral noise” and to amusingly absurd ideas.

Source: knowyourmeme.com

During the session, I thought that it is theoretically possible to separate ethics from emotions, but ethics would become inhumane. I moreover thought that the effectiveness of emotion-aware ethics lies in the ability to emotionally connect with the involved parties in a given situation. Of course a more detailed knowledge of every possible influence of an action would make its outcome mathematically more positive, but it would take longer to compute and it would be dependent of an objective evaluation of everything, that is often impossible.

Nevertheless, I understand the questions raised by philosophers about the nature, origins and utility of ethics. It enables people to understand what is going on within them instead of acting solely on emotional bursts. I still value emotional input as much as reasoning, because I consider that emotions have been fundamental for the survival of our species (and maybe others too, but it’s hard to prove without doubt or bias), by shaping our decisions in conflictual situations. What I see is that modern humans are challenged on problems that are so huge and complex that our emotions, that helped us solve local, small group problems, are sometimes inaccurate or problematic. So I think that studying ethics and morality in theory is a way of better understanding our decision-making processes, and help us make more informed decisions.

More about this in next post! Stay tuned 🙂