From Royal Society to the 2020 Olympics: Transcultural Symbolic Languages

Edward Tenner
Monday, September 16, 2019 -
12:00pm to 1:30pm
144 Louis A. Simpson International Building
Detail from cover of Otto Neurath, From Hieroglyphics to Isotype. © University of Reading /Courtesy of Perpensa Press
Monday, September 16, 2019 -
12:00pm to 1:30pm

Previous translation lectures have focused on the richness of metaphor and the challenges and rewards if affords translators and their readers. Beginning in the seventeenth century a powerful countercurrent has appeared: suspicion of the ambiguity of language and a search for an alternative symbolic system to purify thinking and break down cultural barriers.  The first widely adopted system of this kind was born in the early twentieth century, initiated by the philosopher/economist/museum director Otto Neurath – inspired by Egyptian hieroglyphics – and equally shaped by the radical  graphic artist Gerd Arntz and the scientist-illustrator Marie Neurath, who coined the trademark Isotype and became a theorist of the translation of raw statistics into powerful pictures. The Austrian museum curator Rudolf Modley, emigrating to the U.S., Americanized the European features of Isotype and collaborated with Margaret Mead in a campaign of international understanding through glyphs. As an entrepreneur he created a profitable business from the former socialist project of enlightening the proletariat.  The Japanese Olympics of 1964 and (in planning) 2020 launched a new era of global symbols.  Yet in the graphics as in texts, metaphors and misunderstandings seem to remain inevitable. On the positive side, the web has sparked a renaissance of enthusiasm for the work of the Neuraths, Arntz, and Modley. And surprising echoes of the original glyphs remain. (Photo credit: Detail from cover of Otto Neurath, From Hieroglyphics to Isotype. © University of Reading /Courtesy of Perpensa Press).

Edward Tenner was born in Chicago and attended Princeton University and the University of Chicago, where he earned a Ph.D. in European history.  After receiving a German government scholarship and membership in the Harvard Society of Fellows, he held teaching and research positions in Chicago until his appointment as science editor of Princeton University Press.  In 1991 he was awarded a Guggenheim fellowship and became an independent historian of technology and culture, since then holding visiting positions at Princeton, The University of Pennsylvania, and the Institute for Advanced Study.  He is now a visiting scholar at Rutgers, and a distinguished scholar of the Smithsonian's Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation.  Tenner is the author of Tech Speak, Why Things Bite Back: Technology and the Revenge of Unintended Consequences, Our Own Devices: How Technology Remakes Humanity, and most recently The Efficiency Paradox: What Big Data Can't Do, chosen as a Bloomberg outstanding book of 2018.

Sponsored by
Program in Translation and Intercultural Communication