The Nature of Knowledge

Monday, 1 December, 2014

Dear Reader,

I want to write daily, yet, as you know, I must divide my time carefully. I long to be able to apply this craft I am developing, so that I may spend my working hours practicing my craft, and, thence, have a greater choice in how my time is spent.

I have been, as outlined in my previous letter, diligently memorizing the vocabulary list provided by the Washington Department of Social and Health Services. I still have not mastered this list, as it is quite extensive. I have, since beginning this task, had to confront many problems in the translation of English words into Mandarin. Take, for example, the word “period.” The general sense of “period” is a duration of time. However, “period” also is used specifically, as a noun, referring to a phase in a woman’s menstrual cycle. It is easy to see how these words are related, yet still they are essentially two distinct words, though they are read the same. Speaking in Mandarin Chinese they are more distinct, 周期 zhōuqī and 经期 jīngqī, and, as an interpreter, I must be able to make that distinction. More difficulties arise with very vague terms, such as “wound.” The word “wound” could mean “to wound,” “to be wounded,” “a sore or cut,” “the place where a injury has an opening or break in the skin,” and so on. The wound could be a festering wound, or it could be a puncture wound. In all of these cases the Mandarin equivalent is one or two syllables, and constitutes a single word. This means, for the English word “wound,” I have had to make several unique Mandarin entries on my list. Examples of this are endless: “contraction,” “cramp,” “collapse (due to what?),” “bruise,” “meditation,” “medication,” “drug,” etc.

Many of the English terms are particularly difficult to remember, due to my lack of etymological foreknowledge. One word which I’ve had difficulty with is “anthracosis.” The Mandarin equivalent indicates some relation to coal and the lungs. It turns out “anthrak-” comes from Greek, for “coal.” This knowledge makes remembering, or rather re-knowing – that is, recalling a known word – much easier. Another type of difficulty involves words with similar sounding roots: such as “-is” at the end of “sclerosis” and “-is” as part of the suffix “-itis.” These two instances of “-is” actually have no relation. “sclerosis” is Greek for “to harden,” and “-itis” “inflammation.” By the way, have you ever considered that “flammable” and “inflammable” mean the same thing?

The English words “bladder” and “cyst,” as another example of confusion, mean essentially the same thing: a fluid filled sack. These two words are also pronounced differently in Mandarin, with the exception of “gall bladder,” which, in Mandarin sounds more like “gall cyst.” One particularly interesting case is the set of English disorders relating to speech: Dysphasia, Dysphemia, Dyslalia. The meaning of all of these is “difficulty speaking,” yet, they all designate difficulties brought on by distinct causes. Upon first inspection I found the Mandarin equivalents for all of these to be the same.

The trouble seems often to be that I have not sufficiently studied the classical languages of Ancient Greek and Latin. I have, on the other hand, studied a little Classical Chinese, but in the case of Chinese medical vocabulary the pronunciation of the derivatives of a technical words, unlike in English, are the same as those of a common word. “Sclerosis,” “to harden” is, in Mandarin, 硬化 yìnghuà, “hardness-change”. The Mandarin for “hardness” is 硬度 yìngdù “hardness-degree-of;” and “change” is 变化 biànhuà “change-change.” It can be seen that the “yìng” and the “huà” in the pronunciation of these words remain the same in the regular speech as they are in technical jargon. Because of this, medical vocabulary in Chinese is much more intuitive. I find myself learning the meaning of the English terms by looking up the Chinese ones.

These difficulties have severely hampered my progress, but they also have increased my interest and entertainment, and developed a more informed method of recalling all of the terms I am trying to memorize. This case is an important reminder of that lesson attributed to Socrates, that the more knowledge we obtain the more aware we are of our ignorance. Knowledge is, by it’s nature, humbling.

I hope these details have not bored you. I imagine, to many people, such linguistic ramblings probably induce the same response I should feel when listening to someone rambling on and on about football, which, unfortunately for myself, I am regularly subjected to. Do you understand? There are many more developments on my journey which I ought to relate, but for now I shall give you leave, so that I do not hamper you in your own duties.

You may find me here again.

Your Humble Obedient Servant,

The Solitary Interpreter


Previous Letters:

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About m_syme

A lost mind and a rogue scholar.
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