Sunday, May 08, 2011

Orwell: Two minus, one plus

I'm now most of the way through the four volume Essays, Journalism & Letters, which I've been rereading and enjoying. Several points struck me, and since Orwell is unfortunately not around to argue with I thought I would put them on my blog instead:
"One argument for Basic English is that by existing side by side with Standard English it can act as a sort of corrective to the oratory of statesmen and publicists. High-sounding phrases, when translated into Basic, are often deflated in a surprising way. For example, I presented to a Basic expert the sentence, "He little knew the fate that lay in store for him"—to be told that in Basic this would become "He was far from certain what was going to happen". It sounds decidedly less impressive, but it means the same."(Volume III, 63, "As I Please," Tribune, 18 August 1944)
The denotation of the two sentences may be about the same, but the connotation is quite different. The first clearly implies that something important and surprising is going to happen to the character, the second carries no such implication. An extraordinary mistake for Orwell, who was not only a writer but a novelist, to make.
The book was suppressed ... . But in the process an important step forward was made. It was ruled that you may now print the first and last letters of the word with two asterisks in between, clearly indicating that it had four letters. This makes it reasonably sure that within a few years the word will be printable in full.

So does progress continue—and it is genuine progress, in my opinion, for if only our half-dozen "bad" words could be got off the lavatory wall and on to the printed page, they would soon lose their magical quality, and the habit of swearing, degrading to our thoughts and weakening to our language, might become less common.(Volume IV, 65, Tribune, "As I Please," 6 December 1946)
A plausible conjecture, but unfortunately a mistaken one. "F**k" can now be printed in full, and is. And its present participle is routinely used in conversation as the modern equivalent of "um," or perhaps a comma. I had a recent online conversation (in World of Warcraft) with someone who was surprised that I had any  objection to the practice.

On the other hand, in "As I Please" for 27 December 1946, Orwell cites Shaw as arguing that people today are more credulous than in the Middle Ages, with the example of the belief that the earth is round. Orwell goes on to discuss in some detail his own reasons for believing that the earth is round, and concludes that while he has good reason to think it is not flat, his belief that it is not, say, egg shaped comes down to belief in the authority of experts which he is not in a position to confirm at first hand.

It is very much the same point that I have made in the past here about evolution—that most who accept it, like most who deny it, are doing so out of their belief in the authorities they respect, not because they know what the arguments and evidence are.

Readers who follow the links will find that they go to pieces which cover a variety of subjects in addition to the ones I am discussing—and are all worth reading. It occurs to me that perhaps, when I set up this blog, I should have borrowed the title Orwell used for his columns.


Jonathan said...

On the basis of your quote about Basic English, I would guess that Orwell had no experience of translation. Otherwise he should have realized that translating text into Basic English is no different from translating it into any other language: there are many possible translations of any piece of text, and some retain the meaning of the original better than others.

Nicholas D. Rosen said...

Orwell did have experience of translation. As a schoolboy, he been made to translate classic literature from the Latin and Greek. He was fluent in French (his mother's native language), and once advertised an offer to translate anything written in French after some date (I think it was 1300 or 1400 AD). Also, he had taken the trouble to learn more Burmese than most British officials in Burma. I dont speak basic English, but it seems that one could turn, "far from certain what would happen" to "far from certain what would happen to him." That preserves at least some of the implication that something was about to happen *to* *him*.

Jonathan said...

OK then, he inexplicably failed to learn from his experience of translation.

Josiah Neeley said...

Orwell's comments on Basic English are interesting in light of his implicit criticism of the concept in 1984. Apparently he changed his mind somewhere along the way.

Terry Morris said...

Orwell, according to me and many is the best chronicler of English culture of the 20th century.I have read many of his works and he is probably with extraordinary translation capabilities and a man of many creative words.

Anonymous said...

"It is very much the same point that I have made in the past here about evolution—that most who accept it, like most who deny it, are doing so out of their belief in the authorities they respect, not because they know what the arguments and evidence are."

I don't like this characterization of the debate.

First of all, no one, not even the experts, look at all the raw data. A single biologist, when he is opining on evolution, is relying on research conducted by other biologists, and he is trusting that the research was done correctly. This is true not only in every scientific field but in every walk of life.

Secondly, you don't need to look at the raw data to come to rational conclusions about the truth claims of certain theories. You made this point yourself in your essay, The Advantage of Capitalist Trucks, in which you note that knowing whether a truck was made in a market economy versus a command economy tells you something about the truck's quality. Similarly, knowing that proponents of evolution have their research scrutinized by their peers, and that evolution deniers do not, tells you something about the truth value of their respective claims.

Bo Zimmerman said...

Hmm.. andy, evolution deniers DO have their work reviewed favorably by their peers. They are just different peers than the evolution supporters. As the original author said, it comes down to faith in authority figures. I make the point sometimes in conversation by asking the seemingly rediculous question: "Do you believe in China?" Obviously, this doesn't work on people who have been there, but most people haven't.