Lost and Found in Translation

Words. Here is an example of some, imaginatively (and unexpectedly) cited by the ITU’s Trends in Telecoms Reform 2013. (And as an American friend remarked “anyone who takes an Alexander Hamilton quote from the 18th century and can relate it to cloud data protection and privacy deserves to be read!”)

“It was a thing hardly to be expected that in a popular revolution the minds of men should stop at that happy mean which marks the salutary boundary between power and privilege, and combines the energy of government with the security of private rights. A failure in this delicate and important point is the great source of the inconveniences we experience, and if we are not cautious to avoid a repetition of the error in our future attempts to rectify and ameliorate our system we may travel from one chimerical project to another; we may try change after change; but we shall never be likely to make any material change for the better.” (Alexander Hamilton, The Federalist, no. 26, 1787 four years after the American War of Independence)

Words say a lot if used well. They are much more effective when used without adjectives. Not always; without the adjective the previous sentence would hardly make sense. Hamilton uses seven and they all add to, rather than subtract from, his message. But when a car’s design is ‘dynamic’ (meaning it looks like all the other jelly-mould cars it is in competition with) and a computer is ‘powerful’ (meaning there are computers in the market that can outperform it if you look for them even though you will end up using less than 10% of its performance capability) the intelligent part of the brain wants to sleep. There is probably a big market for the first software programme that can eradicate all redundant or self-serving adjectives from a text before you read it.

Words are universal. But not all words are universal. Some travel well and others never leave their local communities. Some change their meaning as they travel through time and space. The word ‘witty’ was used to mean a keen intelligence, and now it is mostly used as a synonym for humourous, although witless retains its original connotation. Some words, like ‘awesome’ have almost lost their meaning altogether as everything becomes awesome in the vernacular of the young and would-be young. This isn’t a complaint (well, it could be a lament) because there are some pretty useful (two more adjectives, but they add the meaning of trivial as opposed to important) additional meanings and derivations. Trendy is pretty awful (naff is a good descriptive) but trending is pretty awesome. No, the real beef (and here there is some sympathy with the French) are the words who like rich foreign tourists come in and just assume that the rest of the world should learn their ways.

American words and phrases are naturally the world biggest tourists and here are a couple to make the point. Religion is strong in America and so in a biblical sense we no longer chair meetings but we shepherd them. We also no longer have debates, arguments, discussions, we have ‘conversations’. Problems don’t exist, only challenges. There are no more irreconcilable (another important adjective in this context) conflicts of interest, just stakeholders. Life, it seems is never a zero-sum game, just a game. Paul Newman as Eddie Felson in The Hustler remarked “show me the runner-up and I’ll show you a loser”, a quintessential (adjectives glamour now!) American school of management view.

I once took part in a management workshop in the Philippines where a UK professor but steeped in this school of management was telling the staff of a telecoms start-up they had to beat the opposition into the ground. The unanimous audience response was their friends worked for their competitors and they all got on very well together. Words, and the ideas they convey, do not always travel well.

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