HOPE AND MEANING
HIDDEN SIDE OF BABEL
Unveiling Cognition, Intelligence and Sense
By Laura Bertone
and languages will be at the heart of this talk just as they have been
at the heart of my life. As an English and French student back in my
early days in my hometown Buenos Aires, as a Paris-based professional
conference interpreter for over 20 years, as a researcher, a GS scholar
and a consultant, the study of language and languages from different
angles and perspectives has been the unifying thread of interest
throughout my life.
of this seminar and the general framework inspiring this presentation:
Across the Generations: Legacies of Hope and Meaning (starting
September 11th) made me reflect on what – if anything – I
could leave as a legacy if given the possibility to do so.
thought then that if there is one feature that distinguishes man from
all other creatures on earth it is his quest for sense. It is
man’s eternal search for meaning, trying to discover it and to attribute
it. Language,abstracting, associating, thinking, imagining, reasoning,
planning, understanding…all contibute to make that possible.
myths, since they express, in a condensed manner, a symbolical teaching.
Let us take, for example, the myth of Babel, which has accompanied us
through a number of centuries, underlying even at the start of the Old
Testament the importance of language and attitude. According to Genesis,
the Babylonians wanted to make a name for themselves by building a
mighty city and a tower with “its top in the heavens”. God disrupted the
work by so confusing the language of the workers that they could no
longer understand one another. According to the myth, this is the origin
of the diversity of languages which brought about confusion and
misunderstandings. Translation became mandatory after Babel and after
man’s nonsensical attempt to reach the heavens from the outside.
Translators eventually improved their skills and little by little
managed to dispel linguistic barriers. Yet, we still feel sometimes
confused today. Confusion, though, seems no longer to stem from the
variety of languages involved; it is language itself which seems to
constitute the trap, not languages. The problem is no longer to
find bridges between one language and the next; the problem is to find a
common ground for understanding no matter what the language. The
problem is the upheaval, the reversal of the orders of abstraction
within any language. Orders of abstraction overturned,
hierarchies flattened, bridges collapsed, maps and territories
disconnected, false-to fact statements presented as true-to-fact,
systematic symbol destruction, loss of common referents, motives
misinterpreted. Translators and interpreters bridged the first barrier.
What do we need now to overcome our present dismantling comprehension
power? How to overcome our difficulties to understand, comprehend,
consider things from other perspectives, enlarge our views, abstract,
synthesize, set priorities and hierarchies? Who can help us? How can
we help ourselves? How could we contribute to help others?
stated our challenges and shared my personal unifying thread, I will now
enunciate and then develop five aspects that will hopefully enable me to
conclude with a final word of hope for those who will eventually come
along. Let us consider these five different aspects: 1) translation and
interpetation – my own research; 2) general semantics comes into the
picture; 3) my place of origin: a world of non GS; 4) parallels with
other disciplines; 5) re-elaboration and synthesis, the spiral of
knowledge and neuroplasticity. I will conclude with some thoughts on
individual and social human engineering.
TRANSLATION AND INTERPRETATION - MY OWN RESEARCH.
clarifiy some notions from the start: the difference between
translation and interpretation is that the first one is written, the
latter, oral. There are basically two types of interpretation:
consecutive and simultaneous. From ancient times till about 1945,
interpretation was always consecutive, i.e. the speaker spoke for 5, 10
or 30 minutes and then paused for the interpreter to transmit what he
had said. At the end of the 2nd World War, at the Nurenberg
trials, some technological advances made possible the use of
microphones, ear-phones and booths: simultaneous interpretation was
born. The new system was immediately adopted by the then recentlycreated
United Nations family. Most readers surely have been exposed to
simultaneous interpretation at one time or other.
working as a conference interpreter in Paris, I started wondering about
many aspects of simultaneous interpretation itself and finally decided
to embark on formal research work on it. I need to delve into that now
in order to make my point and lead readers into the comparison between
some of its results – almost insignificant at a certain individual
linguistic level – and some gs orientations useful at other more
significant individual and social levels.
our sense of proportions right, we should bear in mind the fact that
the instances chosen represent only a few seconds out of a one hour
speech or a three hour debate.
me first explain my working method:
recorded hours of presentations and debates. Thanks to a two-track
recorder that allowed me to record simultaneously the speaker’s speech
and the interpreter’s version, I was able to listen, transcribe and
compare fragments of two diffferent speeches, one being the simultaneous
interpretation of the other. I listened to both versions for hours and
decided to stop at certain places and analyse those instances.
the criteria for selecting the examples? At first, I acted intuitively,
selecting the cases which I found “interesting.” After analysing some of
them I realized that I had always stopped at those moments when the
interpreter seemed to say less or more than the speaker, or when she
seemed to be saying something different. I then decided to apply
this criterion systematically. The study of the gap – or
difference – between the two versions became my working method. In other
words, I had been looking for similarities and differences
without really being aware of it. This, which may ring a bell to general
semanticists, represents a first coincidence between the approach I
spontaneously took in my research and what I would eventually learn as
part of the orientations in GS.
ask the readers to bear with me in these examples.
excerpts were taken from a presentation during a conference held at the
Unisys Center in Saint Paul de Vence back in 1978. The Sperrylink system
and the electronic office were being presented for the first time.
speaker has just described some features of the electronic office such
as electronic mail, and other communication devices, which seemed at the
time to come from another galaxy. He then mentions “time sharing,” a
concept well known in the data processing field in those days. Something
in the structure of his sentence seems illogical: “I don’t want to
skip time sharing… everybody knows what that is…” The interpreter
realizes that two semantically feasible sentences have criss-crossed
each other half way through: “I don’t want to skip time sharing;
nobody knows what that is” and “I’ll skip time sharing. Everybody knows
what that is.” And then she “corrects” the speaker. We know her
interpretation was right since the speaker did not eventually mention
much more to say about this example (for example, that after having
corrected the speaker, the interpreter loses specificity and replaces
“time sharing” by “programs”) but let us only focus here on the
intangible hypothesizing and reasoning made by the interpreter about the
becomes apparent to me now that what I was trying to seize, understand
and describe while doing research were the intangible processes that
enable a simultaneous interpreter to meaningfully anticipate in real
time somebody else’s flow of thought and make sense of his words,
acts and motivation. Making sense is literally the subject
matter of this symposium. What is our meaningful legacy for future
generations, what is the meaning of life for people ready to kill? Can
making sense at a minimal gramatical, syntactical and semantic
level have anything to do with making sense at other more significant
and higher levels in life? I contend they can: at macro and micro
levels, the mechanisms involved in making sense are similar. To put it
bluntly, the process is basically one and “the same.”
dealing here with the “Meeting for the International Standardization of
Statistics” at UNESCO in Paris in 1978. Delegates from different
countries are discussing amendments, and a member of the Canadian
delegation, comparing the draft of the original article with a new
version, detects the omission of three elements and wants to know why.
comparison of the two versions allowed me in this case to reveal the
functioning of two axes in discourse.
As readers can easily perceive after a quick look at these columns,
there are white blanks in the interpreter’s version. The delegate spoke
very fast and it was not easy to follow him. As I was acting as the
interpreter in this case, I know I had trouble understanding the
delegate’s fast rendering. Only some concealed inferences I made allowed
me to understand and render correctly the speaker’s speech. This
revealed in turn the use of two axes which are permanently at work while
interpreting. One has to do with memory, the other with
perception. Recalling Saussure’s defintions, I also called them the
axis of successivities and the axis of simultaneities.
These two axes are handled by interpeters – or by any human being – in
what we might call “individual or personal human engineering,” helping
them to integrate data from their own memory – from inside – and through
their senses – from outside. These two axes help us then to construct
our “reality” of the “here-and-now.”
we go up the scale and take a broader view, we could assimilate these
two axes at work at minute levels to those two fundamental larger
movements Korzybski named “space and time binding.” We can assimilate
the memory axis to time-binding, except that in
time-binding, the emphasis is not on one human being only but on many,
even at times on humanity as a whole. Regarding the perception axis,
from a distance, from an imaginary viewpoint above us, it embraces
space, movement, geography. Going from these two personal axes to
Korzybski’s “space and time binding” implies shifting focus: from the
interpreter to any human group, from the individual to humanity as a
I did my
research without having any idea about GS. It was only later that I came
across it in a seminar in Paris which proved a fascinating cross-road to
me since it enabled me to understand better what I had done during my
researchwork, which was conducted in an essentially multidisciplinarian
way and had been found “unusual” by the normal academic standards of the
does not permit to bring other examples to this article. Some of the
“issues” I “discovered” though, and was forced to highlight during my
research, have much to do with some of the formulations well-known to
example, I identified similarities and differences, processes, variance
and invariance, strategies; ways for making sense of words, acts and
motivation; hypothesizing, checking hypotheses, confirming, cancelling,
reelaborating them again, i.e. “the scientific attitude”; the handling
of two axes (comparable to space and time binding) etc. This whole set
of variables – concepts and their inter-relations – finally end up
forcing us to adopt a wholly new global approach.
I first hear of general semantics? I came across it in Paris, at an old
small bookstore rue de Seine whose intriguing owner suggested an
unexpected seminar for me to take. My research work was finished and a
first book on it had been published by Hachette in Argentina. I was
beginning to shift focus and was somewhat losing interest in academic
linguistic research. Communication was becoming the new name of the game
for me. Out of sheer curiosity, at my third postponed attempt, I finally
took a two-day seminar by Michel Saucet on general semantics. My
reaction was twofold: on the one hand, I felt amazed at some unexpected
coincidences in the approach with my own research, at the overlapping or
confirmation of perspectives; on the other, I felt shocked at some of
the orientations and their consequences in everyday life which forced me
to question some of my own certitudes and involved certain attitudinal
changes on my part. In a tremendous contradiction, one thing and its
opposite seemed to coexist simultaneously: I seemed to be already
applying some GS orientations while using some nonGS mechanisms at the
same time. I would eventually realise that GS was giving me a much
larger margin of self-confidence for my new activities as a
communication consultant. I wore two hats for some time, disconcerting
most interesting experience, though, happened by chance working as a
conference interpreter for a well-known French crisis-management expert,
Patrick Lagadec with whom I ended up working in other fields and writing
a book together on our joint activities in the midst of the tremendous
Argentine economic crisis of 2001-02.
What proved incredibly fascinating in our work together was that his
expertise and his research, applied to the prevention and management of
extremely risky and uncertain situations at the height of political,
social or corporate power – and his challenging of traditional
management methods – proved to have a lot in common with the way in
which some of us tackle interpreting, where uncertainty is, by
definition, a key element in the game. His decision-making strategies
for top political, military and corporate leaders were astoundingly
similar to some of my own while solving linguistic uncertainties in the
small and solitary cubicle of an interpreting booth. Incredible as it
may seem, some of the same people I had worked for as a conference
interpreter, engaged Patrick and myself – no longer as an interpreter
this time but as a co-consultant working side by side with one of the
top European crisis-management experts.
PLACE OF ORIGIN – A WORLD OF NON-GS.
from a geographically distant and a somewhat isolated society. I invite
you to come with me for a short imaginary visit to my place of origin,
Argentina, in the belief that the mere fact of exchanging information
about other cultures can help us to enlarge our viewpoints, and
constitutes, in itself a good exercise in “otherness” – that is, an
exercise in shifting positions and understanding better what looks or
sounds different. I also believe that looking from close-up at a society
which – at a given point in time – has taken wrong turns may help others
to avoid such turns in the future.
settled back in Argentina in the mid 1990’s, I felt shocked at what
appeared to me as too frequent symptoms of the “allness disease”
displayed by most people in power: politicians, officials, managers,
many journalists, etc. As one of the worst crises the country ever faced
came to the surface in 2001, it was interesting to observe that the
authorities’ disease spilled over the people at large who ended
up literally saying “We want them all to leave” (“Que se vayan
todos”), mirroring and spreading even more the bad generalising habit.
The curious thing is that, confronted by the mirror of their own
disease, some of the representatives started to point out the absurdity
of the ALL expression, and the chaos it would create if the wish came
true. What was more, some started to convert the “allness” habit into a
“non allness” attitude, paying much more attention to what they said and
how they said it. It was a perceivable improvement I was happy to
witness. It was not enough though to reverse some other general trends,
such as the frequency of the “either-or” syndrome which is unfortunately
very high among us.
“either-or syndrome” has had a tremendous spill over effect because of
its almost everyday use by most current and some former presidents. This
syndrome of course is not exclusively Argentine. There have been a
number of recent cases coming from northern latitudes also including
former and current presidents. The Cuban government today is preaching
something like: “Save your money or starve to death” as a slogan,
curiously inviting people to restrain themselves from consuming.
President Bush Jr. and President Chavez have both used similar either-or
formulas. It is important to observe that within the either-or frame of
mind, not only do conflicts stay unresolved, but fractures also tend to
duplicate and multiply themselves.
“bi-polar mentality” tends to duplicate itself. Here we see the example
of the subsequent divisions and subdivisions of the Peronist Party. A
quite similar diagram could be applied to the Radical Civic Union, the
other major party in Argentina.
confronted with this realm of non GS, and living in a society where
values seemed to have been overturned, I felt the need to try something,
however insignificant, in the belief that perhaps little things can
eventually produce big changes.
[Note--As visual and aural material is often fun to watch and interact
with, I showed a few examples during my presentation at Fordham. It is
more difficult to include them here. To write about them adequately
would require the space of a whole new article devoted just to that
us just take some illustrations as examples:
the same way as we train our bodies, we can train our minds.
Metaphorically I propose to “brain train” ourselves, moving up and down
our mental grids, speeding up and slowing down certain processes,
tightening and loosing others, etc. ]
efforts were rewarded by the participants’ interest but did not trigger
masses of contracts, I agreed to go back to teaching interpretation at a
Masters’program at the School of Law – University of Buenos Aires.
There, something unexpectedly positive turned up: the multilingual
groups added an enriching cross-cultural experience mostly appreciated
by participants themselves. Instead of working only with pairs of
languages, English-Spanish, French-Spanish, etc., I introduced a
multilingual context. In that multicultural context, the combination of
cognitive, mnemotecnic, and attention exercises of different types, with
presentation and acting techniques and some mental and linguistic
engineering inspired by GS, dynamized future interpreters’ attitudes,
actions and reactions, and proved tremendously useful.
PARALLELISMS WITH OTHER SCIENCES AND DISCIPLINES
the way, as I put in practice as much GS as I could, as an interpreter,
as a consultant, as a researcher, I found many similarities with other
theories. Let us just have a quick look at some of them.
RE-ELABORATION AND SYNTHESIS – THE SPIRAL OF KNOWLEDGE
to think that synthesis is the counterpart of confusion. Whereas
confusion tangles, mixes, dispels, reverts and flattens hierarchies and
priorities, synthesis helps integration and paves the way for order,
hierarchies, priorities and levels. We should not forget, though, to let
go of the remnants, dispose the garbage and clean up our minds.
normally open my classes for future interpreters talking about “the
spiral of knowledge.” I thus refer to that internal movement good
interpreters set up for themselves at the beginning of a conference,
opening a new semantic field which will contain concepts and words and
their equivalent in other languages, a certain terminology, etc. That
new area is, by definition, changing, moving, dynamic. It is the
interpreter’s field of action, of work and research. At the end of the
conference, we try to debrief, record names, erase some misunderstanding
and revise key concepts. A stage is over, but the process goes on: this
is what I like to call “the open-ended spiral of knowledge.”
spiral of knowledge seems to come hand in hand with one of the newest
and most revolutionizing concepts to arise in the fields of psychiatry
and neurosciences: neuroplasticity, the astounding capacity of
the brain to shape and reshape itself.
simple experiences have demonstrated both in university classrooms and
in everyday interpreters’practice, the open-ended spiral of knowledge
enables every human being to process data, integrate knowledge,
assimilate procedures, change attitudes, etc. In other words, it enables
us to learn, and to go on learning, even at times to unlearn certain
things. It is a dynamic, changing, evolving process.
another, more “serious” field of research, some psychiatrists (like J.
Schwartz) and some neuroscientists (F. Nottebohm, E. Gould, D. Hebb,
Gage, P.Eriksson, F. Varela, etc.), in their quest to find solutions for
their patients’ troubles, challenged the old belief that the brain was
unchangeable and dared to propose the concept of neuroplasticity,
the ability of the brain to add neuronal connections and repurpose areas
of the brains. The longlife experience of the lamas’ meditation
techniques in the East reinforces this fascinating discovery. In a
fascinating book intitled “Train Your Mind, Change Your Brain”,
scientific journalist Sharon Begley tells us about the conclusions of a
series of meetings that took place on this subject betweenWestern
scientists and the Dalai Lama over the years. This new science has just
started to reveal our extraordinary potential to transform ourselves.
consequences of all this on education are immense. They imply a turn of
180º. Ideally, we would start anew, from scratch. The sooner the better.
If we changed our way of conceiving learning, paraphrasing Aldous
Huxley and Alfred Korzybski, we could seek social transformation through
the simultaneous attack on all fronts: economic, political, educational,
psychological, etc. It could be fast. As fast as the need for it has
become urgent by now.
then share – and contribute to – other people’s dreams… To make them
come true now that WE KNOW WE CAN.
were to leave something of value for future generations, I would have no
doubt that I would like it to be a survival kit for turbulent times.
What would it consist of?
self-engineering plan: cognitive drills and mental organizers (based on
GS orientations.) There is one sine qua non condition though for
the kit to be useful: we need the willingness to learn and improve.
If willingness exists, the sky is the limit.
call upon imagineers and realiteers (those engineers of human reality,
i.e. all of us) into action. We need both individual and social human
engineering. The tools are at hand. We know we can. Let us begin right
Winner of the Inaugural