28 March 1974
Conceptual Gaps And Confused Distinctions
Possible ambiguities in the translation of interrelated concepts
between sectors, jargons or languages
- / -
Previously published in: International Associations
26, 1974, 3, pp. 156-159.
Also in: Les Problèmes du Langage dans la Société Internationale
(Compte rendu du colloque, Paris 28-29 mars 1974). Bruxelles, Union des Associations
Internationales, 1975, pp. 173-177
international society depends to a quite important extent on
the use of rather subtle and interrelated
distinctions. Some of these are established and preserved by the use of a
series of prefixes, at least in the indoeuropean languages. An example is :inter-national, multi-national, cross-
The purpose of this paper is to draw
attention to the possibility that such
neat sets of distinctions may be difficult to translate, particularly into non-
indo-european languages, without leading to gaps in the series or blurring
some of the distinctions.
Sources of difficulty
Some of the sources
of difficulty in ensuring the preservation of such distinctions on translation are as follows :
- Concept not expressible through the words of the language (langue en français)
- Concept not expressible through terms of technical language (langage en
français) in question, whether or not translation is required.
- Ambiquity of word in original language.
- Ambiquity of word in language of translation.
- Incorrect choice of word in original language (by author).
- Incorrect choice of word in language of translation (by translator).
- Even if equivalent terms are found, the relationship between the elements
of the series may be different in the second language and therefore bias the
series in some unforessen way.
Example distinction series
Two unrelated series may be cited as examples. In each case the qualified words
merely give an indication of the range of application of the series of prefixes.
There are two difficulties in considering these series. Firstly, the relationship
between the elements of a series is not simple, as will be shown. Secondly,
there is a considerable degree of confusion, even in the language of origin
(in this case English) as to distinctions between the terms in each series.
(The confusion is less great within any particular disciplinary jargon, however,)
difficulties the distinctions do represent definite quantum
jumps in perspective with very different
implications for the social organization
to which they may be related. It is not,
however, the purpose of this paper to
enter into the debate to clarify the
meaning or relationship of the different
terms in each series. The purpose is
rather to show how such distinctions,
if clearly established in the language of
origin, may be distorted on translation.
Each series is taken in turn below.
A. Negative Prefixes
to the word to which
the negative prefix may be attached to
form a particular series, we can consider the following range of negative
concepts. (In a given language, an
equivalent prefix may or may not be
available. In addition, other distinctions may be present).
A.1. Lack of quality (without its opposite necessarily being present) -
implies that the lack is a feasible occurrence and that the quality in question
is a useful descriptor.
A.2. Quality irrelevant - implies that the presence or absence of this
quality is considered to be irrelevant, suggesting that the quality in question
is not a useful descriptor.
A.3. Possession of opposite quality - implies that not only is the quality
lacking but that its very opposite and most antipathic is present.
A.4. Lack in a quality which should be present - implies that not only
is the quality lacking but that that quality is one that should be present
in this case, namely that it is equitable, just or expected that the quality
should be present.
A.5. Absence of quality experienced as a loss - implies the lack of
the quality (which may be regretted).
A.6. Against the quality - implies disapproval of the quality
A.7. Counteracting quality - implies action to counteract
the effects of the quality which is not approved.
Confusions possible with Series A:
As an example of
the types of difficulty
which may occur, whether on translation to a different language, or simply
in converting to a different terminological jargon, consider how concept A.1.
may be confused with any of the others
in the series,
A1 /A2 if a quality is considered to be so irrelevant or subtle that its
presence or absence does not merit comment, then it may be very difficult
to distinguish from a simple lack of the quality.
A1 / A3 if a quality, considered to be of great importance, is lacking, it
may be very difficult to distinguish this condition from the presence of the
A1 / A4 if a quality, considered to be normally present, is lacking, it may
be very difficult to distinguish this"
neutral "condition from an "
"condition. The response to abnormality is then the only stable one,
A1 / A5 if a quality, considered to be extremely desirable, is lacking, it
may be very difficult to distinguish this "
neutral "condition from
regretful "one, in which the absence is perceived as a loss. The expression
of regret is the only stable manner of perceiving the loss,
A1 / A6 if a quality, considered to be extremely undesirable, may be present,
it is very difficult to render unambiguous the concept that it is"
". For in such a case, an attitude of being against its presence is the only
guarantee of its non-presence.
A1 / A7 if a quality is considered to be so undesirable that the only response
to it is to act to counter its effects, then it may be very difficult to establish
the viability of the neutral observation of the non-presence of the quality.
Similar confusion may arise with concept A.2, A.3, etc. And, in the case of
a particular translation problem, several of these conceptual pitfalls may be
present when attempting to preserve the interrelationship between the elements
of the series.
|Diagram illustrating the structural differences between elements in a
conceptual series distinguished by prefixes such as : multi-, cross-, pluri-,
inter-, trans-, supra-, meta-. (The diagram is an elaboration of one used
by Eric Jantsch. Towards interdisciplinarity and transdisciplinarity in
education and innovation. In: Centre for Educational Research and Innovation.
Interdisciplinarity; problems of teaching and research in universities.
Paris, OECD, 1972, pp. 107.)
B. Spatial Organization Prefixes
As for the negative prefix series, we can look at the series of concepts which
give rise to the second series. (This is partly illustrated by the
B.1. Several units unrelated, except as a collection of units of the same
B.2. Several units bilaterally interrelated amongst themselves, but not otherwise
B.3. Several units organized, but as an imposition on the others of an extension
of the order natural to one of them.
B.4. Several units organized through a new higher level unit which provides
each unit with its place but does not provide for direct relationship between
B.5. Several units organized through a new higher level unit which provides
each unit with its place and does provide for direct relationship between
B.6. Several units organized within a new organizational framework, which
contains them and any higher level units to which they may relate, such that
the boundaries between the units are of less significance than their function
within the larger framework thus permitting the framework to relate to external
B.7. A new framework of a higher logical type within which the units, their
relationships, and the framework by which they are contained, may be discussed
Confusions possible with Series B: (These are partly illustrated by the diagram below). The possible collapse
of one or more of these distinctions could be discussed as was done for Series
A. However, it may be sufficient to draw attention to the general confusion
in English between the terms in each of the following groups, except within
well-defined jargon frameworks :
- multi-national, cross-national, international, trans-national, supra-national
- multi-disciplinary, pluri-disciplinary, cross-disciplinary, inter-disciplinary,
trans-disciplinary, meta-disciplinary and to the, at first sight trivial,
problem of translating all of them into German or Russian where the greco-latin
prefixes are not available.
C. Cooperation/conflict Series
As a further example of considerable importance in distinguishing between varieties
of social organization, it is useful to look at the series governing the possible
cooperation /conflict relationships between social entities ("
and emergent controllers ("topdogs ") in any social system. It has been suggested
(on the basis of the advantage or disadvantage to each) that there are nine
terms required for this series. Since the same distinctions have been made in
the vocabularies ofdifferent physical, biological and social science, disciplines,
it is not surprising that in each of them, two or more different terms are sometimes
found to have the same meaning; a single term sometimes has two or more different
meanings; and some terms are missing (E F Haskell. A classification of semantic
errors and its application. (Unpublished lecture before Gamma Alpha Fraternity,
Graduate Chemical Society). New Haven, Yale, 1952.).
|Diagram illustrating interrelated concepts concerning a particular
phenomenon (e.g types of international organization), distinguishable
within a given language, social sector or academic terminology.
(Use of this method of illustration was suggested by E. Kingsley. F.K. Kopstein,
and R. J. Seidel Graph theory as a meta-language of communicable knowledge.
In: M.D. Rubin (Ed.) Man in Systems. New York. Gordon and Breach, 1971.
p. 43-69 who us a similar approach to distinguish between "what is
known", "what the teacher knows", "what the teacher
says", "what the student understands", and "what the
o conceptual gaps within the particular terminology or
unambiguous distinctions within the terminology or language
A completed series of terms has been provided by E.F. Haskell :
symbiosis/constructive cooperation (advantage to controller; advantage
- commensalism (advantage to controller; no effect on controlled)
- parasitism /imperialism (advantage to controller; disadvantage
- (allolimy) (no effect on controller; disadvantage to controlled)
- synnecrosis /destructive conflict (disadvantage to controller; disadvantage
- (ammensalism) (disadvantage to controller; no effect on controlled)
- predation /guerilla terrorism (disadvantage to controller; advantage
- (allotrophy) (no effect on controller; advantage to controlled)
- (no interaction) (no effect on controller; no effect on controlled).
The bracketed terms are those suggested by Haskell. At first sight we appear
to lack the English terms in social science terminology which correspond to
the intermediate terms in the series - although the concept in each case
is quite clear. Our daily vocabulary is only sensitive to four of the nine
terms in the series. Presumably we would blur the missing concepts into the
related ones which are commonly recognized.
Confusion between Series
In this paper we have ourselves built up the series which have been discussed.
The assumption has been that such series, whilst complex, were reasonably
distinct. This may not however be the case. Thus we have discussed a static
spatial organization "series when in some languages or ideologies it may
be impossible to examine (social) organization without focussing (a) on the
equity of the controller-controlled dimension, or (b) on the temporal organization
or origin/history /development dimension. This would mean that other concepts
would then be blurred onto those already discussed, and some of those discussed
would not have any place in such a conceptual scheme.
Dichotomies and Variables
Fred W. Riggs notes that "
in the social sciences our ability to conceptualize
variables lags far behind the equivalent development of constructs in the physical
sciences ".(Fred Riggs. Toward a theory of definitions.(Paper presented atthe
COCTA symposium. IPSA Congress, Montreal 1975).) He also notes the difficulties
of giving precision to the intermediate concept in a dichotomy.*
This problem is a general one since the English language is richly endowed
with dichotomies, but impoverished in its supply of terms for normalities. Partly
this may be due to our Aristotelian traditions and the facile use of negative
prefixes. Thus almost any word which expresses a condition can be put into a
negative form, such as efficient and inefficient, successful and unsuccessful...
but how can one refer to mid-points on the scale ? Here are a large number of
potentially useful concepts for which we simply lack accepted terms (Fred Riggs.
Concepts, Words and Terminology, Hawaii, COCTA, Working Paper n° 1, June 1971.).
He drives the point home by asking how the intermediate concept could be expressed
in each of the following dichotomies :
centralized /de-centralized (or localized),
concentrated /de-concentrated (or dispersed),
He also makes the point that the conditions described by such terms occur
on a scale. - People often say that it is unimportant to draw sharp lines for
the definition of concepts because they are matters of degree, i.e., variables...
However the scale of variation is itself a concept. If we have anything subject
to variation, then there must a concept defining the variation itself. "He
gives temperature, power and centralization as variables for which we require
measures of degree of temperature, degree of power and degree of centralization.
We have difficulty in the case of the latter two and are forced by our terminological
and conceptual poverty into using the extreme terms of each dichotomy.
It would seem that, aside from the confusion within a language concerning the
precise meaning and nature of a conceptual series (which may be a ring or a
branching chain of concepts), translation must considerably aggravate our difficulties.
We are insensitive to this because the process of translation provides a translation
but conceals the difficulties. There is no semantic check.