Forms of Presentation and the Future of Comprehension

Conceptual Gaps and Confused Distinctions: possible ambiguities in the translation of interrelated concepts

Anthony Judge


Discourse in 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- national, trans-national. 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 :

  1. Concept not expressible through the words of the language (langue en français) of translation.
  2. Concept not expressible through terms of technical language (langage en français) in question, whether or not translation is required.
  3. Ambiquity of word in original language.
  4. Ambiquity of word in language of translation.
  5. Incorrect choice of word in original language (by author).
  6. Incorrect choice of word in language of translation (by translator).
  7. 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.

Series A Series B

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,)

Despite these 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.

Negative Prefixes

Without referring 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 itself.

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 contrary quality,

A1 / A4 if a quality, considered to be normally present, is lacking, it may be very difficult to distinguish this" neutral "condition from an " abnormal "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 a" 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" not present ". 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.)
Distinctions between multi-, cross-, pluri-, inter-, trans-, supra-, meta-

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 diagram above),

B.1. Several units unrelated, except as a collection of units of the same kind,

B.2. Several units bilaterally interrelated amongst themselves, but not otherwise organized.

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 them.

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 them.

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 events.

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 critically.

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.

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 (" underdogs ") 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 student recalls").
o conceptual gaps within the particular terminology or language
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 to controlled)
  • commensalism (advantage to controller; no effect on controlled)
  • parasitism /imperialism (advantage to controller; disadvantage to controlled)
  • (allolimy) (no effect on controller; disadvantage to controlled)
  • synnecrosis /destructive conflict (disadvantage to controller; disadvantage to controlled)
  • (ammensalism) (disadvantage to controller; no effect on controlled)
  • predation /guerilla terrorism (disadvantage to controller; advantage to controlled)
  • (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),
democratic /undemocratic,
pluralistic /unpluralistic,
alienated /non-alienated.

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.