September 15th, 2009: I originally pulled this page on Kalaba-X down from after a message to the CONLANG list by Rick Harrison about the page potentially disappearing because of the coming death of Geocities. Its hosting here for non-commercial purposes, thus would be covered by fair dealing under Irish copyright law, so I’ve decided to host it here. —K.

September 17th, 2009: And just to make sure this mirror’s safe, we’ve definite permission from Bibliotheca Sacra to mirror it here.


Translating material from your native language into a drastically different language, or vice versa, requires you to break old habits of thought and look at ideas in new ways. This exercise can help you to acquire some of the necessary skills…

An Artificial Language that Teaches the Art of Translation

Extracted from a lecture given in 1956 by Kenneth L. Pike, Ph.D. first published in Bibliotheca Sacra Vol. 114

In our first lecture we emphasized the fact that a language was a grid, an emic system by means of which and through which communication takes place. In the second, we indicated that such a system had, basic to it, classes of morphemes (or words, or morphemes and words, or words and phrases) with functional slots into which the classes fitted in sentence structures. In this, the third lecture, we are not so much interested in adding new linguistic concepts as we are in exploiting the ones already set forth.

In order to do this we shall introduce an artificial system which will serve as the total target language into which passages are to be translated… The system is fashioned in such a manner as to keep it small enough to be manageable within the space of a lecture of this kind, but complete enough to make concrete the manner in which slots and classes enter into the translation process. Even though the example is built to order, artificially, the person studying it carefully and experimenting with it will see in clear perspective some of the most important elements of translation theory and practice. It is the most effective method we have been able so far to develop to demonstrate these principles.

Formulas for an Artificial Training Language

Only one sentence type occurs in this artificial language, a language which I shall hereafter call Kalaba-X. This sentence type has three slots which must always be filled, and filled in a particular order: Each sentence has a predicate slot, followed by an object slot, which in turn is followed by a subject slot. If we symbolize the obligatory occurrence by a plus sign (+), the formula in so far as it is implied up to this point would be:

+ Pred. + Obj. + Subj.

The fillers of these slots must also be specified, however, before the formula is usable. That is, both slot and filler of the three gramemes involved must be known before actual sentences can be constructed in Kalaba-X.

For the fillers we would save a number of difficulties if we invented each word and morpheme, and we do this often for certain training purposes. The unfamiliar morphemes take much longer to recognize, however, slowing down our present demonstration, and are likely to change the focus of the reader away from the point we want to illustrate. In addition, at this stage in training there is very great gain in the shock received from seeing familiar words used in strange slots, according to new patterns. It helps the reader assimilate the implications of the fact, mentioned in the last lecture, that parts of speech are formal elements, formally resultant from the distribution of morphemes and words in functional slots, rather than categorical classes which are universal to all languages. (There is also the possibility that for many languages the concept of a restricted number of parts of speech may best be abandoned, to be replaced by a much more flexible approach to a larger number of criss-crossing groupings.)

This in turn leads to a flexibility of conceptualization in a new framework which may prevent an inexperienced translator from stalling in his task when he fails to find the kind of translation equivalents which he expected. With his imagination trained, he is better able to look for a correct and adequate but unexpected path out of his dilemma.

To fill the predicate slot we use any English verb. Since only one kind of predicate grameme is set up, there are no distinctions between transitive and intransitive verbs. All English verbs, despite their restrictions in standard English formulas, may occur in this slot. Each of them, it should be noticed, must be followed by an object. A further convention is adopted for this stage in the training formula: A verb may be borrowed from English in any of its inflected forms, according to convenience; the internal analytical problems raised by these differences are ignored at this point, left to be covered later by other phases of the training process.

Both the object slot and the subject slot of Kalaba-X are filled by English nouns. Here, too, delicate problems arise as to the forms to be permitted, even though it is specified in advance that any inflected form of the noun may be used. The formula, then, now looks like this:

Verb Noun Noun
+ Pred. + Obj. + Subj.

One further amplification of the formula is introduced to give more flexibility to Kalaba-X and to provide an artificial language that is very simple but which nevertheless allows for the translation into it of English materials. A modification grameme is added. This grameme, unlike the others so far described, can come in more than one place. It may occur, but is not required to be present, after the predicate grameme, which it then modifies. It may also follow, and modify the object grameme, or the subject grameme. Although a particular sentence may, therefore, contain three instances of the modification grameme (one after each of the basic gramemes), no two modification gramemes come in sequence, since each of the basic gramemes is restricted to one, and only one, modifier.

The filler of the modification slot in Kalaba-X may be any English adjective. Here, as with the other gramemes, some problems arise, since we are assuming that the list of English adjectives will be clearly known to the reader, whereas in fact differences of opinion as to the inclusiveness of the list occur. (In any such particular instance, the student makes his own arbitrary decision if it does not contradict the basic rules laid down, and provided that he remains consistent throughout his work.)

The problem is made much more instructive, however, by a further extension of the list of fillers appropriate to the modification slot. Any noun, or any verb, may constitute an acceptable filler of the modifier slots just as an adjective can do.

Note, then, the revised formula, with the added symbols of slant line (/) meaning ‘or,’ and parentheses to show the basic gramemes expanded by a modifier:

+(+PV ±MN/V/A) + (+ON ±MN/V/A) + (+SN ±MN/V/A)

Note, further, that this formula in part defines a noun for the Kalaba-X structure: it is a member of that list of words which can fill object, subject, or modifier slots. A verb is a word which can fill predicate or modifier slots. An adjective is a word which can fill only a modifier slot.

From a Complex to a Simple Structure

We now present a paragraph which is to be translated into Kalaba-X. Sentences are numbered for convenience of reference:

(1) ON A BICYCLE DOWN THE MALL, (2) I was doing my best to make my way home from work on my old bicycle and thread my way down St. James, to take a short cut through the Park. (3) But I was forced to dismount. (4) Picked up by the crowd, I was put down again intact at Marlborough Gate. (5) I was going well again when I reached the Mall, and then it dawned on me, the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh were expected. (6) There was a traffic diversion. (7) Being a very small fish, I had got through the net. (8) The Mall stretched in front of me clear and inviting, with police each side keeping the crowd back. (9) “This may never happen again,” I said to myself, and without a second thought, kept straight on. (10) The good-natured crowd cheered. (11) Even the police had to laugh.

— (12) E. T. Sutherland, Torrens Rd., Brixton. The Evening News, London, July 4, 1953.

Now we suggest a translation into Kalaba-X. Many different-and presumably better-translations are possible within the limiting structure. This is not the correct translation. Differences of judgment as to word equivalences, artistic effects, literalness, and the like, would prevent any two translators from obtaining identical results, a principle easily demonstrable in a classroom by this method. Sentences are numbered to key in to the source paragraph, with a running commentary on some points which the student should not overlook. One special caution: the model allows a considerable degree of ambiguity, since in a sequence of nouns a particular noun might be either subject or object or might be object or verb modifier, etc. These ambiguities can only be resolved, if at all, by a study of the context.

(1) “Rides Mall Bicycle Man.” The title had to be rephrased into a full sentence, to fit the structure. The predicate “rides” was deduced from later context, and the noun “Mall” used as a modifier of it, i.e., “to Mall ride,” as if we were to say “to Boston go.” The prepositions on and down disappear; the meaning of “on a bicycle” is carried by the predicate-object phrase, “ride bicycle.” The articles a and the drop-no such word class appears in Kalaba-X; the distinction of the English definiteness or indefiniteness would be made explicit in Kalaba-X only if it were important to the context. Categories obligatory to a source language must often be dropped in this fashion, lest a translation made to preserve them become exceedingly long and cumbersome.

(2a) “Owned bicycle old speaker present.” Since no pronouns occur in Kalaba-X (one of the bits where it is least like a natural language, where “I” would presumably be found), a substitute technique must be used to signal the reader that this is a firsthand account. Note here the subject “speaker present”; and compare sentence 12, which makes the signal less ambiguous. Similarly, “my” drops, and the possession requires statement in new form-here, in a verb with its object.

(2b) “Left work speaker.” We were unable to begin with “doing my best” since it has no nominal object, and since the whole concept of the first source sentence was too complicated for a single sentence in Kalaba-X. In order to simplify it, we pulled out the phrases “my old bicycle” and “from work” and made separate sentences of each, to get the setting ready for the main action.

(2c) “Attempted difficulty trip homeward speaker.” Now the idiom “was doing my best” is reworked into a predicate “Attempted” plus a noun “difficulty” modifying it, i.e., “attempted with difficulty.”

(2d) “Traversed street St.-James’s speaker.” The change from a complex structure to a simple one often involves repetition of some parts. Here the subject has been repeated, since no pronoun is available, nor can “and” be used to connect the predicates of (2c) and (2d). The compound street name “St.-James’s” is treated as a unit-under the assumption that speakers of Kalaba-X mimic the total pronunciation without recognition of its grammatical structure. The lexical change from “threaded” to “traversed” deletes a figure of speech which, to be intelligible, might have needed an expansion which hardly seemed warranted-the progress of the story was not tied in to this figure of speech of needle and thread (but see the “fish” figure in 7).

(2e) “Comprised shortcut Park intention speaker.” The source purpose seen in “to” is transferred to a subject noun “intention,” with the old subject “I” buried in “speaker” which functions in (2c) as modifier. The prepositional phrase “through the Park” is handled by “Park” as modifier of the object.

(3) “Forced descent bicycle circumstances.” A pseudoactor, “circumstances,” is added; perhaps “crowd” would have been better. The passive complex verb is replaced by the active one, and “to dismount” becomes the object “descent” (from the bicycle). Perhaps “Dismounted speaker crowd” would have been a better translation.

(4a) “Lifted speaker crowd.” The two-word phrase “picked up” is replaced by a single word for the Kalaba-X format.

(4b) “Released Marlborough-Gate speaker intact crowd.” As an alternate: “Constituted site release Marlborough-Gate,” if “intact” is handled otherwise.

(5a) “Continued succeeded point Mall journey resume. The verbs “succeeded” and “resume” are modifiers of predicate and object, i.e., “The resumed journey successfully continued to the Mall spot.” The verb “resume” covers the source word “again.”

(5b) “Clarified suddenness understanding speaker situation surprise.” Three noun modifiers—suddenness,” “surprise,” and “speaker—fill modifier spots.

(5c) “Wait appearance Queen crowd expect.” The object is “appearance,” with “Queen” as modifier.

(5d) “Wait Duke Edinburgh crowd.” Repetitiveness is avoided in 5c-d by using “appearance” as explicit object only in 5c, with “Duke” as object in 5d.

(6) “Rerouted previous traffic officials.” English pseudo-subject “there” must be replaced, and “officials” (or “police”) obtained from context. “Previous” modifies “rerouted,” not “traffic.”

(7a) “Constituted analogy fish small speaker.”

(7b) “Penetrated fish net traffic speaker unimpeded.” The fish analogy is preserved, at a cost of spelling it out in detail. In 7b, “fish” modifies “penetrated,” i.e., “to penetrate like a fish.” It could have been dropped, to yield (replacing 7a-7b) something like “Penetrated restraints traffic speaker unimportant,” or “Penetrated restraints traffic vehicle small.”

(8a) “Appears front space open Mall extends.” The word “extends” is merely a verb modifying “Mall,” i.e., “the extended Mall…”; it is not a predicate in a new formula.

(8b) “Invites ride Mall.”

(8c) “Restrain sides crowd lines police.” The noun “sides” modifies “restrain,” deduced from context.

(9a) “Tells speaker speaker.” Alternate: “Soliloquized words following speaker,” which perhaps more clearly states that a quotation is to follow.

(9b) “Represents probability negative opportunity repeat.”

(9c) “Gives negative consideration more rider storyteller.”

(9d) “Proceeds direction straight rider.”

(10) “Cheered rider crowd pleasant.”

(11) “Restrain failure laughter own police.”

(12) “Tells story own E. -T. -Sutherland.”

(13) “Inhabits Torrens-Rd. Brixton storyteller.”

(14) “Published London story The-Evening-News.”

(15) “Happened Four July story 1953.”

This last set (13-15) is awkward. “Brixton” is assumed to modify the name of the street. “London” modifies “published.” “1953” is treated as a unit modifying “story,” and “July” as modifying “four.”

In summary, various changes may occur when one translates from a complex to a simple structure. Among those illustrated in the above problem are addition of fillers to slots obligatory to the target language but not to the source language; partial loss of some categorical distinctions obligatory to the source language; loss of parts of speech or of morpheme classes present in the source language but absent in the target language; loss of constructions based on these classes; transference of load from lost components to target components, such as when a lexical item-say a particular noun-in the target language carries the functional meaning of a special particle in the source language; change of order of words or slots; shortening of complex sentences into multiple short target sentences; dropping figures of speech or else making them more explicit; replacing idioms with lexical or structural substitutes; drawing on context for interpretive data to fill blanks required by formal structure; the more sequence of the sentences may be forced to carry implications of time, sequence, or cause, or dependence, or relatedness, etc., which were in the complex structure signaled by particles of some type.

Artistic Use of Simple Structures

A person unacquainted with language forms might conclude that a language with a simple structure would lead to a dreary style. This is far from true. Every structure, in the hands of an artist, lends itself to beautiful effects. A simple structure may lead to balanced lines and artistic repetition. An occasional Chinese verse might seem to the uninitiated layman to be built on a model scarcely more complex than the sentence type we have been studying.

Perhaps the reader would enjoy seeing verse in the format given. The following verse utilizes that pattern, with a few changes; one further sentence type, limited to a single exclamatory word, is added, and some hyphenated two-morpheme items are treated as single slot-filling units:

Enters bird big, man bewildered. Maketh sound loud, bird silvered.   Whoosh! Aimeth sky top, bird up-flying Falleth ground face, earth low-lying.   Wow! Hideth earth low, clouds heavy. Rocketh gentle man, bird steady.   Nice! Cover eyes blue, eyelids drooping. Covers sky blue, darkness stooping,   Sleep! Open eyes tired, man wondering. Breaketh air night, storm thundering.   Boom! Rocketh bird poor, storm no-cease. Reacheth land firm, bird one-piece.   Whew!     —Dorothy Barnhouse

For verse with no changes other than a comma to make unambiguous by a pause the end of the object, note the following:

Owns lamb little, Mary. Loves lamb, Mary little. Loves Mary pretty, lamb. Owns lamb, Mary pretty. Seems snow, fleece white. Equals snow white, fleece. Equals snow, fleece soft. Seems fleece soft, snow.

First-Stage Translation into a Complex Structure

Translation from a simple structure to a complex one may entail all of the problems faced in translating English to Kalaba-X, but in reverse. Instead of fewer parts of speech, or distribution classes, there may be more; several simple sentences may need to be combined into a large complex one; the number and function of obligatory slots may be different; and so on. In our next illustration we shall translate from Kalaba-X into English. Instead of emphasizing these same problems, however, we shall use the illustration to demonstrate two other points: (1) A sentence-by-sentence translation can be made, meeting all, or almost all, of the requirements already discussed for adequate translation from structure to structure, but still be awkward, unpleasant, and completely unsatisfactory even though accurate. (2) Satisfactory translation must take account of units larger than the sentence; it must consider the story, or quotation, or paragraph, or document as a whole; it must approximate a choice of vocabulary, choice of sentence type, and choice of general style of exposition which will be appropriate to the age, sex, training, experience, cultural setting, and purpose of comparable speakers or writers in the target culture; it must, in sum, have the flavor of an original document in the target culture.

In order to show these points we will first present a short incident recorded in our artificial language Kalaba-X. Interlined with it we will give a first-stage translation, one sentence at a time, into the target language, which is normal English. Later we will give a second-stage translation of the incident as a whole, modified for better style.

(1) “Made resolutions New-Year writer.”

(Trans.: “The writer made some New Year’s resolutions.”)

(2) “Constitutes writer speaker.

(Trans.: “The speaker is the writer.”

(3) “Contained resolution following list.”

(Trans.: “The list contained the following resolution.”)

(4) “Necessitate patience increase reactions writer.”

(Trans.: “The writer’s reactions need increased patience.”)

(5) “Apply need direction daughter patience require.”

(Trans.: “The required patience must be applied in the daughter’s direction.”)

(6) “Constitutes daughter Janet.”

(Trans.: “Janet is the daughter.”)

(7) “Belongs writer daughter.”

(Trans.: “The daughter belongs to the writer.”)

(8) “Disregard obligation irritation degreeless writer.”

(Trans.: “The writer has an obligation to disregard irritation of any degree.”)

(9) “Necessitates remembrance facts reaction writer.”

(Trans.: “The writer’s reaction makes necessary the recollection of certain facts.”)

(10) “Attained exclusive years fifteen Janet.”

(Trans.: “Janet is just fifteen years old.”)

(11) “Constitutes currently adolescent Janet.”

(Trans.: “Janet is now an adolescent.”)

(12) “Exasperates adults adolescence.”

(Trans.: “Adolescence exasperates adults.”)

(13) “Discovered accident resolutions different writer.”

(Trans.: “The writer accidentally discovered some different resolutions.”)

(14) “Requests imagination reader writer.”

(Trans.: “The writer requests imagination to be used by the reader.”)

(15) “Affected feelings writer discovery.”

(Trans.: “The discovery affected the writer ts feelings.”)

(16) “Belong Janet resolution New year’s.”

(Trans.: “The New Year’s resolutions belonged to Janet.”)

(17) “Saw resolution first writer.”

(Trans.: “The writer saw the first resolution.”)

(18) “Stated words following resolution.”

(Trans.: “The resolution read as follows.”

(19) “Requires effort increased situation.”

(Trans.: “The situation requires increased effort.”)

(20) “Obligated patience mother daughter.”

(Trans.: “A daughter is obligated to have patience toward her mother.”)

If now we read rapidly the interlinear translation, it becomes clear that it does not yet remotely reach our ultimate goal of an accurate translation which sounds like a document originally written in English.

Second-Stage Translation into a Complex Structure

A second-stage translation is needed in which the style should be made more normal. Before attempting this we should note the over-all setting, and deduce something of the character of the writers so as to get a clue to the kinds of styles people of a comparable type would use in English. The author is a woman sophisticated enough to keep a diary, old enough-and young enough-to have a fifteen-year-old daughter, alert, resilient, able to recognize and appreciate a subtle joke on herself, and sufficiently articulate to write up the incident to share the pleasure with others. The daughter is adolescent, but sophisticated in sensing that responsibilities must be shared.

Since Kalaba-X and English differ so greatly, there is a corresponding great difference in possible translations from the one to the other. The following attempt is only one of many possible translations:

(l-3) “I made some New Year’s resolutions, with this one among them.” Note that the sentences are combined, the incident told in the first person, the more informal “this one” replacing “the following.”

(5-7) “I must be more patient with my daughter Janet.” The phrase “my daughter Janet” covers 6-7, while 5 is made more idiomatic and informal.

(8-12) “Regardless of the degree to which she becomes irritating, my reaction to her must keep in mind the fact that she is just fifteen, a mere adolescent, and that this age is always exasperating to other people.”

(13-18) “But just imagine how I felt when by accident I ran across Janet’s New Year’s resolutions and saw that the first one read:

(19-20) “A daughter should be patient with her mother; I must try harder with mine.”

Many problems can be demonstrated by these techniques, which time does not allow in this lecture. Once the student has learned to adapt his final draft to a desired style it may be necessary to give some illustrations of instances in which the translator has taken too great liberty with the text, in adding speculative material not justified by the context, or by changing content as such rather than the formal matters of the structural grid.

One of the best exercises to teach balance in this regard is to have one group of students translate from English into Kalaba-X, and a second group of students translate back into English without having seen the original. When the two English versions diverge sharply on nonformal matters, or in emotional over-tones, or in style, the two translations should be checked to see if one or the other was inadequate, or whether the cultural setting was too obscure to give the style clues needed.

In line with this suggestion, we now give the original from which the Kalaba-X story about Janet was taken. The reader may wish to modify one of the translations in accordance with these principles:

On my list of New Year’s resolutions was: “Be more patient with my daughter Janet. No matter how irritating she is, remember that, after all, she is only 15, and is going through the exasperating period of adolescence.” Imagine then my feeling when, quite by accident, I came across Janet’s New Year’s resolutions and saw at the head of her list: “Try and be more patient with Mother.” Contributed by Mrs. C. R. Knowles, The Reader’s Digest, Jan. 1952, p. 79.