October 29, 2007
loves language quarks
By carol clark
Quark doesn’t mean anything,” Tsondue Samphel, a Tibetan, smiles as he explains the nuances of English to a native speaker.
James Joyce coined the nonsense word in the line “Three quarks for Master Mark!” from “Finnegan’s Wake.” Physicist Murray Gell-Mann later proposed the word for a group of elementary particles, and the name stuck.
Samphel can tell you a lot about the origins of science words. The research assistant for the Emory-Tibet Science Initiative has spent the past few months translating the text for “A Handbook of Science for Tibetan Monastics” from English to Tibetan. He led the team translation effort with the help of Tenzin Sonam, a scholar from the Library of Tibetan Works and Archives.
“I enjoyed it because I learned so much,” Samphel says of the project. “The challenge is stimulating.”
It’s hard to imagine anyone more qualified for the job. Samphel grew up in Dharamsala, India, where his father served two terms in the parliamentary body of the exiled Tibetan community. Samphel studied at the Institute for Buddhist Dialectics as a novice monk, but ultimately decided to return to secular life. In 2002, he was accepted at Emory University, through the exchange program of the Emory-Tibet Partnership. He graduated with a degree in physics in 2006.
Samphel’s Buddhist training helped him in his study of physics. “The transitory nature of elementary particles resonates very well with the Buddhist philosophy of impermanence,” he says.
The languages of English and Tibetan, however, have less in common. Written in an Indic script, Tibetan has 30 consonants and four vowels. It is a monosyllabic language, meaning each word has only one sound.
“Quark” was a relatively easy word to translate, Samphel says. He simply transliterated it, so it is written in Tibetan script but has a similar sound to the English version.
Tibetan has far fewer words for animals and plants than English. For instance, the Tibetan word for “ape” is “ta,” but no word exists for “chimpanzee.” In most of these cases, the ETSI translation team simply transliterates the English word and uses a picture of the plant or animal to help convey the meaning.
The neuroscience section of the book presented the biggest challenge, Samphel says. “There are very few names for brain parts in Tibetan, so I had to come up with some.”
The “angular gyrus,” for instance, is a part of the brain involved in word recognition. Samphel looked up the origins of the term in English. “Angular” became “sur den,” which means “to have a point or an edge” in Tibetan. Gyrus means a raised area, so Samphel substituted the Tibetan term “bur wa,” which means “a bump.”
Monastics reading “A Handbook of Science” will be tapping into their angular gyri to understand the meaning of the Tibetan phrase Samphel coined for that part of the brain.