le ton beau de marot (douglas r. hofstadter) love

le ton beau de marot (douglas r. hofstadter)

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  • This has been on my must read list for about a year, I'll have to bump it up to the top.

    I think that GEB is not particularly accessible unless you already understand Godel's incompleteness thereom. A good knowledge of Bach also helps.

    January 21, 2008

  • Le Ton Beau de marot : In Praise of the Music of Language. (Douglas R. Hofstadter)

    Five stars!! Another one of my all-time favorite books, this is by the author of "Godel, Escher, Bach". Impossible to categorize accurately, it's a kind of extended riff on the difficulties and challenges of translation, carried out with a kind of beguiling enthusiasm. It shares the playfulness that characterized "Godel, Escher, Bach" but I found it more accessible and more interesting.

    Starting with a single unifying thread that winds through the entire book (various* translations of a single 28-line poem by the French author Clement Marot), Hofstadter weaves a fascinating tapestry about the challenges facing a translator. There is a whole chapter dedicated to translations of Eugene Onegin; another discusses various efforts at translating Dante. Along the way there are fun digressions about such challenges as translating lipograms (text written with the constraint that one or more letters of the alphabet are never used), the paradoxical usefulness of writing under constraints of various kinds, be they artificial as in lipogrammatic writing, or metrical constraints, as in Pushkin, Dante, or the sonnets of Shakespeare, difficulties in writing translation software, linguistic issues such as the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis**, how one would translate a 'dirty' joke to a clean version, while preserving the humor.

    *: I haven't counted, but there must be at least 50 different translations. Oddly enough, the accumulation of so many is not boring, but fascinating - Hofstadter's boyish enthusiasm helps to charm.

    **: (very) roughly, the linguistic notion that how we think is constrained by language. Dismissed by Steven Pinker in his book "The Language Instinct", though I think Pinker's case is less than convincing.

    A fascinating tour-de-force, it is also the kind of book one can dip in to from time to time and be entertained by any one of its chapters.

    January 20, 2008