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Certain languages have words that do not literally translate into any another language. There is already a small loss of information in this sense.

Emotions are a personal experience and the gravity and meaning of them are dependent on the person who experiences them. The same goes for all conscious experiences.

So how much information is lost when one person is trying to convey these personal experiences with another person? Will actions carry more relevant data than words when explaining a personal experience?

Is there any way to quantify the loss in translation of experiences?

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I think this question could be somewhat subjective... how is one person conveying their emotions? To convey an emotion well you must trigger a sense of empathy in the person you are speaking to. If you just say, "I feel happy", you're unlikely to convey nearly as much detail as if you describe that feeling in a way which triggers an emotional response in the listener. –  Josh Gitlin Feb 1 '12 at 21:22
    
Don't focus so much on emotions... what about experience? If I experience an unusual perception (sound, sight, feeling, etc..) is it possible to convey that experience in full using words and/or actions? –  CheeseConQueso Feb 1 '12 at 22:06
    
I would say no, not in full, because you can only trigger memory responses in the person you're speaking to. And I think again the way the person you're speaking to experiences / interprets your words really depends on their memory, so it can't be quantified... Hm, maybe that's the answer to your question then? –  Josh Gitlin Feb 1 '12 at 22:21
    
Cheese, if you make a trivial edit to your question I can remove my downvote. Thanks! –  Josh Gitlin Feb 1 '12 at 22:30
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3 Answers

up vote 7 down vote accepted

Communication is always a lossy and inexact process. If I am trying to convey information to you - the times of trains, for example - I can use dates and times that I can be confident that you will interpret the same way I do. But you may not - I may say the train leaves at 8:40, and you assume I mean the morning, whereas I actually mean the evening. So while there is a consistent and standardised worldview that I share, I can have reasonably high confidence in this.

When it comes to emotions, these are, by definition, more subjective. The shared worldview is much smaller, and the chances of the words having the same meaning between us is significantly less. Because most words actually have emotional resonances, there is always this danger, but when the emotional resonance is the intention, this is an issue. I can only be sure of communicating the emotions to you if we share the same emotional language.

This language is build though our experiences, memories, make-up etc, so to share a language, we need to share all of this - effectively impossible. To measure the difference, we would need to do a substantial comparison of the relevant worldviews of the two communicants. Given that most people cannot even start to quantify their own dominant worldview, this does not seem likely.

  • Just noted - you referred to experiences not emotions. However the same applies, because our experiences are communicated emotionally.
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So how much information is lost when one person is trying to convey these personal experiences with another person? Will actions carry more relevant data than words when explaining a personal experience?

I believe this really depends completely upon both what specific words you use to describe the experience / emotion as well as the experiences and memories of the person with whom you are speaking.

To convey an emotion well you must trigger a sense of empathy in the person you are speaking to. If you just say, "I feel happy", you're unlikely to convey nearly as much detail as if you describe that feeling in a way which triggers an emotional response in the listener.

As an example, compare the following two statements:

I am sad.

This is quite broad and will likely trigger a wide range of emotions in the person reading / hearing it, if any emotions are triggered at all.

O woe! O woeful, woeful, woeful day!
Most lamentable day. Most woeful day That ever, ever I did yet behold!
O day, O day, O day! O hateful day! Never was seen so black a day as this.
O woeful day! O woeful day!"
- William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet, 4.5

This was just one quick example I could find. I'm sure if you peruse English Stack Exchange you could find much better examples, but my point is: the second paragraph conveys a lot more emotion than the first (contrived) statement. Therefore, to answer your question:

Is there any way to quantify the loss in translation of experiences?

Not really, not that I can see anyway. The way the experience translates just depends on far too many factors. What words did you use? What did the person you were speaking with interpret those words as? What are your shared experiences? What are the other person's memories and experiences like? Are you evoking a sense of emotion for them? If so, what memories are you drawing on? These factors, and a lot more, will determine what they feel when they hear your words.

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Certain languages have words that do not literally translate into any another language. There is already a small loss of information in this sense.

Even though language is very influential for thinking (and read the The Newspeak appendix in 1984 for a thought provoking eye opener), even when you have a group with the same language level skills they will put different meanings to words.

As an experiment, try for instance to ask 10 persons to define the word plan. Even though there probably will be close to zero linguistic ambiguity about the word you will get potential very different answers; some people think a plan is an overall approximation while other think a plan is more a detailed step by step thing.

Is there any way to quantify the loss in translation of experiences?

That would I think require a quantifiable method of measuring the difference in the individual meaning of words.

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