Chapter 15


The previous chapter was about communication, the use of words, gestures, names, silences to convey information from one person to another. There are always difficulties in communicating because people are not trained to communicate. They may lack contact with their own feelings or with the feelings of other people; they may not have the vocabulary to express their ideas; they may lack the experience needed to feel easy when talking about what is going on deep inside them. Near the end of the chapter I referred to an idea concerning the need to talk to people in a language they can understand. This chapter is about the use of such language.

By training I am an architect, and for many years I trotted around designing buildings, and getting them built. Most people, and that includes architects, think that architecture is about making some nice drawings on some arty paper, and then handing over the design for technicians and builders to make into reality. My experience has been that the actual design with the soft pencil on arty paper takes perhaps 10% of the total time; the rest is spent first of all working out the cost of the design, and making sure it comes within the tight limits set by a money-conscious client. Then I have to convince Local Authorities that the building will conform to their legal requirements. Next the engineer has to translate my pretty design and work out how strong the concrete or the steel needs to be. After that a builder has to look at the result and give me a price for the building. Lastly the men who do the actual physical work must understand what has been drawn and written, so as to put the brick or timber in the right place. Each person, whether he be accountant, government official, lawyer, engineer, builder or labourer (and there are many others) has to understand what needs to be done.

Each talks in a different language, and each will need to have different drawings and instructions from me.

Sometimes, it may happen that a builder will deliberately choose to misunderstand me, so that he can make greater profits. Mostly misunderstandings occur because the architect and the builder talk different languages. The architect is very often a person with a middle-class background, brought up in a home with lots of books, where things are done with paper; if you want to have a barbecue in the back-yard, then you order one from a catalogue and write it off as an entertainment expense on your tax form (for overseas visitors). The builder will often grow up in a home with no or few books, but if the family decides on a barbecue, then Dad will knock one up himself, or perhaps get one of his mates to do so in return for papering his living-room.

A funny illustration of this difference is to watch an architect talk. He may be talking about something totally outside his own speciality, such as the class-system; suddenly, he will ask for paper and pencil, which he will use for making a vague series of squares and circles to 'illustrate' what he is talking about. In actual fact, his argument is no clearer, but he feels happier having paper and pencil to hand. The builder, on the other hand, will be able to listen and remember everything said, but if he has to say something, he will prefer to show you the problem using real bits of wood or pipes or whatever.

On the actual building site, these differences of language can become very noticeable. While still training, I was asked to supervise the pouring of some concrete. The concrete arrives in big lorries and is then moved by chute and wheel-barrow to the timber mould; it is poured into the mould where it will set, after which the mould is taken away, to leave the clear grey concrete form we all know and love. In order to make sure that the concrete gets to all parts, and that includes going in between some very complicated metal reinforcement bars, it is moved about using what is officially called a 'vibrating poker'; it looks like a long flexible vacuum-cleaner hose with a three-foot solid 2" diameter cylinder at the end. I will leave it entirely to your imagination as to what such a poker is called on site. The poker is thrust into the concrete and as it vibrates, the concrete pours much more easily into all the nooks and crannies; its proper use will make the concrete stronger. But if it is used too much, then all the cement in the concrete will pour out and settle near the bottom, and the big stones will stay on the top - this is bad concrete. So the poker is not used too much or too long.

One of the men on site was using the poker too much and too long. He was cautioned repeatedly, and asked to refrain from too long a usage; being a simple farmer's son, this had little effect. Eventually I approached him, pointed at the poker, and told him to use it the way a young horse (or a young man) uses it - in, out, and ready for the next mare (or girl). We had no more trouble. It was merely a question of using images and a language which he could understand. It helped that I had learned to speak some of his language; I am not fluent, but I learned enough.

Many of these language difficulties arise because we think that as we are speaking the same language, such as English, or French, we will understand the words used by the speaker. It is easy to assume that communication between architect and labourer is easy as long as the architect doesn't use long words. The real problems are much greater than merely using simple words. In order to gain some understanding of these difficulties, let us have a look at the idea of a foreign language.

This book will have been written in English, and is intended for an English-speaking or reading public. It may well be so successful (who knows?) that eventually it will be translated into other languages. The translator is someone who knows both languages very well; he will read the book in English, and then try to say exactly the same thing in the second language. It can be a mechanical, not especially well-paid, exercise.

Another person, who also knows both languages, will be critical of the accuracy of the translation. He will object that the subtle nuance of a word hasn't come across, or that the translator has used one meaning of the word and translated it into the second language, rather than another meaning. For instance, the English word 'cleaving' can mean splitting something, such as a block of wood; it can also mean joining together, such as when we speak of husband and wife cleaving together until death do them part. Many words have much more subtly differentiated meanings, or are more easily influenced by the words around them.

If you know both languages very well, you can compare the two, and criticize the translation. If you don't then it is still possible to compare different translations of the same work, done by different people. It may be that one translation tries for accuracy, while another tries to give a very readable translation.

There are occasions when I find myself listening to a discussion about philosophy which is being held in English, because the people who are participating can all speak and understand English. They may be French, Dutch, German, English and American; they will try to communicate in English. One person who is admired for his penetrating insight and marvellous ideas is by origin Dutch; he speaks in English, and sometimes his sentences do not make sense. This is often caused by his use of complicated English words which are an exact translation of one meaning of a Dutch word into one meaning of an English word. It all becomes much clearer to me when I translate his ideas into Dutch, something I can do easily, since I too am Dutch. I will then translate my understanding of what I think he meant into English, and often this clarifies his meaning for the rest of the group. The same happens with every speaker whose language is not originally English.

Such a double translation becomes very interesting, and is done far more often than is realized. The notorious play Salome by Oscar Wilde was originally written in French, and translated by Wilde's good friend Lord Alfred Douglas into English - or so Wilde would have us believe. But at the trial in 1918 of Rex v. Billings, Lord Alfred testified:

'I translated it into English. Of course it was a farce really, because Wilde really wrote the play in English, translated it into French, and got a French author to correct his numerous blunders and mistakes; he then asked me to translate it into English; and then when I finished my translation he revised it and put it back into its original language.'

More recently, a computer was programmed to translate from English into Russian, a useful piece of work since so many scientific ideas would then be available quickly, A second computer was designed to translate from Russian into English. To test for accuracy, the phrase 'out of sight, out of mind' was translated into Russian by one computer, and the Russian version into English by the second. Out came 'if blind, then mad'. We laugh at first, but then perhaps we start to realize that the computers had made a very accurate translation, by selecting only part of the meaning and choosing the wrong part.

We can therefore check the accuracy of a translation by having the translation rendered back into the original by a second translation. If we give instructions to a child, or a soldier, or to a labourer we can check the accuracy of the transmission of information by asking them to repeat what we have said, using their own words. Similarly, most of us have had the experience of trying to explain something complicated, something that we have recently learned. Only as we tell it to someone else do we suddenly realize that we hadn't properly understood it at the time, and that we do understand it now as we explain it.

In order to make the whole issue a little clearer, I often ask my students to play a game which I call Translation. You can read the rules, read the examples and 'play the game' by reading this book; but you will not gain the insight that comes from actually playing it. So try to find two or three other people, perhaps as many as ten, and sit down with paper and pencil.


One person will think up a sentence, or perhaps a very small poem such as a haiku, and write it down. That person will then strike out words such as of, and, in, a, and so on. The words that are left are written down, and perhaps look like a newspaper headline, something that takes a few seconds to understand completely, but in which the most important words catch our eye. The person will then write down, next to each remaining word, another word which has a similar meaning. This last group of words is then read out aloud to the rest of the group.

The rest of the group take down each word as the 'first translator' reads it out, and make their own translation by thinking of a similar word. Eventually, when all the words have been read out and translated a second time, each member of the group tries to put the re-translated words together in one sentence, adding in any words such as and, is, the, of, etc. The sentences are read out, one by one, and compared with the original.

Here follows an actual example:

I composed a short sentence, a basic cry for help often heard in this badly organized world:

'I'm starving, please give me food, my parents have left me alone in the world.'

The underlined words are the important ones, and all the other ones were left out, so as to give:

'Starving - give - food - parents - left - me - alone - world.'

Underneath the key words I wrote down words which I felt to be roughly equivalent, as follows, and in the same order:

'Empty - transfer - necessity - providers - gone - speaker -solitude - environment.'

This last group of words, starting with 'Empty' and ending with 'Environment', were read out to the group of seven students.

Each student listened to the list I read out, and then put his own translations next to each word, and finally put his own translations into a sentence. Below are the results; first comes the list of retranslated words, then the re-translated sentences:

For 'Empty': Shallow, Half-full, Hollow, Gone

For 'Transfer': Project, Gone across, Pass on, Change, Seek

For 'Necessity': Need, Suffering, Mother of, Close, Important

For 'Provide': Give, Supply, Take care of, Paths

For 'Gone': Lost, Not there, Left empty, Forsaken, Went, Disappeared

For 'Speaker': Subject, Talker, Talk, Mouthpiece, M.P.

For 'Solitude': Loneliness, Alone, Isolated, Lonely

For 'Environment': Surroundings, Place, Dwelling, Seed of Life, Locality, Area.

'Not-lived-through suffering comes back to the one who just speaks, not acts, as loneliness and same surroundings.'

'There is a need in man to talk, when others are not there the world seems to have passed on and alone can be a hollow word.'

'Now that my mouthpiece has forsaken me, and left me hollow in my lonely dwelling place, to whom shall I turn to care for me ... Ah, the mother of invention.'

The P.A. system deafened the surrounding countryside: "Lonely, foresaken, in need of someone to take care of you? Fear not, simply have 'Empty' tattoed on your forehead." '

'She went, I felt isolated, others close talk with me, I now move on alone to seek the seed of life in other paths ahead. '

'The M.P. spoke of providing important total renovations to these lonely forgotten areas.'

Well, as you can see, some of these re-translations captured some of my original simple request; others were seeing my problem through strange spectacles. See if you can do better.

A second game I would like to suggest is not really a game at all. It is a custom which has become part of reality for many people. The game was introduced to me under the name of 'Buzz-words'. There are two ways of playing this game.

The first way is to draw up three lists of long, complicated words, and especially 'in' words whose meaning nobody quite knows. Such a set of words might look like this:

1. 2. 3.

penetrative synchronous framework

energy systems analysis

bionic parameter locus

feedback positive set

disparate analogue condition

in-house sociometric lattice

By using a pin, or dice, or whatever, you pick one word from each list, and put them together to form a phrase such as 'disparate systems condition' or 'penetrative parameter analysis'; if possible, go the whole hog and form a sentence using such a phrase. Now look up, in a good dictionary, what the words really mean, and then try to find an example of the thing, using a common object or idea. The first phrase can be translated as 'a state in which 2 or more systems cannot be compared because they are too different', and then translated once again as 'comparing chalk with cheese'. The second phrase translates ultimately as 'seeing how far you can push your luck'. Have a go, it's great fun.

The second way is to think of a word or phrase, and then translate it into an alternative version. An example from George Orwell reads:

Objective consideration of contemporary phenomena compels the conclusion that success or failure in competitive activities exhibits no tendency to be commensurate with innate capacity, but that a considerable element of the unpredictable must invariably be taken into account.

The original, from Ecclesiastes 9:11 reads:

Again I saw under the sun the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, nor bread to the wise, nor riches to the intelligent, nor favor to the men of skill; but time and chance happen to them all.

In fact this was a game we played at college while studying architecture; it was officially approved on the grounds that by 'restructuring our visualization', we might be freed from preconceptions! Calling a staircase a Vertical access corridor' or a low point in the garden wall between two houses a 'neighbourhood inter-action point' is fun; the end wall on a terraced row of houses becomes an 'open-ended, closed-lattice end condition'. The ultimate in this sort of logorrhoea is the circumlocution adopted if you want to avoid saying simply 'Yes'; you can, instead, 'create an affirmative response situation'. So there!

If you play these various games, and try to understand how they reflect the reality, then you will at least realize how much translation is required when you are reading the Tarot, and listening to the Querent's problem, and trying to suggest possible solutions. Being aware that between each person and every other person is an invisible gulf caused through a lack of common language will draw your attention to the need to listen and speak with understanding.
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