When I had friends over last month for a South Indian dinner, one of the items was sambar. I had difficulty describing what sambar was. Soup didn’t quite work because it wasn’t watery enough, but there were too many vegetables in it to make it a sauce, either. Trader Joe’s now sells sambar, which they refer to as an Indian stew.
Joseph Conrad purportedly described English, his third language, as the hardest to write in because no two words mean exactly the same thing. While several words have the same denotation, few of these have the same connotation. While information theorists are not bound to worry about meaning, reliable transmission of information is one of the principle problems of the theory. Shannon’s mutual information has the property that translations of data can never increase the amount of information. This property is called the data processing lemma, and a challenge for the information theorist is to avoid potential losses due to such translations.
In exchange for a “free” lunch and bookbag, I accepted an invitation to meet with the CEO and other high-level executives at Marvell. The opportunity forced me to translate my research into business-speak. I had to hear business-speak, too. The Marvell executives described the company’s success with optimistic and positive words. At the same time, they handed out a copy of a Forbes article on the company, which acknowledged the company’s financial success but translated the factors leading to it with words carrying a different connotation.
Not one to subject myself to such conversations without company, I went with a friend that was also invited. He’s been speaking English for just a few years. While his comprehension has improved tremendously, he still needed an English to English translation of the following conversation with one of the coordinators.
Coordinator: All right, we want to get people started with the lunch. It’s going to be a buffet, so if you two could find a seat– there’s a complimentary bookbag for you there– and start a line at the table, you would speed up the process. Others will follow as soon as they see a few people starting.
Me: Sure thing.
Friend: (to me) What did she say?
Me: “Put your stuff down and grab some food.”
I doubt much information was lost in translation.