Thought Experiment = 思想實驗? Is there a better translation? How about 假想實驗?

I love interesting and challenging translation question like “「撒嬌」有沒有英譯 ?” which I shared 10 years ago with some thoughtful comments under it that worth checking out. Now as I was looking for a Chinese translation for “Thought Experiment“, a quick check with Google Translate got me “思想實驗”. You see, there is even a Chinese Wikipedia entry for “思想實驗” if you click 中文 (Chinese) (on the left column) along the English Thought Experiment Wikipedia entry.

Now, I don’t like Thought Experiment being translated as “思想實驗” even it seems to be the “accepted norm” given Google Translate (widely used by people) and the formidable Chinese Wikipedia entry for “思想實驗”.

Translating “Thought Experiment” as “假想實驗”

I don’t know if anyone else has translated this earlier but I found in the “譯海泅泳-原文是海,語文素養是泳技” Facebook page a fascinating post “thought experiment 是甚麼東西? ” that detailed the author’s insightful analysis (see below included post).

After reading the cool analysis, I tend to agree with the author and think that “假想實驗” is quite a good translation for “Thought Experiment”. Now, having said that, I’m afraid the tide of “Computational Translation”, “Machine Translation“, and “Machine-Aided Human Translation (MAHT)” are over taking us humans who are more “expert” or have better “taste” in translating. As more and more people are getting or suggested with “思想實驗”  by the likes of Google Translate and Chinese Wikipedia, I’m afraid the linguistic tide is drowning us with mediocre existing translation and they will soon become the norm too strong to ignore.

I hope I’m wrong and I will try to insist using “假想實驗” for “Thought Experiment” but then I’m a rebel. Lots of other English or Chinese speakers won’t even have second thoughts in using “思想實驗”

Again, I will keep using “假想實驗” for “Thought Experiment” and I hope you will too.

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thought experiment 是甚麼東西? (Facebook link) – 譯海泅泳-原文是海,語文素養是泳技 October 4, 2015

(NOTE & Thanks: I acknowledge the original author of this post owns its copyright and thank the author’s contribution to the discussion. I include this full post here for completeness and ease of reading as I thought it extremely thoughtful and insightful. If the author doesn’t like to have the whole post included, I can excerpt portions of it according to “fair dealing/fair use” provisions of copyright law.)

thought experiment=想像實驗、思想實驗、思考實驗、思惟實驗、理想實驗、假想實驗、臆想實驗?
很多中文人口看到thought experiment這個詞,往往搞不懂這是甚麼東西(其實就算是英文人口,也有不少人無法一看就懂,因為這不是日常用語)。憑著大家所背單字的意思,一個「思想」,一個「實驗」–這是甚麼東西?這是因為我們只看到個別文字的意思,卻看不到文字背後真實情境的緣故。借用禪宗的話說就是,我們只看到指月的手,卻沒有看到手所指的月。用現在的話來說的話,這就是「去脈絡」的結果。探索事物而去脈絡,即無真相,即無實相可言。
thought experiment是運用思考,依據邏輯推理,在腦筋裡–在想像中–進行的實驗(見圖左、右上, 由左至右)。所以thought experiment不是在化學實驗室或粒子加速器實驗室進行的實驗,所以是一種非實體實驗。
史丹福哲學百科全書(Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)在”thought experiment”這個條目之下記述說:

Thought experiments are devices of the imagination used to investigate the nature of things. They are used for diverse reasons in a variety of areas, including economics, philosophy, and the sciences, especially physics. Most often, thought experiment are communicated in narrative form, frequently with diagrams. Thoughts experiments should be distinguished from the thinking about experiments, from merely imagining any experiments to be conducted outside the imagination, and from psychological experiments with thoughts. They should also be distinguished from counterfactual reasoning in general, as they seem to require an experimental element, which seems to explain the impression that something is experienced in a thought experiment.

這裡面說,thought experiments 是以想像力為器具,用以研究事物性質。又說,對於「實驗」一事的思考,或是純粹只是想像一項實驗實際(outside the imagination)在進行,都不是(“…should be distinguished from “) thought experiments; 心理學家以人的thought為實驗素材進行的實驗也不是thought experiments。
這樣,知道thought experiment是什麼東西,不是甚麼東西之後,那麼中文要怎麼翻譯呢?直譯為「思想實驗」嗎?意思並不清楚。英譯中的時候,很多英文詞彙或語句要是直譯,其譯文常常語意不詳或與原意差很多,這是大家都知道的。譬如,英文有個複合形容詞,叫作self-conscious。有的譯者望文生義,直譯為「自我意識的」或「自覺的」;並且由於單字意思都對,便認為self-conscious這樣翻譯是正確的。但接著卻發現「自我意識的」或「自覺的」和上下文意思兜不起來。這樣子,我們便知道self-conscious這個形容詞恐怕就不是我們想當然爾的「自覺的」、「自我意識的」了。這個英文形容詞的意思其實是「(因為知道別人對自己的看法或擔心別人不知道對自己有甚麼看法而導致的)害羞的,尷尬的,不好意思的」,另外一個意思是「(做事情時因為過於刻意或雕琢過度而導致)洩露意圖或行跡敗露的」—-你看,「自我意識的」、「自覺的」和這個意思差多少!
所以,從以上我們所列的七種譯法中,我們在這裡就先把「思想實驗」、「思考實驗」、「思惟實驗」三者排除。「理想實驗」自然不對。「臆想實驗」亦然—-除了語意不清楚之外,真正的thought experiment是不做「臆想」(猜測)的。這樣的話,就剩下「想像實驗」和 「假想實驗」兩個了。這兩者,我個人傾向「假想實驗」。我以為,若譯為「想像實驗」,一個文字理解上有問題,一個是並非一看就知道那是甚麼東西。前者,在中文裡,「想像」常做動詞用。那麼,「在想像實驗」會是甚麼意思就不清楚了。在這裡,我們需要名詞,但是這裡卻跑出一個像是動詞的東西。再者,我把這幾種譯法拿去問過三個人,請他們選看看哪一個「名詞」看了知道是甚麼東西。其中有兩人提出「假想實驗」,問我那是不是甚麼甚麼…講的正是thought experiment那一回事。所以,雖然我自己本來就譯成「假想實驗」,但是經過這樣的 poll 之後,我更加篤定要翻譯成「假想實驗」。
說到「假想實驗」,史上最有名的「假想實驗」莫過於「薛丁格的貓」(Schrödinger’s Cat)(圖右中)、「愛因斯坦的升降機」(Einstein’s Elevator)(圖右下)、「猴子與打字機」(Monkeys and Typewriters)(圖右下二)等幾個。筆者少年時代曾經看過一本講愛因斯坦相對論的概論書,是一本英譯中著作。其中提到愛因斯坦的「升降機」這項「假想實驗」。這是我平生第一次看到「假想實驗」這個詞彙,當時閱讀的感覺是毫無窒礙,並未有「那是甚麼東東?」的疑惑。「猴子與打字機」這個假想實驗背後的概念可以直溯到亞里斯多德的「無限次數的作用在無限時間之內幾乎一定會產生一切事物」這種說法,說「無限隻猴子在無限台打字機上隨意敲打,最後一定會在某個時候打出全本莎士比亞全集」。這個假想實驗相當有趣。原始進化論者主張生命的發生純屬偶然,是機率問題。反對此說者有的借用「猴子與打字機」這個假想實驗,計算出來說,一千隻猴子隨便(=偶然)在一千台打字機上敲打,恰好(=機遇)打出一部莎士比亞戲劇(有秩序的宇宙)的機率是一萬兆兆兆分之一;等於每十億個十億年才發生一次,但是我們這個宇宙到目前為止也才不過一百二十億年而已。「假想實驗」是個有趣的題目,有時間可以聊聊。

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21 June, 2019 update: I added a new comment to the above thought experiment 是甚麼東西? (Facebook post), here is it.

Allow me to go off a tangent a little. I think both you and I are probably not fan of translating “police state” as 警察國家 because “極權國家” seems SOOOO much better. But 警察國家 is a “reality” we face in our age of Google Translate and Wikipedia (yes, both translate and has an entry of “警察國家” for police state. And if language/dictionary is nothing else other than a recording of how people use a language, I think “警察國家” may soon kick out “極權國家”. In economics there is 劣幣驅逐良幣! Then may be we will have 劣翻譯驅逐良翻譯 soon! The translator’s version of Gresham’s law (Bad money drives out good)!

Ref usage: I can’t really say I don’t like the fitting use of “警察國家” for police state (probably what he said) in this sentence in this news report (with photos). And I LOVE the photos and story it tells. //他對《立場新聞》記者表示,自己來港 12 年,6 月 12 日當天目睹警察用過度武力鎮壓示威者,尤如警察國家。//

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