Translation as Optimisation

In the links above, I've written about viewing drawing as translation, and as optimising that translation to make up for the deficiencies of the medium. But translation itself can be regarded as optimisation: as adjusting the message to compensate for either the medium, or the recipient. I'll write more about this later. In the meantime, here's a rather nice statement of it from mathematician Paul Halmos, author of I Want to be a Mathematician: An Automathography. It's from Chapter 7, "Winning the War".

As long as I am talking about communication, I'd like to emphasize one of the phrases I just used. There is a difference between misleading statements and false ones; striving for "the clear reception of the message" you are sometimes allowed to lie a little, but you must never mislead.

One of my favourite examples is what you have to say when you begin to explain the English form of government to an intelligent but ignorant visitor from another planet. If you say "England is a monarchy", you are telling the truth, but you are pointing in the wrong direction, you are misleading. If you say "England is a democracy", you are lying, but, just the same, that's a better first-sentence summary of the facts than the truth.

Here is another example. In 1979, on the Monday before Easter, the question of mail delivery arose during the lunch conversation (at the Union, in Indiana). Richard Timoney, our Irish visitor, asked whether or not Good Friday, which happened to fall on April 13 that year, was a legal holiday, Some said it depended on which state you were in, and some expressed their views about whether it should or shouldn't be a holiday — the conversation rambled in a relaxed, pleasant way. Presently a newcomer joined the group and asked what we were talking about. Richard said: "We are trying to find out whether April 13 is a holiday." At tea that day I described the coversation, and Richard's answer, to Max Zorn, and Max was horrified. "But that's a lie!", he said. Is it clear what Max meant, and what I am trying to say? Yes, it was technically true that we were trying to find out whether April 13 is a holiday, but that is not what we were talking about; by mistake, or just for fun, Richard was giving misleading information.

What is important in communication, in lecturing for example, is not what message the speaker sends but what message the listener receives. A part of the art of lecturing is to know when and how to lie. Don't insist on protecting yourself by being cowardly legalistic, but lead the audience to the truth.