October 02, 2006
Lunar Refractions: Excuse Me, You’re Wrong
I’m not quite sure how to start this, how to start writing about wrong. I’ve always had a problem calling people on their mistakes—perhaps out of some attempt at courtesy gone wrong, perhaps because I’ve witnessed so many odiously pompous people take pride in shooting others down, perhaps because I was insecure, perhaps to avoid unnecessary offense. But something in me has snapped, one drop too many has fallen into the bucket, and I think just letting wrongdoers and wrongsayers off the hook may be a thing of my past.
First, in a recent conversation about text in art, a grad-level professor asked me if I’d seen “the stones at the Metropolitan Museum with triangles and circles carved into them, the oldest writing in the world, that are actually a recipe for beer.” I replied, “Sure, the cuneiform inscriptions pressed into clay tablets,” as that happens to be one of my favorite galleries in the entire museum. He replied, “No, they’re actually hard little stones with a symbol writing system.” I’ll readily admit that I’m guilty of occasional nitpicking, but that’s just really wrong, especially coming from a sculptor. Anyone who carves stone or has worked with clay should be able to figure out how those marks were made. The crazy part about this exchange is that I didn’t call him on his mistake; beyond a gentle attempt at a more in-depth description of the objects, I didn’t try to prove my point, and didn’t insist when he added emphasis to his error.
Second, a translator colleague of mine whose work I’m reading over had rather innocently mistranslated the Italian word sellino as little saddle, instead of bustle. Granted, sellino can mean both of those things in English, but that’s where context comes in. If an author is describing a scene set in the late nineteenth century, in a well-to-do neighborhood, in the center of an undeniably urban metropolis where the silhouettes of women can be seen against drawn curtains at nightfall, is it more likely that these women’s profiles are distinguished by little saddles, or bustles? Yes, this is worth a good laugh, but it’s also wrong, and by extension it’s wrong of this man to call himself a translator. I’ve seen and respected his work before, but the sellino slip-up is one of too many such mistakes in the text I’m reading now. The original is a beautiful series of stories, I’m honored to be reading it, and I therefore find it dishonorable that anyone would take it on when it’s so clearly beyond his capabilities.
“How categorical of you,” you’re probably thinking. That’s right, categorical indeed. These are two relatively harmless instances—no one’s dying, no one’s even suffering. But these things pain me, and I really think they are important. See, it’s a slippery slope. It could be argued that these aren’t matters of right and wrong, and are instead a question of imprecision. But they’re imprecisions I can’t deal with because, as I see it, these people approach their professions with imprecision, which implies that they neither respect nor love what they’re doing enough to care about getting it right.
I like how Wikipedia looks at the term: “A wrong is a concept in law, ethics, and science.” The bit about law mentions conscience and morality; the paragraph on ethics names wrong as the opposite of right, and includes the words relativist and behaviour, opening up an enirely different can of worms; and the science entry includes Wolfgang Pauli’s phrase “not even wrong,” a fascinating critique of unfalsifiable hypotheses and experiments if ever I’ve heard one (even better coming from the man who had so much to say about elementary particles). At the bottom of the page are some links that make an interesting little poem of sorts:
Goodness and value theory
Categories: Philosophical terminology | Core issues in ethics | Law | Philosophy of science | Scientific terminology
So I’ve resolved to stop being so inert when I hear such things. In part, it’s just my job; I can’t let mistakes slip by into work I’m responsible for, and I prefer to associate with people who take similar responsibility for what they do. More importantly, though, the accumulation of my passive non-reactions has reached such a level that I can no longer excuse myself as unsure. Of course, I'll probably still defer to professors and older, wiser folk, but the little voices in my head will be saying what I don't have the courage to. As soon as I finish typing this I’ll likely revert to being the same old meek, amenable communicator (or non-communicator, as the case may be), but at least in type, and thanks to your kind patience, I can take issue with these tiny, elementary wrongs.
Previous Lunar Refractions can be seen here; thanks for reading.
Posted by Alta L. Price at 10:07 AM | Permalink