The view of many notwithstanding, the conceptual convergence of all the languages of Earth’s cultures, however varied they may be, is striking. The telegram GRANDMOTHER DEAD FUNERAL WEDNESDAY can be translated into any language you like—from Latin and Hindustani to the dialects of the Apaches, Eskimos, or the tribe of Dobu. We could even do this, no doubt, with the language of the Mousterian period, if we knew it. The reason is that everyone has a mother, who has a mother; that everyone must die; that the ritualization of the disposing of a corpse is a cultural constant; as is, also, the principle of reckoning time. But beings that are unisexual would not know the distinction between mother and father, and those that divide like amoebas would be unable to form the idea even of a unisexual parent. The meanings of “grandmother” thus could not be conveyed. Beings that do not die (amoebas, dividing, do not die) would be unacquainted with the notion of death and of funerals. They would therefore have to learn about human anatomy, physiology, evolution, history, and customs before they could begin the translation of this telegram that is so clear to us.
The example is primitive, because it assumes that the one who receives the message will know which signs in it carry information and which constitute their unessential background. With the letter from the stars our position was different. The recorded rhythm could have represented, for example, only marks of punctuation, while the actual “letters” or ideograms could have failed completely to affect the surface of the tape’s magnetic coating, being impulses to which the machine was not sensitive.
A separate problem is the disparity between the levels of civilization. From the gold death mask of Amenhotep the art historian will read the epoch and its style. From the mask’s ornamentation the student of religions will deduce the beliefs of that time. The chemist will be able to show what method was used then to work the gold. The anthropologist will tell whether the specimen of the species from six thousand years ago differs from modern man; and the physician will offer the diagnosis that Amenhotep suffered from a hormonal imbalance, acromegaly, that gave him his deformed jaw. In this way an object sixty centuries old provides us, in modern times, with far more information than its creators possessed—for what did they know of the chemistry of gold, of acromegaly, of cultural styles? If we turn the procedure around in time and send to an Egyptian of the era of Amenhotep a letter written today, he will not understand it, not only because he does not know our language, but also because he has neither the words nor the concepts to set alongside ours.
Stanisław Lem “His Master’s Voice”, translated by Michael Kandel