Translation is an extraordinary process. It is holding on to the essence of a thing while stripping away everything which expresses that essence and replacing it with a different language or a different form. Having pulled off this remarkable feat, the fate of the translator is then to be ignored: the integrity of the original is maintained and rightly belongs to the original author, the better the translation, the tighter that integrity and the less it is apparent that the new version is a translation at all.

Georges Perec is famous for writing a novel in French entirely without the letter e – a formidable technical achievement. But in some ways the more astonishing achievement came when Gilbert Adair translated it into English – also without the letter e, preserving a connection with the original at a level of detail which most translators don’t even have to think about, let alone strive to match.

This being a blog about public strategy, bravura literary translation is not really what this is about. But thinking about Perec and Adair, following the latter’s recent death, made me reflect that the job of a public strategist is also about translation (though that’s not all that it is about). The job is to take vision, intention and legislation, often expressed in relatively abstract terms, and create from them the wherewithal to deliver practical and effective implementation.

As with literary translation, original authors may not be fluent in – indeed may not have any knowledge of – the target language for the translation.  They thus may have no way of directly assuring themselves of the integrity of a translation.  But that does not invalidate the translation, or make it any less necessary for monoglot readers of the translated language.  So it is with the serial translation of vision into strategy, policy and legislation, of policy into delivery approach, of delivery approach into project objectives, of project objectives into IT specification, and so on down several forking sequences. At each stage there are unavoidably and necessarily small distortions. Done well, the translation errors are not cumulative. Done anything less than well, any final attempt to return to the original language, or to infer the original policy intent from the daily pattern of service delivery, is doomed by the triumph of noise over signal.

At the end of it all, there is a risk that what gets delivered is not the original intention, but the third level mistranslation of that intention. As a result, a project may be triumphantly completed to conclusion without anybody quite having noticed that though a problem might well have been solved (and even solved well), it has slid into being a different problem from the one originally posed.

As translations are rarely remarked, translators are rarely celebrated. To miss their contribution is to miss something rather important.


  1. I immediately thought ‘and this is why iterative thinking needs to be implemented into more than just coding’.
    I’m sad. This is beautiful.

  2. I wonder sometimes if the original problem posed was not thoroughly understood but the process of translating uncovered more information that necessitated some shift.
    Of course at other times, it is clearly because some involved have not understood the initial translation, and want to write their own text rather than translate someone else’s.

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