These are words that go together well



I’ve just finished reading Jonas Jonasson’s The Hundred Year Old Man Who Climbed Out Of The Window And Disappeared.

Here’s how the author summarises the book:

On his hundredth birthday, just as the celebrations are about to begin out in the lounge in the old people’s home, Allan Karlsson hastily decides that he wants nothing to do with the party. He climbs through his window and disappears – and soon he has turned the whole nation on its head. He does have some experience in these matters. He has previously done the same thing with the world.

It’s a rare book. Joyous, refreshing, insane. I’m not going to review it here, other than to say it may be the most enjoyable book I’ve read this century.


I’m a sucker for “Road” books: I have over 200 different editions of Don Quixote, distributed across the four centuries of the book’s existence. I even have a “three-way-crossing:” book: Robert M Pirsig’s copy of Baron Munchhausen and On The Road, bound together in one volume. So yes, I’m a Road Book sucker, and Jonasson’s book definitely falls into that category. But that’s not the only reason I loved the book.




The book I was reading was a translation.

Not just any old translation.

A labour of love.

Rod Bradbury does an amazing job. It is hard enough to write a good book. It is even harder to write a great translation.

I’ve been enchanted by translations and translators for nigh on 50 years. Goes all the way back to when I first heard Michelle by the Beatles. [How times change. I find it hard to believe I live in an age where I have to provide a hyperlink to “the Beatles”.] Anyway, back to the song. I must have been nine or ten when I heard it, and I was very taken with the appropriateness of the translation: how these/are/words/that/go/to-/geth/-er/well appeared in French as sont/des/mots/qui/vont/très/bien/en-/semble. The use of short words in the original and in the translation, the way those words kept the same meaning yet retained the melody as well, that was the magic I saw and loved.

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And that’s probably why I liked the Joan Baez version of Where Have All The Flowers Gone, which I heard for the first time, in German, at Devang Khakhar’s house in 1968. [If any of you readers are or were at IIT Bombay, it’s the same guy. We had some great times together as children, 1967-69.]

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Translators do a very hard job, and are often underappreciated. We take them for granted. Yet they perform a very important function, expressing something from one language into another, switching contexts skilfully. If I stay with the original theme of translation in literature, it’s heartening to see that there are many instances of good translations about nowadays. Keigo Higashino’s The Devotion of Suspect X is a classic recent example. A superb book, superbly translated by Alexander Smith. We are privileged to live in a time when books written in one language in one country are so readily available in others, and in relatively short order.

Talking about translation, my father did something strange. He bought himself a copy of The Count of Monte Cristo in the original French, along with a French-to-English dictionary, and proceeded to “reverse-engineer” the book, teaching himself French in the process. He claimed he still had the French book with all his jottings, but we could not find it. I do remember finding a green cloth-bound version in English, with gilt lettering on the spine; I hope one of my siblings still has that book.

We continue to learn about how we learn. Recently, I was intrigued by something Douglas Hofstadter has been saying in a recent talk, describing the brain as an “analogy machine“. A part of me thinks that analogies and metaphors are also translation devices, that people who use analogies well perform a similar role. [I shall stoutly resist the temptation to describe the role as “analogous”]. Incidentally, confession time. At least some of you reading this, and seeing Hofstadter’s name, immediately went Godel, Escher, Bach right?

Translation takes place in many contexts. I spent the last few days in Jordan, at a World Economic Forum meeting. The speakers spoke in many languages. All I had to do was to pick up a headset, turn on, tune in, and thereby not drop out of the conversation. A privilege, made possible by the hard work of live translators. That privilege meant I could witness and appreciate, and to an infinitesimal extent even participate, in a really important initiative emerging under the auspices of the Forum: Breaking The Impasse. More about this later.

When you describe your symptoms to a doctor and she interprets it into something where the root cause can be determined, that’s a form of translation. When you tell a salesman what you want, and he responds, that’s a form of translation.

Most projects are about translation, interpreting what is needed by listening to a variety of sources and inputs. Which, incidentally, gives me the opportunity to highlight an old favourite of mine, Tell Me What You Want (And I’ll Give You What You Need). An underestimated track from a great band, the Doobie Brothers, and a brilliant album, What Were Once Vices Are Now Habits.


Even when it comes to information technology, there’s a lot of translation to be done. And good translation requires many things to happen. You need to be a really good listener. I mean really good. You need to be able to store what’s said and to replay it on demand. You need to be able to do that iteratively: Is this what you said? Did I get it right? That’s why, in disk technology, particularly when there’s a phase change involved,  “RAW checks” are performed, the read-after-write checks that ensure what you recorded is true to the original and intelligible when replayed.

The listening skills have to go beyond record-and-replay, archive-and-restore. You have to be able to interpret what has been said from its original context to one where someone else can do something with it. So there’s a second, more important, iteration going on. “Is this what you meant? Have I understood you correctly?”

Much of what people called agile development is about these two steps, listening intently and then translating from one context to another, repeatedly, until the customer can say “That’s it, that is what I want”.

Change has been a constant for some time now, and agile processes were developed in response.

For the past decade or two, something else has changed. The pace of change. And that pace continues to grow.

Which means that we need to become better listeners, better recorders, better interpreters.

Better translators.

Live-translating from one context to another.

A hard thing to do.

Which is why I salute translators everywhere. You do a hard job and you do it well. We could not learn as much as we do if people like you didn’t exist.

8 thoughts on “These are words that go together well”

  1. As someone who translates scientific papers for people now and then as a favour (and I AM good at it!) I appreciate your appreciation. Probably the hardest thing for any translator is when the original is fuzzy and vague, with the essential meaning of a sentence getting lost in a jumble of extraneous details.

    It’s all but impossible to translate something that was badly written in the first place. My solution is to open a dialogue with the “customer” from the start, which results in many emails asking “Did you mean a) (interpretation 1), or b) (interpretation 2) or c) (who the hell knows?) some other thing? So far I’ve always done this for people who can enter the dialogue without becoming irate.

    People tend to be very arrogant and defensive about their writing. They confuse “writing” (something we all learn at about 5 years old, meaning the forming of the letters of the alphabet) with “writing” (the composition of a lucid and unambiguous narrative). So everyone thinks “Any fool can write! We learnt that in primary school.” Hah!

  2. As a literary translator based in India, I enjoyed your insightful remarks on the importance of translation. You are absolutely right in saying that listening is the starting point in any translation. It so is. Although it is seldom noticed and articulated rarely, people everywhere owe a lot of their human inheritance to translation. Thank you for being that rarity.

    Here is a brilliant lecture by Susan Sontag on literary translation that you might like to read. It is called, quite aptly, “The World as India”:

    Thank you.

  3. I loved that book, too – recommendation for a “road” book you might like: The Last Pink Bits by Harry Ritchie.

  4. Thank you for this really cool post bridging all the things I also care about. Ever since being immersed in another culture at the age of 12, I have been honing the skills of translation – of language, meaning, culture and more. More recently, I’ve been studying ‘Clean Language’ coaching which is a cool way to hone your listening skills while you coach somebody to develop further their ‘metaphorical landscape’ – helping them to facilitate change themselves. As coach, your brain gets a workout doing this. Google the term to find out more. It will be used more and more in business and IT settings – I hope – in the future.

  5. Interesting that you talk about both Hofstadter and translation without mentioning his book on the topic. From Wikipedia:

    Le Ton beau de Marot: In Praise of the Music of Language (ISBN 0-465-08645-4), published by Basic Books in 1997, is a book by Douglas Hofstadter in which he explores the meaning, strengths, failings, and beauty of translation.
    The book is a long and detailed examination of one short translation of a minor French poem, and through that an examination of the mysteries of translation (and indeed more generally, language and consciousness) itself.
    Hofstadter himself refers to it as “my ruminations on the art of translation”.

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