From Round to Square (and back)

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Friday, April 6, 2012

Fieldnotes From History (31)—Gordian Knots

[a] Cuttin' RF
Part of an occasional Round and Square series that follows the blog’s main theme (east meets west, round meets square, and past meets present), these snippets from my early fieldnotes are reproduced as they were written by hand—and then revised on an ancient desktop computer—during my first fieldwork stay in Taiwan (1985-1987).  All entries are the way that I left them when I returned to the United States in 1987—some nicely-stated and some embarrassing. Although the series began with my assumption that the entries can stand alone, I have found that separate comments and notes might help readers understand a world that is now, well, history. These are always separate from the original fieldnote.

This note gives a hint at what I love most about language-and-culture studies to this day. It is a good example of acculturation, and using an even wider range of associations and meanings than would be possible for an audience without at least some sense of world history (this was—and remains—a subject taken very seriously in junior high school and high school texts in the Republic of China). It is not so much that the average bus passenger in Taipei would recognize Gordius, King of Phrygia. Still, there is a use of English language and Western culture here that invokes it—even presents it as an interpretive and pedagogical problem—in the interest of gaining tuition-paying students. In other words, there is a whole lot more going on in that little advertisement than I was able to convey in this fieldnote. Over the years I have gotten a little better at teasing out implications, but even this note has enough detail that each sentence calls to mind several others. As many people have pointed out over the years, that (calling to mind detail that would otherwise be forgotten) is one of the best reasons for working on fieldnotes in the first place.
[b] Knot wine RF

Most of the detail is in the note itself. I would simply point out a rough parallel to this theme of "invoking (other) cultural power" with a big advertisement I saw in the Newark airport ten years after this. A formidable, unsheathed sword glittered above a brief message. It said: "Does your consultant quote the Art of War, yet shy away from battle? [Work with us instead]." Once you start noticing these (often "exotic") cultural invocations, a whole world of possible interpretations opens up.

This sort of advertisement was common enough in 1986—especially in Hong Kong and Taiwan. Suffice it to say that I saw very few such ads in my short trip to the People's Republic later the same year. Within half a decade, though, they would be everywhere, and the years leading up to the Beijing Olympics in 2008 accelerated the process many times over. There is interpretive grist for the mill, in short, that is hardly even hinted at here.

8 January 1986
I have also been reading newspapers and translating sentences in class. Not surprisingly, translating from English to Chinese is far harder for me than going from Chinese to English, but even that can be problematic. Many phrases carry so much added cultural baggage within them that no Western reader could possibly take it all in. Their deeper meanings are, simply, untranslatable. 

To give an example, an English language school here put up large posters on many city buses advertising their programs. On each poster is a muscular, armor-clad Alexander the Great hoisting a massive sword over his head, his eyes fixed on a tangled mass of rope. Below the drawing are English and Chinese sentences which basically mean: “Break away from the difficulties of not knowing English well enough; enroll at [our school].”  The English reads: “Cut the Gordian Knot.” 

The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary says that Gordius, King of Gordium in ancient Phrygia tied an intricate knot; an oracle declared that whoever loosened the knot should rule over all Asia. No one could untie it, but Alexander the Great cut it with his sword. All of that—the story and the idea of “Cutting the Gordian Knot” as solving a complex problem forcefully or by unexpected means—are wound up in that phrase. The Chinese caption reads “Untangle the Difficult Knot.”  It means the "same" thing on one, very small, level. Everything else (including the poetry) is gone. This is why Chinese students who have read translations of Chaucer and Shakespeare in school often say, “The story is interesting, but...”. It is the reason why a culture’s highest forms of literature lack something in translation. 

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