All the time, we are translating. Translation is, in its most general sense, the shifting of an understanding or experience from one ground of expression to another. By ‘ground of expression’, I mean the set of situations making up the world of either the speaker or the listener. If I try to translate a phrase from English to French, I am trying to shift a set of thoughts between two different grammatical, cultural and historical worlds. Equally, if I try to share with you my own feelings on a matter, I am trying to shift a set of thoughts between my inner world and yours.
When we make a translation, we always have choices. Those choices are influenced by our natural abilities. They are also influenced by how we have grown up, and the communication habits we have learned. Our translation choices are also very dependent on the nature of our relationships with particular others, and what we are trying to achieve, consciously or unconsciously. If we have little hope of being understood, we may make very different communication choices to those we may make if there is a sense of hope that someone is likely to understand us, or at least to make a good attempt.
Here are three main ways we tend to translate our words and ourselves, and some of the advantages and disadvantages of each.
When we translate literally, we reach directly for the closest technical match available, and make no attempt to contextualise. On the plus side, we have the advantage of appearing rational and definite. We may even describe ourselves as ‘direct’, as ‘telling it like it is’. But on the down side, our language can sound harsh and uncompromising. We impose quite a big burden on the listener to interpret what is said, and to understand enough about our context and character to make sense of what we are saying.
If we choose to expand our communication, we may attempt to elaborate on our words or concepts, to give variety and depth of explanation. There is a significant relational advantage in this, in that we aid the comprehension of the listener by giving them more information to go on. The hearer has more ‘hooks’ on which they can hang their understanding, and they can learn more about what we are trying to say. On the down side, it can take much longer to express thoughts and feelings in this more elaborate way, and others can lose interest.
At the other end of the spectrum from literal translation is empathetic translation. The speaker makes an attempt to ground their communication sympathetically in the world of the other, or at least in a proactive appreciation that the other lives in a different world. A big advantage of empathetic communication is the building of a sense of security, trust and confidence. It clearly demonstrates respect for the other’s world. On the down side, the speaker can end up giving away much of the shape of their original thoughts, which can become so heavily changed that they are unrecognisable.
THREE TYPES OF COMMUNICATION
You may already recognise, in one of the above, your own preferred communication style. Whether literal, expanded, or empathetic, you will have developed this way of sharing your thoughts over a long time, and it has been informed, I am sure, by your natural abilities, your childhood, and what you feel you are trying to achieve. Here are a few examples.
PETER – A LITERAL COMMUNICATOR
Peter runs a large business. He is known by his staff as a ‘no nonsense’ operator. His emails have few words, usually a brief instruction. No one knows much about how he feels. He had a tough childhood under the thumb of a mother who was always going on about her own problems. While she talked, he was planning his escape. As soon as he could, he organised his independent life. He doesn’t like sharing feelings in depth. He finds it deeply uncomfortable.
JODIE – AN EXPANDED COMMUNICATOR
Jodie runs a laundry service. She enjoys the banter with customers, and is always offering extensive opinions on local gossip. She hides very little, and is entirely happy to describe her life in intimate detail, even to relative strangers. She gets everything off her chest every day, and there is a continuous supply of customers to hear her. Some like the chatter, and some smile sweetly but can’t wait to get away.
ROSE – AN EMPATHETIC COMMUNICATOR
Rose is a nurse in a residential home for the elderly. Her whole life, she has been attending to others’ needs in one form or another. When young, she was enlisted as a carer for her elderly grandmother, who had dementia. She learned to explain the world through her grandmother’s eyes, and ever since has been doing the same for patients. She sometimes feels taken advantage of, but buries herself in looking after residents, because that is where she feels safe.
Your story will be different from all of the above, because you are unique. But your abilities, your childhood, and your current priorities, will all have interacted to give you a preferred way of translating your own inner world for others.
Just for today, try to observe how you translate your inner experience for others. In particular:
- If you are more of a literal communicator, do you notice yourself sometimes cutting conversations short, or controlling them, because you dislike fuss? Is it worth taking more time to share your inner feelings, or be curious about others’ feelings, sometimes?
- If you are an expanded communicator, do you notice when others are losing interest in what you are saying? Is it worth, sometimes, being more succinct, so that others get a chance to participate?
- If you are an empathetic communicator, do you give enough priority to your own thoughts and feelings? Do you sometimes get lost in other people’s priorities, and find it hard to take care of yourself? How might you get a fairer hearing?