Generation Loss

The difference between the right word and the almost right word is really a large matter – it’s the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.Mark Twain

There is something known as generation loss in data systems. This is the loss of quality between subsequent copies of data. Making a copy of a copy reduces the quality of each subsequent generation of copies. In college, we took advantage of this to make “copier art”. Photocopy a copy, then copy that, etc. We would then use those lower quality copies to create artist translations of famous artworks. Generation loss is a common problem in audio recording. Back in the analog age of recording, the cables, amps and other equipment caused a degradation of the sound quality. Dolby systems came along and reduced some of this, and then digital systems replaced that. Ask any audiophile the difference between an mp3 and a LP record – no contest. Digital “codecs” introduce artifacts into the recording in order to reduce the file size. So what you have is a copy of a copy of a copy. But that is good enough for most people.

Translation is not a matter of words only: it is a matter of making intelligible a whole culture. – Anthony Burgess

My philosophy teacher in college asked us the following thought experiment, If you owned George Washington’s ax and had to replace the head and the handle, would it still be George Washington’s ax? This puzzle is known as the Ship of Theseus and goes back to the time of Plato. If an object has all its components replaced is it still the same object? This came to mind when I recently read that the science fiction author Ursula K. Le Guin published a version of the ancient Dao De Jing (or Tao Te Ching) even though she did not read Chinese or even speak Chinese. Even the first page of the introduction shows she did not truly understand what she read in translation: ...the whole thing is poetry. No it isn’t. She simply replaced all the ancient text with her poetry. And the Amazon advertisement for her book says it all, “No other English translation of this greatest of the Chinese classics can match Ursula Le Guin’s striking new version.” So all the components have been replaced and yet they still call it the Dao (Tao), and it only costs $35 used. What a deal – a copy of a copy of a copy.

A few years ago, I watched some videos of Dr. Wayne Dyer, a famous self-help and spiritual writer. He was speaking about his experiences of “understanding” the Tao. He also wrote a book, the title of which included “…the Complete Tao Te Ching”, even though he did not understand Chinese. I like his philosophy on life. I liked his videos so much I bought his book – “Change your Thoughts Change your Life”. In the book, he said he would live the Tao Te Ching for a year and write about each of the 81 chapters. I liked his writing. I enjoyed his interpretations, until I was nearly finished with the book, and read what he said was the translation of LaoZi’s name. He said LaoZi’s name was translated as “Old Man”. Now, Dr. Dyer said he had read dozens of translations of the Dao De Jing, and he got this very simple fact wrong. Lao does mean old, but Zi, or as it is often spelled by non-Chinese Lao Tse or Lao Tzu, means master or venerated one. LaoZi could be translated as Old Master. In China, Confucius is known as “Kongzi” Master Kong, because his family name was Kong. I even taught English to one of his Kong descendants. If you cannot get this very basic fact correct, do not pass your writing off as a expert translation. I was very disappointed in this copy of a copy of a copy.

Poetry is what gets lost in translation. – Robert Frost

Ezra Pound, the American poet, published Cathay a “collection of classical Chinese poetry” without understanding a single word of Chinese. His poems were based on the notes of a scholar who also did not understand Chinese. So don’t say your book is a translation. I rely on great translators of classical Chinese works to understand the meaning of the text. I ask my wife or one of my former students to translate some words for me when I read about ancient Chinese works. I have done translation work with my wife, but I cannot read Chinese. One of the hundreds of impressive things about my wife is she speaks three languages. She translates to me literally and we discuss how to word the same sentences in English. Literal translations of Chinese most often results in awful English sentences. Translation is an art. Just ask my students who would write their essays in Chinese and then literally translate them, or use an online translation program. I taught them to write in English. The same holds true for my best spoken English students. They responded quickly because they thought in English. They create an English-speaking copy of themselves inside their minds.

We live in an age of so-called “influencers”. I hate the term. We are all influencers in one way or another. These people market themselves as “experts” in order to sell you a product, or their “expertise”. In fact they are little more than dressed up salespeople. They are paid in advance to push a product – no different than commercial actors, except these folks pretend to have importance in a certain field and “recommend” something to you. Call it an Infomercial, shill, testimonials or celebrity branding – it is all a copy of a copy of a copy of real life. There is huge generation loss between such phony baloney BS and your real and actual life. Be yourself. Don’t be a re-interpretation of a copy of someone else. Your generation will lose a lot if you do not live as your true self. Your authentic self is already a classic. Peace.

Published by cewheeler

Writer/Artist:12 years in China – univ. lecturer: writing,poetry,culture; editor – magazine/newspaper & actor. 40 years students of the Tao. Traveler. Father. Read my books at:

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