Kenneth Lim is an interaction designer and creative coder working with text and language in all its forms. His work and research focuses on translations, machine understanding of language, and development of language in the modern age, often through the lens of nonsense and untranslatable meanings.
Kenneth is experienced in working with many programming languages and environments as well as physical computing for creative endeavours. He is also a maintainer of the p5.js creative coding library.
You can find him online @limzykenneth.
I aim to use language as the material, technology as the tool, design as the process to create thought provoking experiences, both physical and virtual. Explored areas include storytelling, language change, translations, constructed languages, etc. Areas to explore in the future include machine natural language processing, natural language based human-machine communication, language creation, and many more.
In all natural languages there are idioms, metaphors, puns, and other such phrases that are specific to that language or culture, meaning that they are some of the things that are difficult to translate to other languages or simply untranslatable. What can we do in these instances? We can avoid using these phrases when communicating with someone who have limited or no knowledge of the language and culture we have, but that means limiting what we can express with language. More often, what we do is provide as best an explanation of what we are trying to express in simpler terms, but in the end gave up and say "Something Along These Lines", which itself is ironic, because "something along these lines" itself is such a phrase.
The project aims to capture this near futile sense of needing to have nuance expressions but at the same time limited by what people with a different linguistic background from you may be able to understand. It does this by presenting three different idioms from three different languages along with their literal translations in English. Several blurred keywords are then presented to the audience where using an imprecise interface, they will be tasked to choose one of the keyword to view a potential meaning of the idiom. If they feel the chosen meaning fits the idiom they can select it and move onto the next idiom; if not they can continue exploring the other keywords/potential meanings. At the end of the experience, the choices of the audience member will be tallied along with the response of everyone else who interacted with the piece and they can see how they have chosen as compared to others. What there will not be though, is definite answer to whether they have chosen the right meaning or not: just like listening to someone speaking to you in a second language you are not fluent in, the best you can do at the moment is guess.
The project is envisioned to be a room-sized installation, however with the ongoing pandemic, realising it with the original design is not possible nor is it responsible. I've then decided to keep the essence of the project intact while creating an online version. The important parts are the imprecise control, the uncertainty, and leaving the experience curious.
Below I will breakdown different parts of the project, from the online version's flow to the way potentially false meanings were chosen.
This is the approach I took to create potentially false meanings from the idioms that I have included in this project. Three idioms in three different languages were included and for each of the three idioms, alongside the one real meaning I have to come up with six more potential meanings. The process starts with the literal meaning of the idiom, it won't make sense or doesn't mean anything much by itself, but with the literal meaning, we can infer a story behind the idiom.
Take for example "猫の手も借りたい" (neko no te mo kari tai, lit: willing to borrow a cat’s paws) which means "so busy that you will accept help from anyone". In some cases, the relationship between the actual meaning of an idiom and the literal meaning of the idiom is established by a story, a folklore, a fairy tale of some sort. While it isn't always the case, sometimes the source of a meaning can be near impossible to trace, it is a mechanism that we will use here. What kind of situation would a story have that would have someone be willing to borrow a cat's paw? What is the value (in the story) of the cat's paw?
If we assume cat's paw is similar to rabbit's foot in cultures that believes it brings good luck, then a cat's paw may mean to bring a change of luck for better or worse. A certain element of desperation is implied with "willing to borrow a cat’s paws" as if it is the last resort so the luck changing effect of the cat's paws can also be like a monkey's paw where the wish it grants have undesired side effects, but one is desperate enough to reach for it. Taking all these into context, a simple created meaning of "having very bad luck" can be applied which is close intuitively.
As another example, if we assume that in Japanese culture, cats are thought of as very dexterous creatures (they do seem to be in real life), borrowing a cat's paws could be because one needs that dexterity for the situation there are in. Expand on it a bit and another potential meaning is "working on something very delicate" that you would be willing to borrow a dexterous cat's paw to work on it.
As can be seen, these meanings relies on assumption on the cultural context, because one of the major reasons why these idioms and phrases are so hard to translate effectively is that the meaning has deep ties with the underlying culture that uses them.