[b-greek] Off-Topic: Common Vocabularies

From: Will Wagers (hyle@e-denton.com)
Date: Fri Jul 07 2000 - 02:11:25 EDT

The following is off-topic, but, I hope, of interest to some computer
literate list members:

I read an interesting column by Simon Phipps, IBM's XML evangelist,
in the first issue of _XML Journal_, p. 66. The article has interesting
parallels to language translation.

He discusses the apparent need for common vocabularies when
using XML to communicate between enterprise software systems,
and notes the tension between the utility of a shared vocabulary
and the precision of individual vocabularies. (For example, a
"Client" tag on one system might indicate any individual but on the
other only a child or, perhaps, only a public corporation.) A common
business vocabulary is the Babel fish here, enabling applications
on different computers, in different computer languages, in different
database formats to exchange information, e.g. *your credit card number*.

The problem is that the meanings of the words in the common
vocabulary actually have different *meanings* on the two systems.
He, then, gives as an illustration a religious summit where it is decided
that the official language will be English with a Protestant vocabulary.
When "Heaven" is mentioned, all nod in recognition. At some point,
the delegates realize they have not been speaking of the same "Heaven".
Even where detected, resolving the differences may be impossible
because "the semantic strength of the vocabulary in use may not
allow for the proper expression of the alternate paradigm."

Thus, a "paradox": "it may be better to invent a local variant of an
existing vocabulary - or in extreme cases a whole new vocabulary -
to fully express the richness and nuances of a business model and

Even with a small number of individual vocabularies which vary only
slightly or subtly, "there will always be mapping, even if there is only
one common exchange vocabulary. The mapping describes the
relationship between the meanings of two paradigms...."

"Paradoxically, two different paradigms attempting to use a common
vocabulary may produce more confusion and difficulty than if they had
used custom vocabularies, because their paradigmatic differences may
be concealed in the use of common terms."

"Defining a true translation mapping may involve different treatment of
the same tags in different contexts and requires an understanding of
both paradigms."

This issue is not new to translators, but it has arisen in the
*software development cycle*. I find it interesting that the core,
language translation problem occurs even within narrowly-defined,
machine-interpreted, English, software constructs, i.e. XML tags. I trust
everyone can see the parallel with our own translation efforts and can
work out the implications for themselves (that is, I am not attempting to
start a thread).

<author>Will Wagers</author> <email>hyle@e-denton.com</email>
             <textbite>"Reality is the best metaphor."</textbite>

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