My Snail

Speaking Korean, I want to say, Some people spend their life apologizing for who they are, but the literal translation seems cold and analytical, so I come up with a new symbol: Some people live like garden snails. Of course it’s a different expression; it was bound to be different. Because I am myself, I get to approve my translations of myself, to assert that snails are apologetic insofar as they embody the sort of self-effacing person I’m referring to. To be understood—to know that the words passed through is the Korean idiom—comforts me far more than the obscure boast of a word-for-word translation.

But I meant to talk about vector functions. I’m into Calc III now, and I keep noticing that the brainfeel I get talking around clunky phrases in Korean is very similar to the one I get when parameterizing an equation. I can’t shake the feeling that math is just lyric poetry played out on graph paper, a rigorous way of plugging metaphors into each other. That contrived variable t isn’t a part of the curve we are trying to draw; it merely metaphorizes—parameterizes—the stylus tracing out the shape we’re interested in. The parameter is a figurative device.

Stoned mathematicians like to ask next: Is the function itself actual? What makes it more actual than its parameter? We might ask the same, in literature, of the breeze or babirusa likened to a human. A little change in perspective, and we realize that the metaphor is working in two directions at once, asserting as much about humans as about the nonhumans it personifies. We say that it’s the parameter that animates the curve, but this is just a mind hack; it’s equally true to say that the curve beckons its parameterization. Squiggles surely precede line integrals.

To speak pragmatically, the fluidity of metaphor is why I’m comfortable with translation styles that others might call too liberal. We can equate n-dimensional curves and their paramaterizations because we know that they are simply two ways of modeling a mathematical object whose existence was already only hypothetical. Language, too, does not terminate or close upon itself; whether translated or merely set in a different font face, it undergoes constant reinterpretation. Let me have my snail. Let me write my own concordance.