Thursday, May 29, 2014

Genes in translation

Years ago, Ken was in Italy and feeling cocky about his command of the language.  He intended to order still, not sparkling, water at a restaurant, so he asked for "Acqua non gazzini," so certain that he'd guessed the word-ending correctly that he was surprised when the waiter laughed, and then so did his friends.  It was a minor error (it's gasata, the past participle), his meaning easily discernible and he got his water, but still, he had mutated the word enough for it to be noticeable.

When I was a kid, we had many foreign exchange students at our house.  Among many memorable, novel English constructions and miscomprehensions that happened around our kitchen table was this one:  The young Honduran student staying with us at the time told my father that she was going to see a movie with a friend.  I don't remember what the movie was, but I do remember my dad teasing her, telling her that it was a movie full of sex and violence, and that it was his job to warn her.  When she came home, he asked how she'd like the film.  She said she was perplexed, in fact.  "I saw the sex, but I didn't see any violins."  

The list of interlingual malapropisms is long, and indeed possibilities endless.  Many are humorous, but some so wrong that the meaning is entirely lost in the uttering.  I was prompted to think about this by a review in a recent New Yorker by Adam Gopnik ("Word Magic: How much really gets lost in translation?").  He opens the piece with an Italian malapropism of his own -- he thought he had ordered little wild strawberries for dessert (fragoline) one night, so was surprised when the waiter brought him a plate of green beans (fagiolini). This has become a favorite family story.  

Gopnik's piece is about languages and translation, as he reviews "what may be the weirdest book the twenty first century has so far produced: 'Dictionary of Untranslatables: A Philosophical Lexicon,'" a hefty book originally in French, but now in English, and much altered from the original.  
It is in part an anti-English protest, taking arms against the imperializing spread of our era's, well, lingua franca--which has now been offered in English, so that everyone can understand it.  The book's presupposition is that there are significant, namable, untranslatable differences between tongues so that, say, "history" in English, histoire in French, and Geshichte in German have very different boundaries that we need to grasp if we are to understand the texts in which the words occur.  
Indeed, histoire in French has an added meaning that 'history' in English doesn't have, including 'history' in the English sense, and 'story'.  Gopnik unleashes a wonderful word that describes words that have multiple meanings in translation -- the Greek word logos, e.g., is a fine example of 'polysemy', with its twenty-three different meanings in English, including 'the word'.  Of course, it's not just in translation that we find polysemy.  Many words serve multiple purposes in any single language too -- in English we've got the many meanings of 'duck' or 'chuck' or 'bust', e.g.

Gopnik is not a fan of the dictionary editor's idea that some words are not translatable, have meaning  so specific in a given language that much is lost in translation.  Contrary to the American linguist Benjamin Whorf, who, early in the 20th century, devised the theory of linguistic relativism, the idea that the language we speak constrains and shapes our thoughts, Gopnik believes that anything can be said in any language, even if it takes more than a single word.

Genes are translated too
Ok, now let's translate all this to genetics -- of course you knew that's where I was headed. Genetics, too, is building its own hefty dictionaries of gene function.  Genes, too, have malapropisms that are noticeable but don't do any damage, just as they have mutations that completely change the meaning.  Many genes have multiple functions, or are pleiotropic, the genetic equivalent of polysemy.  And, as with words, a gene's function is determined by context -- the type of cell it's being expressed in, or what else is going on at the time, developmentally or in response to environmental influences or in neighboring cells or tissues.

But, less prosaically I think, an analogous difference of view to that between language relativists -- or determinists -- and language non-determinists is telling, the dictionaries of genetic function being interpreted in different ways.  Language determines and constrains what we think, Whorf believed, but this view is dated, and most linguists now would argue for a greatly tempered relativism (despite the fact that Jorge Luis Borges once said that he loved writing in English because there's no word for 'wistful' in Spanish), saying that language may have some influence on how and what we think, but isn't overly deterministic.

Similarly, while genes 'for' traits or diseases are still reported all the time, surely the number of human geneticists who would admit to looking for 'the' gene for their favorite trait has diminished, most acknowledging that things are more complex than even they had thought in previous decades.

But, word that there's no gene for wistfulness hasn't spread far and wide outside the field, so we've got political scientists and economists and psychologists and anthropologists and epidemiologists looking for genes to explain their favorite traits.  Linguistic determinism is an arcane theory, with little impact or potential impact on society.  Malapropisms of genetic determinism are another story.

And what about the meaning of the words we use in the field?  There is no consistent definition of 'gene', even in the technical sense.  Just like 'evolution' -- or 'logos' or 'histoire' -- different people utter the word with different things in mind.  Often, probing will show that they weren't very clear even in their own minds about the boundaries and range of the meaning.  Is 'gene' a metaphor for a trait, a protein-coding region of DNA, a protein-coding region including its flanking regulatory DNA, a functional unit visible to natural selection, a single nucleotide that may or may not have a function (and what is a 'function'?).  When we discuss areas that matter, in which there are strong disagreements, semantics can be an important part of the issues at stake.  Often the meaning of the word affects study design, choice of what to study, and explanation of what is found.

It's enough to make one feel wistful for simpler times.


Anonymous said...

Maybe it's simplest to say that the gene is a sequence of DNA that corresponds to a sequence of RNA. With more mediation between that an protein, and far more between that and a trait.

Unit of selection? No, because the whole chromosome can be a unit of selection. So can epigenes. And DNA is also a level as well as a unit of selection - parasitic DNA, meiotic drive etc.

This might be going too far: one of the triumphs of mid-20th c. biology was the discovery that nucleic acids are the hereditary material. Inheritance was reified as DNA. That was, I think, a mistake.

It's clear that the epigenome includes what earlier researchers were trying to identify as the hereditary material.

For example, neanderthals and humans are nearly genetically identical differ in methylation:

John R. Vokey said...

Emily Litella on Violins on TV:

Ken Weiss said...

Yes, that's it!

Anne Buchanan said...

Ok, nevermind!

Francesc Calafell said...

I was told of this American student in Italy who was invited to someone's palacial home. Marvelled at the grandeur of the place, he wanted to compliment the lady of the house on the high ceilings: "Signora, che tette piu' alte ha!". What he actualy complimented were her boobs (tette) rather than her ceilings (tetti)

Ken Weiss said...

Everyone has embarrassing moments, I guess!