Radical Translation and ‘Arrival’: Talking to Aliens

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: SCI-PHI—SCIENCE FICTION AS PHILOSOPHY

By David K. Johnson, Ph.D., King’s College

A philosophical question raised by the possibility of an alien visitation is whether people could communicate with them. This problem is explored in the movie Arrival. Dr. Louise Banks is assigned the task of learning the language of a species of advanced aliens that have landed on the Earth. But this is more complex than learning human language, and the act of radical translation is fraught with uncertainty.

A pattern of unknown symbols.
Translating an alien language is going to be much more difficult than translating between human languages. (Image: VectorPixelStar/Shutterstock)

Quine’s Radical Translation Experiment

When Dr. Banks attempts to start learning the language of the aliens, she finds that it is completely—well—alien. Instead of letters arranged in sentences, they communicate with what can only be described as ink-blot-circles, a system of logograms. The stakes for understanding the language couldn’t be higher. Dr. Banks has got to get this right. But translating a totally alien language from scratch would be a monumental task.

Indeed, some philosophers have argued that it would be impossible. And to do so, they use Willard Van Orman Quine’s radical translation thought experiment. Quine imagined, in this thought experiment, a linguist coming across members of a ‘native’ community with a language completely unrelated to any known language. Quine suggested that it would be impossible for such a linguist to ever know that he understands them.

This is the problem of radical translation. Quine thought that someone could never discover the meanings of the words of a language completely unrelated to their own because even discovering the use rules of a language game might not necessarily reveal the meanings of its words and sentences. Let us slightly modify one of Quine’s examples.

Learn more about science versus religion in Contact.

The Question of Translation

Suppose the native says ‘Gavagai’ as a rabbit hops by. It could be assumed he means ‘rabbit’. But he could have just been referring to a part of the rabbit, like its leg. So to make sure the use rule for ‘gavagai’ has been learned correctly, a dead rabbit is found, then its leg is cut off and shown to the native who is asked, “Gavagai?”

A negative response would indicate that ‘rabbit leg’ is not the meaning of ‘gavagai’. But even if this is tried with every rabbit part, it would not be known for sure that ‘gavagai’ means rabbit; perhaps it means ‘undetached rabbit part’. If so, when the dead rabbit’s leg is cut off, it was no longer a ‘gavagai’.

Painting of a kangaroo made in 1770.
The origin of the name of the kangaroo is the apocryphal example of language misunderstanding. (Image: Sydney Parkinson/ Public domain)

A similar point is made by Dr. Louise Banks in Arrival when she tells the apocryphal story of James Cook and the origin of the word ‘kangaroo’:

[Cook] led a party into [Australia] and they met the aboriginal people. One of the sailors pointed at the animals that hop around and put their babies in their pouch, and he asked what they were, and the aborigine said, ‘kangaroo’. … It wasn’t until later that they learned that ‘kangaroo’ means ‘I don’t understand’.

People are all in this situation as children. Children try to learn a language that is completely foreign to any they know because they know none.

Their native language is learned just like the linguist learns the foreign one. So could it be that people are all walking around, thinking they understand one another, when in fact, they don’t?

This is a transcript from the video series Sci-Phi: Science Fiction as Philosophy. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

Chomsky’s ‘Universal Grammar’

It’s possible, but it seems unlikely. Indeed, philosopher and linguist Noam Chomsky has argued, persuasively, for something called ‘universal grammar’—a set of innate structural rules, constraints, and principles by which all humans organize concepts and use language.

Chomsky argues that since there are rules that children must know to use a language, but those rules are not ever stated in any utterances children hear, the fact that children do learn language and learn to use it appropriately, seems to entail that children must know those rules innately.

And this is where the answer to Quine’s worry about radical translation is found. It’s possible that ‘gavagai’ means ‘undetached rabbit part’, but that’s not the most likely translation. So it’s possible all words are defined differently, even though they are used in the same way, but that everyone has similar meanings in mind seems to be beyond a reasonable doubt.

Now, it might be argued that the seemingly successful translation of so many languages over history is a refutation of Quine’s radical translation problem. But it also might be argued that these successful translations just indicate that no human language is completely foreign.

Humans all evolved from the same branch of the evolutionary tree and human brains are all remarkably similar. As such, it is likely that everyone conceptualizes the world and utilizes language in much the same way.

That’s why ‘rabbit’ rather than ‘undetached rabbit part’ is the best translation of ‘gavagai’. Humans don’t invent words for such inoperable concepts. If Chomsky is right, no human language is completely foreign, and thus the linguist in Quine’s thought experiment is not truly faced with a problem of radical translation.

Learn more about radical translation and alien languages.

The Possibility of Misunderstanding in Arrival

But the same rule may not apply to aliens, who are in a sense truly ‘foreign’. However, this seems to be the method Dr. Banks uses in Arrival. She writes ‘human’ on a whiteboard, points to herself, and then assumes the response by the heptapods denotes the name of their species. But they could think the marks on that board mean anything—‘female’, or ‘orange’ (the color of her suit), or ‘black’ (the color of the ink). It could mean ‘whiteboard’. The list is seemingly endless.

It seems that something like this could be done for every word in their language. Someone could learn the use rules of their language game while simultaneously misunderstanding what every word means. They could even carry on entire conversations, seemingly conveying information to one another, all the while completely misunderstanding each other. So how can Dr. Banks ultimately know that her translations are right?

Common Questions about Radical Translation

Q. What is the problem of radical translation?

The problem of radical translation, according to Willard Van Orman Quine, is that someone could never discover the meanings of the words of a language completely unrelated to their own because even discovering the use rules of a language game might not necessarily reveal the meanings of its words and sentences.

Q. What is the task of Dr. Banks in the movie Arrival?

Dr. Banks is assigned the task of learning the language of aliens who have landed on Earth.

Q. What is Noam Chomsky’s argument about language learning?

Noam Chomsky has argued, persuasively, for something called ‘universal grammar‘: a set of innate structural rules, constraints, and principles by which all humans organize concepts and use language.

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