August 16th, 2009

DeWitt on the Untranslatability of Games

Here's the ever-stimulating Helen DeWitt in an interview:
I'm interested in the fact that natural languages are translatable but games are not. You can translate from German to English, from English to Chinese, and you can use one language as a metalanguage to talk about features of another that it does not share. You can't 'translate' bridge into poker, or poker to chess. Someone who plays bridge well will 'see' the possibilities in a hand in a way that's instantly comprehensible to another bridge player, even if the two players don't share a natural language - but which can only be explained to a non-player by teaching the game.

Our social practices aren't as well developed as our games. A community of game players improves the standard at which a game is played over time. Bridge has only been around for a bit over a century, for instance, but well-developed bidding systems enable even very weak players to communicate the strength and shape of their hand and determine whether they have a good fit with their partner; the systems work well because they have been developed by first-class players who have a good sense of which hands play well. (You can't know the potential strength of a pair of hands, obviously, unless you know what can be done with them.) So if I'm playing bridge and have a six-card heart suit and 3 Aces a King and a Jack I have a very good chance of finding out whether my partner has a) a four-card heart suit and a fistful of honours, b) a four-card heart suit but a weakish hand, c) no hearts, a long spade suit and a fistful of honours, d) a few honours and no strong suit, or e) zilch. (to name just a few possibilities) By way of contrast, we have no comparable sophistication in the communication of sexual preferences or strength of interest. To the best of my knowledge, no one has ever gone to jail for optimistically raising a 1 heart opening to slam on a hand with a singleton heart and the Jack of diamonds; we might think that the sophistication of the game could usefully be transferred to areas of life where the penalties for misunderstanding are higher.

--from an interview by untoward