I’ve just listened to a BBC podcast on language and translation that featured, among much else, a recording of a Ghanian poet reading his work in his native dialect. Amazing, really, how when you strip away meaning, you can hear the music of language so much more clearly. It was like a song, and even the best of translations aren’t likely to be able to recreate that.
I’ve often thought of what I do as something akin to translation. Many years ago, when I was first cutting my teeth in the business of writing, I took on a freelance job for a company that made software that analyzed stock on hand and optimized supply lines and production processes. Let me remind you — I was an English major. These are not concepts that I had ever once thought about. I met with the company owners and they handed me a sheaf of documents, each one more impenetrable than the next. They called this stuff “All You’ll Need to Know.”
It was ghastly — single-spaced, jargon-ridden, poorly punctuated, footnoted, chart-laden. And what they wanted was ad copy. Clean, solid ad copy.
I attacked “All You’ll Need to Know” with gusto, but it did not give up its secrets easily. In fact, I don’t think it gave them up at all. I had to beat them out of it. I went at the pile a second time, pulling a few key documents that seemed to hold the kernel of what this software did. I focused on these, did a couple of scrap paper diagrams — work flows, terminology, that sort of thing — and slowly, a big-picture understanding began to emerge. I framed that understanding in a creative concept that I thought illustrated the idea well enough, and — bang — all done. The clients loved it, though they subsequently butchered it with a design from a local freelance designer that — even now — is too painful for me to think about.
That may have been the first time that I understood how this process of translation works. These were men who knew their product backwards and forwards, inside and outside, up and down. They could describe in the most minute level of detail how it did what it did. But they could not speak plainly of its purpose. They could not boast of its benefits. They could not make it understandable to those who might buy it. In the end, that’s what they paid me for, though, like the design, my compensation for the job that is equally painful for me to think about.
Over the years, I’ve been struck by how often I feel like a translator. Sometimes I translate jargon. Sometimes I translate bombast. Sometimes I simply capture a feeling that someone wants to express, but cannot. All of this is what I do, and if I do it well, I get the satisfaction of having someone say “That’s exactly what I meant.”
I could go on, but I think that’s “All You’ll Need to Know.”