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Friday, October 27, 2017

You can't plagiarize by accident

Suppose there is a language with ten nouns and ten intransitive verbs.  Speakers of this language only use two word sentences like "lion sleeps" or "man eats."  So there are 100 possible sentences in the language. The chances that two sentences will be identical, then, is 1 in 100.  The chances that two consecutive sentences will coincide are 1/1000. And so on.  (Image two people in rooms 100 miles apart who are asked to write essay in this language.) Of course in a corpus of billions of words you will find identical stretches of language, and these will occur according to the probabilities we can easily calculate.

Now let's say that the language gets many more types of words, and more in each category, and that sentence length is indefinite, and patterns of syntax more varied.  Now we have 20,000 words, not 20, so I can't even run the percentages any more: they are too vast. See two short stories by Borges, "Pierre Menard" and "The Library at Babel" for more insight into this. See Chomsky on the creativity of language.

In our musical system there are twelve notes. I used to wonder why we didn't run out of new melodies. After all, the possibilities are finite. It is true that many melodies contain identical sequences of notes in some stretches, but it is not hard to write new melodies.

The idea that your language forces you to say certain things and not others, then, needs to be re-examined. You can follow all the rules of syntax and still come up with original combinations.


Plagiarism by accident happens when you literally copy and paste something and leave the quotation marks off, and then come back to your text and lose track of whose language is whose.  It is an accident but it is still your fault. Aside from the carelessness of not marking the language as quoted, there is another issue: you should have a pride in your prose that would make someone else's language stick out when inserted therein.  Sometimes I look at a guest post by Thomas on this blog and think for a second or two: oh, that is strange, I don't write like this, before realizing that, no, I don't write like that. Thomas writes very well, but differently than I do. There are posts I don't remember writing, but I recognize them as my writing.

 I guess poets with cookie cutter styles might have this problem.    


Leslie B. said...

I was convinced there were sentences in my dissertation that were plagiarized by accident, paraphrases too close to the original because to deviate too far would be too distort, in situations where a quotation would be too long. I was totally paranoid about it (despite citing).

I am paranoid about it in a paper on a theorist now. I understand her words as she writes them, but when I paraphrase I know I am turning vulgar and not translating all the philosophical nuances--which are precisely the things I need. Her text is smart, very smart, but also very poorly written and it is as though I needed to learn to rewrite it better, not rewrite in such a way as I only reflect the dimmest of understandings. It's a real conundrum with bad writing.

Leslie B. said...

Also this: another generic introduction (revised). I do wonder how much it looks like everyone else's. But if, when this comes out, someone says I am like Bialosky, I do believe I will say I am Pierre Ménard. (This is NOT a defense of her, just an expression of how paranoid I am about these things.) It's a co-translation and some of the sentences are my student's, and I stole them and we are both signing this; if he plagiarized them then I am being remiss in checking at this very moment.

César Moro (1903-1956), the surrealist poet and painter, is widely considered the best modern Peruvian poet besides César Vallejo. Written in Mexico in 1938-1939 and published in Lima in 1957, La tortuga ecuestre is judged by most critics to be Moro's best collection of poetry. Moro had lived in France for much of the 1920s and 30s where he was active in the avant-garde artistic circles of the era; his work includes essays on modern poetry and painting in both Spanish and French. His complete poetry was published in 2015 as Obra poética completa by Alción Editora in Córdoba, Argentina; this volume, the joint effort of several scholars, includes notes, an anthology of critical work, and reproductions of many of Moro’s paintings. His papers, including an important series of letters to Emilio Adolfo Westphalen and other unpublished works, are housed at the Getty Research Institute in Los Angeles.

La tortuga ecuestre is an oblique chronicle of Moro's relationship with another man, Antonio Acosta, that took place in Mexico during the years in which it was written. The 'equestrian turtle' of the collection's title is an erotic symbol, derived according to Moro's friend and editor André Coyné from the experience in Lima, in 1934-1935, of seeing two turtles copulating in a park. At the time the volume was composed Moro was working with André Breton and the painter Wolfgang Paalen on the Fourth International Surrealist Exhibition (Mexico City, 1940). The poems are painterly, working with visual textures, mobile perspectives and landscapes in movement. Sound matters in Moro and the poems make good use of assonance and syntax as rhythm, but it is the complexity of the images, the work with perspective, and the use of vocabulary and word-play that offer the sharpest challenges to both reader and translator. Moro, who stamped some of his notebooks from this period with the words “César Moro, sado-masoquiste,” fragments not only perspective but also body and voice in these “visions of violence and risk, dream and falling” (Oviedo 1977) onto which are melded images of Antonio's phantasmagoric body. Love here is a transfiguration that brings self-loss, but at the same time reconstructs the lovers as nonhuman actors in a natural world that crowns and also subsumes them.

We have been as faithful as we could to Moro’s use of language, seeking to find idiomatic equivalents for his many archaisms, recondite vocabulary and arcane references. Because image is so important in Moro, we have privileged accuracy in the recreation of images over assonance and rhythm; we have tried, however, to reproduce as many aspects of sound as is possible in a language as different phonetically from Spanish as is English. We hope here to have “given voice to the intentio of the original,” as Walter Benjamin urged in “The Task of the Translator.” The edition we have used for our translations is César Moro, Obra poética completa (Poitiers [France]: Centre de Recherches Latino-Américaines-Archivos; Córdoba [República Argentina]: Alción Editora, 2015).

Thomas said...

Your first paragraph is an excellent example of a Wittgensteinian "language game". Wittgenstein would have us imagine languages with a few words like "slab", "bring", and some numbers. Then he would try to clarify what "meaning" something involves by imagining various ways of using these languages, various rules of the game.

In your language of two-word sentences, no one would be accused of plagiarizing an individual sentence. Each of the sentences in this love story will have been used millions of times in the literature of the language: "Sun rises. Man eats. Man walks. Man works. Sun sets. Woman calls. Man walks. Woman waits. Man enters. Man speaks. Woman speaks. Man eats. Woman eats. Woman speaks. Man smiles. Woman smiles. Man leaves. Woman leaves. Man walks. Woman walks. Man enters. Woman enters. Man drinks. Woman drinks. Woman smiles. Man smiles. Moon blushes. Man sleeps. Woman sleeps." But what are the odds that this story has been told in this exact way before? And what would it mean to accuse someone of plagiarism in this language?

It's a good way to think through the problem. Thanks for that.

Leslie B. said...

Although there are many standard combinations that keep coming up. "Thanks for that" "think through the problem" "It is a good way to" ...

I love the story in the two-word sentences.

Jonathan said...

Yes, we have to think about statistical probabilities then. The sentences in a language won't be random, but will consist of some convenient chunks, so that if you have "conciliar" you will probably have "conciliar el sueño" or if you have the verb "shed" it will only be fur, blood, tears. A cliché was a phrase that the printers could use to set an entire phrase rather than setting it word by word. Stereotype is also old printers' jargon. The number of sentences is still indefinite, but there will be certain sentences that will repeat in the corpus of a certain size.