Date: Mon, 10 Sep 2001
Subject: Re: Translation, Chinese-English in particular

Joan Retallack's book of poems How to Do Things with
has a section/poem called "The Chinese Room"
(or words to that effect). She's drawing upon a
problem in the philosophy of mind, proposed in
philosopher John Searle's essay, "Minds, Brains, and
Programs" (and subsequent discussion by Fodor in
"After-thoughts: Yin and Yang in the Chinese Room",
etc). Although somewhat racially insensitive in
Searle's original shaping of it, the Chinese Room
problem that Retallack refers to is, basically:

You have somebody in a room who doesn't know Chinese.
You give them a set of Chinese flash cards, although
they don't speak Chinese, and a set of grammatical
rules for Chinese syntax. Somebody outside the room
can see only the ideogram output that's constructed.
When the person in the Chinese Room succeeds at
forming entirely intelligible "communication," despite
not knowing the language, what is the nature of this
language-thing that the reader outside the room is
, --- since it's uncomprehended by the
sender/speaker but understood as normative by the

That model is really the base for an investigation by
analogy as to nature of mind--- It's a sort of Turing
test. (To Turing-ize would be to dispense the person
in the Chinese Room and have it just be a machine
that's sending out the messages, and the reader's
inability to tell whether talking to a man or woman,
since talking to neitherk, etc.) It may seem
tangential to your question, but --- In Retallack's
use of it, it takes on a new, poetic resonance, and
is, by itself, I think, an unforgettably bothersome
sort of thought-experiment.