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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 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.

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Profile Photo Jeff Ribeira

This is a great post Stefan, and well communicated to boot! I took a number of Russian literature courses during my college years, so I completely understand and appreciate the nuance of an expertly and creatively translated novel. Great application to an organizational setting as well. I’d venture to say that the ability to clearly communicate concepts and ideas is quite possibly the greatest challenge of our time. Whether it’s in a native or foreign language, the fact remains that translating thoughts into words (followed, of course, by actions) in any setting is just as much an art requiring creativity and agility as it is a formulaic process of set standards and structure.

Profile Photo Steve Cottle

Well put, Stefan. I’ve often thought of the difficulty of translating legislation and policy into specifications or programs, but your post thoroughly (and poetically) considers the many levels of translation that need to occur before, during, and after those phases. I wonder whether the most effective translations have occurred when translators have looked back several sequences to fully understand the history of their task, when the writers of the source text and destination text are in the same room to begin with, or simply when the task of translation is performed well at each step of the journey.

Profile Photo Dannielle Blumenthal

This is thought provoking. But perhaps the problem is with the way we conceive of strategy and not with the difficulty in translating it from vision to implementation.

Traditionally, a strategist operates remotely from the problem. While this is helpful in that the strategist has access to many different perspectives and can offer an academic response, it is also harmful in that this person is normally not frontline operational.

So we pose abstract problems, get a theoretical analysis, choose a path (for whatever reason, maybe logical and maybe political, cultural, psychological, etc.), write it down, call it a strategy, and then divide it up into parts. Everyone gets a piece to work on.

To my mind that doesn’t work because as soon as you start working with a piece you get all sorts of problems that couldn’t be envisioned at the abstract level.

Preferable to me is to start with the people who are at the front line, who would feel the impact of the desired end state the most. Give them NOT a strategy but a problem and then ASK them to fix it.

The people who work on the problem will be located in many different geographical locations, normally. They can develop a solution to their piece of the puzzle and then offer it up to others for analysis. A substantial number of problem-solvers working together can amalgamate a solution that is then distilled upward and pronounced a vision.

Here is the difference:

* Model 1: New parent reads a psychoanalytic best practice book on parenting and tries to implement it with baby. Can the parent implement that advice or does it need some adapting to the person’s unique reality?

* Model 2: New parent has child, talks to other parents and goes online to read about particular issues, and basically crowdsources a philosophy of childrearing.

In a sense this is a feminist analysis of strategy.

– The dominant model is to isolate strategy from practice, formulate it in a hierarchical manner, and “distribute it” top-down with little specialized pieces going from person to person. Makes sense logically but with real people rarely works.

– The feminist model, a.k.a. the social media approach, has crowdsourcing via multiple nodes of interconnected networks, with none privileged over another, and the result emerging from practice rather than theory.

Hopefully this comment isn’t too wordy but I did enjoy the blog and it sparked a lot of thought.

Profile Photo Stefan Czerniawski

Dannielle – thank you for that fascinating response. The distinction I make is between strategy seen as an end and strategy as a means. If your goal is to produce a strategy, you can do that, but you won’t change anything about the real world. If your goal is to change something about the real world, then a strategy can be a powerful tool to help you do so – but then the test is not the elegance of your strategy, but the effectiveness of your change. I think in practice that points to a very similar conclusion to the one you draw.