Friday, July 8, 2011

More than words

The problem with language --apart from it not always being English-- is that it is more than just words. This means that even the best non-native speaker can sometimes convey a meaning quite contradictory to the one meant.

One such example occurred in my first research meeting with my new group at Hokkaido University. We were discussing a project to model a small spiral galaxy with the astrophysics simulation code I had been using in my work and had now brought to Hokkaido.

"We would like to use a rotating reference frame," our head of group told me.

Yeah? Well, I'd like a pony.

The desired numerical jiggery-pokery which would allow the galaxy to remain stationary during the simulation while retaining the same properties as if it were rotating, was no minor task. It was especially difficult for this particular type of code. To implement it would take months of coding, testings, more coding and frankly, I'd probably screw it up.

However, what was really being asked of me was:

"Is it possible to use a rotating reference frame?"

Which has quite a different tone to it. In the first case, it sounded like a politely phrased demand for the project; the equivalent of telling an architect you wanted a revolving restaurant on the 43rd floor of your new building when he had been drawing up plans for a log cabin. By contrast, the second option is simply a request for information, with no implication that a negative answer will result in the project being unsatisfactory.

So far, I have been able to remember this likely translation error in time to stall voicing my equine desires. Answering the inquiry as if it had been phrased in the second way produced an entirely satisfactory response.

Hopefully, time will allow this to be the automatic understanding so that I don't have to mentally go through selecting breed, coat colour and wing span for my new steed. Not least because Japan might just produce such a mount and then I'd have an awful lot of computer coding to do.

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