e all know that one of the most important things for a linguist to do is to specialise. It’s one thing to know how to translate, but translators who claim to be experts in every type of text demonstrate not only a misunderstanding of the word ‘expert’ but also a lack of understanding of what a good translation…
Fifty Shades of Blue and Black: Context is Everything
So I woke up this morning to a message from my friend Carlo, including a link to this picture and a strange question: What colour is this dress? I responded, a little nonplussed, ‘It’s blue and black…’ and that’s when things kicked off. “I see white and gold,” he said. I was convinced that he was messing with me. “Don’t be ridiculous,” I told him, “You’re crazy. It’s quite obviously blue and black, end of story.” But it was far from the end of the story. “Ask someone else!” he insisted, so I asked my friend Hanna.
I couldn’t leave it alone. I had to do some digging. People were saying that it looks different depending on the light, but it was the SAME lighting for all of us because it was the SAME picture. In the end, the BBC explained it best. In fact, it’s really quite simple: Our brains don’t see things in absolute terms, but rather as compared to everything else in the picture. That’s why optical illusions such as the famous checkerboard are able to trick our brains.
At the end of the day, what it comes down to is that the human brain doesn’t operate in a vacuum. We like to think that there are certain things that are right or wrong, that dresses are blue and black or white and gold, or that words and sentences have certain meanings. However, in reality, it’s impossible to view these things without taking into account the context.
It’s only when we have the sensory information surrounding the picture that we are able to correctly interpret the signals our brains are receiving. We can see the colours around the dress and our brains are thus able to determine how to interpret the lighting and conclude that the dress is indeed blue and black after all.
So how has dressgate managed to filter through into a blog about language and translation? Because it just goes to show that context really is everything. The way we process images is the same as the way we process meaning – we can only access the accurate picture if we have the surrounding information. I’ll give you an example of a sentence that can’t be translated reliably without the context.
“There are many cool deserts in the world.”
Does the speaker mean a cool desert like Ladakh (above), in the shadow of the Himalayas, or a cool desert like the Namib desert, which is ‘cool’ because it’s got elephants in it?
We can’t access the true meaning behind the words unless we have access to the context – for example, if this sentence were found in a scholarly article, the word ‘cool’ probably refers to the climatic nature of the desert, not the scholar’s own qualification of said desert as ‘totally rad’. However, if it were found on the blog of a Californian hipster in the middle of a post about his trip to Namibia, we may be forgiven for interpreting ‘cool’ in a different sense.
The human brain has incredible powers of interpretation, and is capable of dealing with nuances of meaning, often without realising what it’s doing. That’s why, despite the recent developments in machine translation, humans will always make the best translators; and it’s also why you shouldn’t be surprised if your translator is unable to deal with translations as short as one sentence without context. It’s almost never as simple as it appears.