North-South Bridge of General Semantics: The Cross-Cultural Approach in an
International and a National Environment
THE NORTH-AN INTERNATIONAL SETTING
Fifty years ago, on the West
Coast of the United States, a group of men helped make an old dream come
true: the acknowledgment of human differences, the quest for unity, the
search for peace. The United Nations was born.
A decade later in Argentina, my childhood was permeated by those ideals. It
often happens in the South that people feel dis-connected: Confusion and
lack of hope come hand in hand with nondevelopment. It is often difficult to
look inside; normally we look around and get stimulus from our close
environment; in some cases, we tend to look back, or away. In my case, I
looked North. And it was important for me to know, while growing up, that
there were people far away thinking of us and of others far away in time.
Up North some men believed that getting together and talking things over was
a means to evolve. That inspired me with admiration and respect. That filled
me with enthusiasm. I wanted to see those men in action and learn from them.
I believed in their work and I wanted, if possible, to contribute with my
very modest talents, to their aims. I became an interpreter and eventually
left for France.
As a Paris-based conference interpreter, I had the privilege of being an
active witness to hundreds of seminars, conferences and congresses that
brought together some of the most brilliant men and women of our time. I
learned a lot.
I kept my eyes and my ears wide open. I wanted to improve myself, to
understand how people functioned and how language was, sometimes, at work. I
was often fascinated by the wonderful meticulous descriptions of certain
processes, by the flexibility and the negotiating ability of certain
speakers, the originality of certain outlooks and the magic blends of ideas,
emotions and sensations some speaker were able to produce. I was moved by
the truthfulness of certain attitudes.
At other times, though, the effects of some of those meetings appalled me:
so much ado and such meager results. What I heard and had to interpret had
little to do with what I perceived "out there" in the real world. Instead of
listening to one another, some speakers seemed absorbed only in themselves,
caught up in red tape intricacies and fields of power-in politics, in
science, business or education.
When I speak of interpreters today, I feel the same kind of awe some
delegates expressed about them: "Now, how it is humanly possible to
understand and reproduce what somebody else is saying on the spot, at the
same time? What makes "simultaneous interpretation" possible? How it is
feasible to listen and speak at the same time?"
By the mid-1970s a popular formula was used at some of the best-known
interpreting schools in western Europe: "Interpreters do not interpret what
speakers say but what speakers mean." That was a good shift: from words to
meaning, which includes man by definition. Translation as automatics word
equivalence had been, quite rightly, left aside.
If the formula proved to be a good teaching device because it made students
lose fear of words and concentrate on the speakers to see why he said what
he said, something about it disturbed me. How could we know what somebody
else meant? On what grounds? On the basis of what parameters? We could make
hypothesis about it, or assumptions. But we could not scientifically pretend
we knew. Two examples were enough to prove the formula wrong in my
dissertation. The conclusion seemed obvious: Interpreters interpret what
they think speakers mean.
That slight change produced a turmoil: Did I dare to say that the whole
international exchange and interaction was based and depended on people's
perception? Did I realize that such a serious and long-standing
international system with its conventions, agreements, and treaties could
not depend on the fragility of somebody's perceptive apparatus? Interpreters
knew whatever there was on the speaker's mind because they were clever,
cultivated, and well read enough. How would they be engaged, and paid for it,
This slight modification caused me a lot of inconvenience. Members of the
small but prestigious French interpreting academic circle seemed to have got
along with the formula and whatever it entailed. There was, of course, one
more step to go: it was not the interpreter's fragility that was laid bare
but the whole human race's; the difference in the approach did not point to
the interpreter's limitations but to the limitations -and potential- of u
all as human beings.
I did not know then that Alfred Korzybski had built a theory on the
foundations of that idea.
I did not know then that, forty years before, somebody had developed a
theory based on the idea -simple but not easy to accept- that "what we say
about the world is not the world." Learning that it was not only a theory
but that there were followers, exercises, and tools was a turning point in
I decided to plunge into it and apply it back home. I could hardly find a
better example of "time-binding" in action. Our capacity to communicate
through space-time has often moved me. In this special case, it has set me
Before leaving the international setting for more domestic matters, I would
like to make some final comments and a suggestion.
Never before has the international arena been so active as it is now. One of
the features that has characterized the post-World War period has been the
enormous multiplication of exchanges of all sorts: Never before has man
traveled so often and so far, never before have contacts been so numerous
and so varied, linguistic barriers so unthreatening, or distances so short.
Those conferences and those travels have, for the most part, brought people
together. We have grown more understanding and more respectful of other
people's values and beliefs.
And even if I think that in some of tjose conferences communication has
often been replaces by bla-bla, I have come to think over the years that
something valuable happens at those crossroads of cultures, something that
goes beyond the will of organizers and participants themselves. The mere
presence and interaction of peoples of all sorts produces a special human
blend. A special atmosphere. In the every day mix with Africans and Chinese,
Americans and Moslims something happened to me. Saying "hello" to people
dressed in very "funny" fashion, or listening the most incredible English
accents over coffe produced something in me I was not fully aware of.
Something happens deep down which makes us more tolerant. Our "organisms-as-a-whole"
are caught up in the experience, no matter what our intellect rejects.
Fifty years had to go by since the inception of the United Nations for the
organization to declare 1995 the Year for Tolerance. That is why, perhaps,
the time is getting just ripe for the idea I would like to share with you
now: Why could we not avail ourselves of as many as possible of those 4,000
international meetings held every year to propose just one intervention: a
talk, a lecture, a workshop on how to use an international event to the best
possible advantage to foster human understanding and human development? Why
not start with a simple brochure reminding participants how lucky they are
to be able to mix with other people from other cultures, reminding them of
the difficulty of communicating even in one's own language, asking them to
speak at a slow pace so that our "organisms-as-a-whole" may get the message?
"I'm so happy it's you who is right," said Jorge Luis Borges at an interview
once, "that gives me the chance of learning something new." Being in contact
with other cultures gives us the opportunity to learn something new, to look
at things, literally, from a different perspective.
The initiative could become eventually a concrete contribution for tolerance
and peace. We might call the initiative a North-South bridge of general
THE SOUTH-A DOMESTIC AFFAIR
Argentina today seems to me a good example of what may happen to any society
if evaluation errors and confusion in the levels of abstraction predominate
and accumulate for a long period of time. What I mean to say is that
Argentina 1995 offers the best picture I can think of, of the results of
non-general semantic attitudes in force and in crescendo for over fifty
Three features, to my mind, seem to characterize the country these days: (1)
the insularity of certain groups, (2) the promiscuity of others, and (3) the
nondiscrimination of levels of classification. It is perhaps this "mix" that
turns Argentina into an "a-typical" country for many. I also seem to
perceive, underlying these features, a great need for change, and a strong
but disoriented educational demand.
I cannot avoid mentioning corruption: co-rupture, joint breaking of the law,
dis-ruption, or order.
1. The flatness of the pampas lodges patches of poverty and wealth, of first
world abundance and third- and fourth- world problems, of medieval social
patterns, postmodernism, ingrained negative habits of thought, and some
burgeoning patterns of change, etc. Very often these "pockets" are dis-connected
from one another and they avoid close contact. Because of the ease of travel,
the rich imitate foreign patterns of behavior and import products, ideas,
attitudes and trends of very many different places without taking into
account the relationship between the imported element and all others in the
country of origin.
2. One of typical melodies of Argentina is tango. One of the most famous
tangos, the one called "Cambalache", proved to be an unfortunate self-fulfilling
prophecy and a very good example of anti-general semantics in action, where
"everything is the same, nothing makes any difference, the honest man is on
a level with the thief," as if everybody were tarred with the same brush.
The author of the lyrics, Discepolo, must surely have meant it as a
criticism of twentieth-century confusion: "the Bible next to the boiler"… "a
monkey is the same thing a great professor"… "It's all the same… there's
nothing better… in this treacherous twentieth century…" Tango singer after
tango singer sang it, acting it out at the beginning to express criticism
and contempt at such a state of affairs. Little by little singers and public
ended up believing it was a good "map" of the century's "territory", thus
entailing further disruption and eventually making the territory fit the map.
3. Patterns to classify and give priorities to functions, subjects and roles
seem to have got lost somewhere along the way. Three reasons, among others,
may explain the situation: inflation, the rigid thought patterns of the
military and the "no rules rule" of the urban guerrilla.
Inflation -a fictitious and exaggerated increase in values- was not only
economic. There was also inflation and dis-ruption of moral values at the
time of the military. The simultaneity and succession in the application of
different and contradictory mental patterns from the government ended up by
shattering codes, values and beliefs.
Representatives of the different "patches", importers of various trends,
heirs of ideological leftovers take up the podium and the microphone today.
Through the media, the administration, teaching, they bombard us with words,
judgments, opinions, inferences, theories, and so on. We are being attacked
from all quarters. Most people feel hopeless in front of such an attack.
They do not know whom to believe or what to do.
I believe that before adding one more idea, we should stop "to put the house
in order." The question here is not what to learn next but how to organize
what we already know.
We could compare our mind to a huge reservoir that we ourselves shape
depending on the selection and combination of elements we make. In certain
cases, we might liken it to a garbage can where element get in with no
filtering or ordering. Thus we can find bananas with shoes, ideas with
manure, a jewel, paper, wheat, etc.
General semantics enables me to develop some "mental organizers." These
"mental organizers" when systematically understood and applied, help clean
the dustbin, dispel confusion and get people ready for a new start. I hope
they will also help bridge the gap among our different nervous systems.
When I left the South for the North, I had an aim which I attained. From
Paris, on my way South, I first came West to learn and take some general
semantics tools from the source. I have a greater and wider dream now: the
acknowledgment of human differences, the quest for unity, the search for
sanity and peace -within myself, with family and friends, and with people I
know and I love.
Now that I have come to the end of this presentation, I realize that the
bridge should not only be North-South, but also South-South, North-North,
North-East, West-South, etc., and cover as many intermediate intersections
as possible in the space-time dimension.