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[xmca] A Flock of Already Roasted Pigeons

In our seminar on Thinking and Speech we are comparing the French, Italian, Japanese and two English translations with the Russian original (and, Wagner, we'd VERY much appreciate some advice on how to get that new Spanish translation!). Sometimes it's a bit of beauty contest, like the place in Minick where he has scientific concepts "dropping to the child's mouth like hotcakes". What Vygotsky really says, in the other translations anyway, is that they drop from the sky like already roasted pigeons.

Last night one of our comrades made the point that in many places the Minick translation is SOFT on Piaget: it gives us Piaget without quotation marks so that he sounds like Vygotsky speaking, it says Piaget "was successful" in delimiting spontaneous from nonspontaneous concepts when in fact what Vygotsky says was that he ONLY limited himself to doing this, and in fact didn't really accept the nonspontaneous concepts as part of child thinking at all. 

In many places (e.g. 173) Minick says "This is correct" but the other translators render it "this appears correct" or "this seems correct" and you get the feeling that Vygotsky is simply setting the scene for another excursion into immanent critique, where he "hollows out" words like "syncretism", or "complex" or "spontaneous concept" and fills them with a completely new content of his own (respectively "heap", "objective, concrete grouping", and "everyday concept").  

Stylistically, Minick's method is to break up Vygotsky's complex syntax into short sentences in order to make it more readable while still translating the entire text bar a sentence here and a relative cluase there. In this way his position he takes something of a middle position between Hanfmann and Vakar + Kozulin, who really just tell you about what they think Vygotsky's saying and Meccaci, who copiously footnotes all the punctuation differences between the 1934 Russian edition and that of 1982. 

It's good, and for the most part it works very well, particularly for speakers of languages that are quite far from standard European languages (Korean, Japanese, and Chinese). But in the passages on Piaget this method simply doesn't work. Here's why. Consider the following pairs of clauses:

a) I'm ugly. I'm gentle.
b) I'm guly. But I'm gentle.
c) I'm ugly, but I'm gentle.
e) Although I'm ugly, I'm gentle.
f) Although you are gentle, you're ugly.

You can see that the b) and even c) are not a "middle way" between a) and f) in any important sense, much less a "middle way" between e) and f). You can also see that although the REFERENCE of e) and f) are indeed roughly the same, the illocutionary force is really quite opposite, and the perlocutionary force (to pillage John Searle) is diametrically counterposed: in one case, a marriage proposal and in the other, a rejection.

Vygotsky's attitude towards Piaget is not captured by "but" or  "on the one hand" and "on the other" or even by "although". It is a much stormier relationship which in Korean we call "jeong", that is, rapture and rage, a combination of a handshake and a hammerlock, a warm embrace and two half Nelsons.  

Here's an example. Minick says:

"A theoretical consideration of no less importance is the fact that scientific and everyday concepts have different relationships to the object or act that is represented in thought" (p. 180). This makes it sound like it's just a matter of nouns as opposed to verbs. But look at Meccaci's version:

"Additionally we need to include here another theoretical consideration which is no less important, which consists of the fact that scientific and everyday concepts have a different relationship with the object and with the various acts of apprehension of this object by thinking." 

When you read this alongside the argument made in Chapter Four and especially in Chapter Five it is very clear that what Vygotsky has in mind is by no means the distinction between nouns and verbs. He's talking about how concepts develop, not about the different kinds of concepts there are. 

He means that the child's thinking goes from being enslaved by the object, say, a hotcake, to being able to name the object "hotcake" and then being able to abstract away the object from the name and use the word to operate with an ideal representation of the set of all hotcakes. 

And even this is only the beginning. Once the child has mastered the "indicative" and the "nominative" function, it becomes possible to "name" things which actually CAN'T exist. Say, for example, a flock of pigeons falling miraculously into the child's mouth out of a clear blue sky, already roasted.

David Kellogg
Seoul National University of Education

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