the noble art of saying nothing new

Everything has already been said.

That’s how it seems sometimes. And there are some people who are just stuck explaining. It’s not terrible creative, they think, to explain what a policy means. It’s simple (and nothing to celebrate) to explain why a rule exists or how to apply someone else’s story to your life.

The self-denial is not at all admirable, however.

Think for a moment of an interpreter, standing between heads of state, helping each understand the other, bringing a sense of peace and understanding. A critical role, right? Think of a translator, taking a peace treaty written in one language and painstakingly finding the right word, the right nuance so it says the same thing in another language. Incredibly sensitive, right?

Though we usually think of translators and interpreters as moving between languages, sometimes we find them in business and church and organizations moving between the language of formal structure and the language of real people, the language of board and the language of client, the language of “Thus saith” and “you know how when you feel ___ and you want to ___? We’re helping with that.”)

When you are an organizational translator, a customer service interpreter, you are removing confusion and adding humanity to the rules and stories of an organization.

Looking at the confusion on someone’s face, a translator starts with a simple question: “Would you like to know what that means?” Then the translator connects what the person knows with what the organization or text says.

Not everyone can be an interpreter or a translator. Good translators have lived in both worlds. They are able to find equivalent words, yes, but they are also able to find equivalent stories, similar experiences, metaphors than illuminate the intent as well as the technical meaning. They aren’t trying to change anything about the rules or the policy or the guidelines. They are trying to remove the misunderstanding.

(However, a good translator may go back to the policymaker and say “this isn’t at all clear to anyone, even me.”)

Recently it worked for a wise saying I shared with a friend: “Faithful are the wounds of a friend, but deceitful are the kisses of an enemy” became “Think flattery before the knife in the ribs vs an elbow in the ribs from your wife.”

Occasionally it’s “Jane, can I talk for a minute? Jim, here’s what she means.”

There will always be people who speak the language of stuffy, of legal, of technical, of formal, of structure (and if you think that everyone understands what you say or that “this is self-evident” or “that’s obvious”, you are one of these people.) There will always be people who don’t understand. And there will always be opportunities for interpreters to help the latter stay alive long enough to connect to the organizations they need.

Including your business. Including your church. Including you.


4 responses to “the noble art of saying nothing new

  1. Thank you for sharing empathy with translators world wide. We face this type of challenge daily.

    I personally enjoy it, as it breeds empathy for others.

  2. I wonder, Dave, how much empathy is a necessary gift for translators, whether of language or culture. Thanks for stopping by.

  3. As you might guess, I have a particular angle on this one.

    A vital translator is the one who brings the Bible to one of the 2,200 languages around the world that don’t have it. It’s challenging to hear God speak when the Bible is not in your language. is one portal to learn more.

    (Yes, this is an ad. But maybe some readers out there haven’t heard this important message.)

  4. i’m just irritated that they didn’t turn the sign post around to attach the signs in your photo.