Thought for Thought
This last couple of weeks I went down a rabbit hole reading about different translations of the Bible. A strange one even for me, but from my childhood visits to church I was aware of a few versions (King James Version, New International Version, Good News Bible) and I'd never stopped to consider the differences between them, other than that they'd been translated at different times, so I got to researching and off down the hole I went!
Broadly speaking, the many translations which exist fall into one of two categories, called dynamic equivalence and formal equivalence (or literal) translations. The latter is fairly easy to understand in that the person who translates the original texts from Hebrew or Greek, makes a word-for-word translation from the source texts into the language of the day. This is challenging of course, because some of the words in the original language may not have direct equivalents in the modern language, which creates difficulties for the translator (there's a really interesting debate about the passage in the book of Genesis where God creates Eve from Adam - some translations say God used a rib, whereas others claim that the actual word translates more accurately as a half or a part, and they argue that the misogyny of the time of translations led to the use of the word rib as part of the broader subordination of women), but it's simple to understand the overall concept. Dynamic equivalence, however, involves translating not the specific words, but the thoughts or ideas that those words were expressing. It's sometimes referred to as a thought-for-thought translation, where the translator uses their linguistic, cultural and theological understanding of the time in which the text was written, which mot readers simply do not have, to translate the meaning of the passages, without necessarily using the exact words. The challenge with this approach, of course, is that the translator can (deliberately or accidentally) add their own meaning to the text, perhaps changing the original intent, without the reader realising this.
This distinction got me thinking about the way in which we communicate and share ideas between people and through organisations. A huge amount of the problems that organisations face can be traced back to poor communication of information and it's crucial that we make ourselves as clear as possible when we are giving messages which will lead to action by others.
I heard a senior business leader this week talking very passionately to people in their technology department about their vision for the direction of the business; the need for simplification, re-use of code and for the engineers to love their products. It was a really engaging and enjoyable presentation and as you'd expect, it was pitched at a fairly high level. That sort of presentation, however, needs to be followed up with more clarity and specifics. Take for example, the leader's request for simplification. There were around 75 delegates listening to the presentation and each one of them will have a different idea in their heads as to what he meant by simplification. Did he mean fewer products? The same number of products with less functionality? The same number of products but with shared functionality? Was he talking about the way in which the code itself is organised and annotated? Each of these translations could lead to different actions from the listeners, not all of which are compatible.
The word simple means a lot of different things to different people and it's these differing translations which turns a presentation like his into the work on the ground. Leaders have a crucial role in determining the direction of organisations and teams, but ultimately they aren't the ones doing the work and so if their messaging isn't clear, they risk a lot of people making their own thought-for-thought translation of the leader's words and pulling the organisation in many different directions.
When you communicate with the intent of driving some action (whether that be from a team at work or from a friend or family member), be sure not to talk in generalities. It's important to be specific and to check their understanding, by asking the receiver of that communication to play back what they believe is expected and what they intend to do. That gives you the change to correct any mistranslations and to ensure that people set out on the right path. The next time you're writing an email, preparing a presentation or even composing a text, review the language before you send, to maximise the chance that your words are translated as closely as possible to your intention.