The Power of Babel

Tower of Babel, woodcut, M.C. Escher, 1928. Via Wikipedia.

For most of the last nine months I have had the extraordinary benefit of intensive foreign language training.  I had resources, faculty, structure and time all to my benefit: online and computer resources, a diverse faculty from many countries to learn different accents and idioms, day-long small group classroom work and and intensive one-on-one training.  That I speak a new foreign language at all I owe to my instructors.  But the undeniable fact that I am not native, or even fluent, I can blame only on myself.

I can’t blame everything entirely on myself, but rather, on mysterious components of myself that seem to be beyond my conscious control.  I found that the most difficult, most unfathomable, most unpredictable aspects of my training came entirely from the cubic foot of space inside my head.

Your brain is not your friend

Perhaps the most astounding and frustrating aspect of language training was the involuntary reaction my brain had to responding to this new input.  In short, I found myself inadvertently speaking or substituting prior languages I had learned for the new language I was trying to learn.  This could be as vague as mispronouncing homonyms or cognates or as physical as substituting the word with the rudimentary sign language I learned 15 years ago.  It seemed, then, that my brain was resisting the “overwrite” my previous non-native languages, or confused anything “non-native” in my head.  I was not alone.  For anyone with previous language instruction, however old it was, the brain had a tendency to reach back and substitute old French, say, or Italian, for the new language.

This goes quite against everything I had heard or thought about new language acquisition, at least when I was much younger.  Knowing a foreign language helps acquire new foreign languages.  Indeed, the friends and family who speak many languages find it considerably easier — or they at least learn more successfully — to acquire more.  And for myself this is true as far as it goes: my prior language provided a context for understanding structure and grammar, recognizing cognates, memorizing words and verb tables, and so on.

It goes without saying that I never contended with the active opposition of my own brain to absorb a new language.

Immersion is a myth

This may be the result of being a native anglophone in a world that increasingly uses English as a common second language.  I benefited from intense, immersion-like training  during which my colleagues spoke nothing but the foreign language for hours.  This helped, as far as it goes.  Because once we left class, we were back in our native language environment.  I feel like there is a switch in my brain that toggles between “native” and “foreign” languages and it is thrown one way or another depending on my environment.  When the switch is off, I’m not learning.

It’s certainly easier to learn when the switch is always on “foreign” and indeed the gold standard is simply living, learning and speaking in the country you expect to travel to.  But now that I am abroad again, I see how difficult it is to achieve a totally immersive environment.  English is used everywhere, on the radio, on billboards, in magazines, songs and movies.  Every time I recognize a new word in English, that switch in my head gets flipped back from “foreign” to “native”.

There is no substitute for long, hard work…

In the end, unless you are innately gifted, acquiring a new language takes long hours of concentrated effort.  It is a methodical and slow process.  There is nothing quick or simple about it, and those language schools that promise acquisition in six weeks strike me as fraudulent.   I never could see progress from week to week.  Day to day was worse — fall-backs and regressions more than outnumbered the minor triumphs.  That’s because real progress comes over months.  For example, one day, about three months into my training, I realized I could recognize all the individual words in a foreign language broadcast.  That helped my verbal acquisition (not to mention confidence) immeasurably, but I had to work a long time to get there.

…except using your language in a real context every day

That said, there is nothing like using your new language in real-life context every day.  Real life forces you to do things you never trained for in the classroom.  It is virtually impossible to explain the difference, particularly to those slogging through the middle part of their language training, but using your language in a real context is both liberating and more challenging than the classroom.  That is as it should be.

People are forgiving

One of my favorite stories about foreign language acquisition involves Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg.  His wife’s family is Chinese and he made a concerted effort to learn Mandarin.  He deployed his new language before a Chinese audience in Beijing in 2014.  The reaction of the audience struck me — they were delighted that he made the effort.  More importantly, when he persisted in speaking Chinese, the interviewer and the audience adapted and eagerly helped him where he struggled.  The interviewer kept the questions simple.  The audience shouted out words to Zuckerberg when he got stuck, urging him on.  The audience was clearly deeply flattered (and entertained) that he completed the 30-minute interview in Mandarin.

I hope this story provides some solace to my colleagues who learned Mandarin.  But I’ve found that, again, real life mirrors this story.  When you learn a new language and are struggling to use it, people recognize the effort and try to help.  People are forgiving.  In the end, the real goal is not a perfect, grammatically correct, fluently pronounced sentence but understanding.  Understanding always involves at least two people and in my experience most people want to understand and will help you reach that ultimate goal.


The ontology of the ‘Unknown’

Errol Morris’ documentary on Donald Rumsfeld, “The Known Unknown,” was accompanied by an extraordinary series of interview-essays in The New York Times where the filmmaker acknowledged that he felt he now knows less about the former twice-serving Defense Secretary and White House chief of staff than he did before he made the film. Rumsfeld’s clear pleasure engaging in verbal and semantic sparring, combined with a maddening lack of concern for concrete truth and that opaque Cheshire grin of his, made for an utterly compelling subject but brought no more illumination to his character or the matters of state that he influenced during his tenure.

I always felt that in the great “mystery” — John Keegan’s words — of the Iraq war, the political, strategic, and tactical dynamics of the conflict hinged on any number of key individual decisions and judgments. Had the French been convinced early on to join the Coalition and adopt the latter U.N. Security Council resolution authoring the invasion. Had the coalition force package been doubled or tripled for the invasion. Had the Iraqi Army not been disbanded. Had more time been allowed the U.N. weapons inspectors. The war would have gone very differently, and we would think about very differently. And so on.

The most important variable in the conflict were the weapons of mass destruction. If they had existed, and if they had been found, the political understanding of the conflict would be irreparably altered. (That may not have affected the insurgency afterward, but perhaps it would have if a larger, U.N.-backed coalition were on the ground.) This is, of course, the largest question involved in Morris’ Times essays, and yet unfortunately he forgets to mention (although this may be in the film, which I have not yet seen) perhaps the most important aspect of these weapons — that while they did not exist, Saddam Hussein acted as if they existed, and the fear of these weapons was just as important to the survival of his regime as their existence.

This ontological paradox is examined in one of the post-war CIA reports on the intelligence failures. It notes, in effect, that the CIA had little ability to interpret what looked like a cover-up of something as a cover-up of nothing because Saddam needed to appear to have weapons that had been destroyed in 1998 to deter internal threats rather than outside attack. This is at least as a complex puzzle to solve as any verbal jujitsu Donald Rumsfeld engaged in from the podium at the Pentagon.

But to unpack it also requires something that neither Rumsfeld really demonstrated during his years at the Pentagon nor what Morris (or, for that matter, many political observers during those years) manifests in his articles: keen analytical judgment. The conventional history of the “intelligence” about the weapons of mass destruction in Iraq says it was made up entirely by those looking for a pretext for invasion. But that’s not entirely the case.

I worked for a nonproliferation nonprofit at the time of the invasion. I knew about Iraq’s chemical weapons program and had studied deeply Iraq’s crash nuclear weapons program prior to its destruction after the 1991 Gulf War. In the lead-up to the 2003 invasion, I felt it was highly unlikely that Iraq had restarted its nuclear weapons program because of the intense capital development that would require. But I also knew how well Iraq had hidden their nuclear weapons development program prior to 1991 — and the lengths to which the regime went to deceive weapons inspectors — and felt that it was possible it had hidden a chemical weapons program about as well since then. Not having any access to classified information, it was reasonable to assume that the Administration had better data. Many people in our coalition made the same assumption. Indeed, I think there was a broad presumption that Iraq had something, but our political position was to force Iraq to submit to U.N. inspections that would eventually uncover it. In other words, our judgment was faulty, too.

If there were others out there putting together the pieces and drawing the opposite conclusion — that Saddam had no clothes, that he had no weapons of mass destruction — I don’t know who they are. But that is the nature of good, keen judgment — facing incomplete information (especially when “incomplete” actually means absent, an abstract point about which Morris and Rumsfeld argue) and drawing the most accurate conclusion.

Morris is so disturbed by Rumsfeld’s deflection and penchant for argument that he wonders if there is anything substantial behind the quip and self-satisfied grin. Maybe there’s nothing more beyond the clever debate team captain’s tricks, he argues, and a mind made up to invade Iraq. Maybe there is no actual mind there capable of pure reason and problem-solving; no mind dedicated to, never mind interested in, concrete truth in the actual world.

It would seem from Rumsfeld’s record that Morris would be right. A mind like his is designed for and honed by a life in politics — arguing a point, driving a cause, giving no quarter, relentlessly in pursuit until he wins. The winner defines the political reality and that was how his political career evolved. But the one reality he could not shape was Iraq after the fall of Saddam in April 2003 and he did not have the imagination (a term he used relentlessly and with great irony prior to the invasion) to comprehend what was happening nor the ability to find a way out of the debacle he created. He fell back on the tools that had served him so well for so long, which were mostly language. But at a point early on those tools failed him — when his language no longer had any connection to the reality of the chaos in Iraq.

Morris doesn’t write about this, either, and Rumsfeld doesn’t seem to have been humbled by his experience.  Morris appears amazed by this, and perhaps we are, too, given the experience he and we had with former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara. Rumsfeld doesn’t give us the satisfaction of McNamara’s comeuppance, but that doesn’t mean we can’t learn from his experience and judge him for it.


The Interpreter of Comedies

The extended appearance of Pussy Riot members Nadya Tolokonnikova and Masha Alyokhina on The Colbert Report Feb. 7 is worth watching for any number of reasons, top among them are hearing two victims of Vladimir Putin’s regime speaking in their own language. Undeterred from their ordeal, they are in the United States to try to make Russia a better place.

But it is also amazing to watch how well this interview works considering that it is consecutively interpreted in Russian and English between the interview subjects and Stephen Colbert’s weird ultraconservative alter ego. Colbert maintains his usual quick and sympathetic wit, but Tolokonnikova and Alyokhina more than keep up with him. Given their experience, their humor and barbs against the man responsible for their imprisonment and amnesty are all the more extraordinary and biting.

And keeping stride between the two sides — the Russians on one, Colbert and his unpredictable character on the other — is Anna Kadysheva, the interpreter. A professional interpreter and photographer living in New York, she deserves extraordinary praise for her deft linguistic abilities. This interview could have easily gone flat, but she brought the same smarts in two languages to the table as her subjects displayed to convey the bite and humor in both directions.

This is no mean achievement. Translation usually kills humor first. The situational aspect of the interview, and the obvious good will and intelligence arrayed at the table, helped the comedy vault the language barrier. But it was easy to miss how fluidly Anna kept the laughs flowing back and forth between subjects and interrogator. Listening to her, I recalled a professional’s admiring comment that it was Ginger Rogers who danced with Fred Astaire “backwards, and in heels”. The studio audience loved every second.

It’s not clear that Tolokonnikova and Alyokhina’s visit to the United States has done them much good politically back home — the anonymous collective known as Pussy Riot back in Russia has apparently broken off with them as they pursue their cause of prison reform. And going under the glare of the American media surely won’t help them with Putin’s propaganda machine, which can easily hijack Colbert’s hijinks to show how much the anti-Russian American media megalith, already tweeting furiously about their unfinished rooms in Sochi (as if that were not mere coincidence), loves these women and is conspiring to oppress the greatness of Russia.

But they have to talk to those who will listen. There is no other way to communicate what they have to say, and communication is part and parcel of real change. It is clear that they are sincere about that, and we can only hope their celebrity will protect them — and their friends — from the harm that has come to so many others back home.

This post was updated on March 5, 2014.


Matters of Interpretation

If the unfortunate fracas over the fraudulent sign language interpreter for the public funeral service of Nelson Mandela had one upside, it might be this wonderful, illuminating (if short) discussion with Melanie Metzger, Ph.D., chair of the Department of Interpretation at Galludet University in Washington, D.C., on the Kojo Nnamdi Show on WAMU.

As you can see in the embedded video above, the discussion is made all the more informative for the live, simultaneous sign language interpretation incorporated into the interview between Dr. Metzger and her interpreter, Caroline Ressler. For those who have never watched the interaction between a deaf speaker and an interpreter, or who have only seen sign language interpreters on television or on stage, the relationship between the two might surprise them.  Deaf conversation can be highly animated, tactile, and for the hearing audience — missed here because of the spoken interpretation — often surprisingly loud and percussive. This also provides you a much better idea of the impressive feat of simultaneous interpretation, in any language.

I have posted this discussion not just for the importance of the topic but also because of my interest in language and interpretation generally.  American Sign Language is a language, with its own regional accents and dialects, and the cognitive issues Metzger discusses here are analogous to interpretation in other languages, regardless of ability or tongue.

I would only add for those living near Gallaudet University (or anyone with access to a school for the deaf) to see a theater production at the drama studio, which as a hearing person I can only describe as theater acted in three dimensions after a life performing in bas relief!


American Republic, Now Available from Amazon

I’m pleased to announce that my book, American Republic: Essays on the Nature of Politics, is now available in Kindle and paperback from

American Republic includes the original book, plus three essays that first appeared on this site: “The Plastics and the Political,” “Faith, Politics and ‘The West Wing,'” and “Democracy and Political Language”. 

The Kindle format retails at $6.95 and the paperback is also available for $12.99.

The paperback is also available direct through the publisher, and we hope to have it available through Barnes and Noble and in other book stores soon.


An Intellectual Assault on Joseph Nye: Part One

Joseph Nye’s theory and advocacy of “soft power,” articulated in the early 1990s and developed during the last 15 years, have been a touchstone for virtually anyone studying or writing about international relations. It’s been impossible, particularly, to write about public diplomacy without having to throw it obligatorily into the custom-made “soft power” box that Nye built. In summary, Nye believes the fundamental aspects of effective power are changing; that this has become more “soft” in recent decades; and for the United States to remain dominant in global affairs it must adapt to wielding this “soft power” more effectively.

I’ve long found Nye’s theory troublesome but it took me some time to understand why. I don’t think he understands power, force and coercion and the nuance of their employment in foreign affairs. The strange dichotomy of “soft power” versus “hard power” long bothered me because it seemed to try to articulate something very complex by using mutually complementary contrasts, like trying to describe a Picasso using only “light blue” and “dark blue”.

What follows is the first in a series of assaults on Nye’s theory. By assault I mean I intend to take territory and to replace what I hope to destroy in the process.

I’ll start from a position of strength: Nye’s theory fails at the level of language. Briefly put, the “soft power/hard power” paradigm clutters more than it clarifies. In an attempt to provide a simple differentiating factor between aspects of national power, Nye has only blurred important distinctions beyond measure.

The absurdity of Nye’s apparent dichotomy is inherent in the words he applies, which pairs opposing modifiers to the same underlying object; specifically, he discusses power which may be “hard” or “soft”. To give a sense of what I mean, we may as well be using “More Power” and “Not-Power” or “Less Power” for all the additional clarity his distinction brings. There is a whiff of Orwellian Newspeak to this. Orwell’s 1984 philologist Syme would have liked “soft power”: Why try to articulate or describe this in more precise language when “power” and a modifier (“smart” comes to mind) serve the purpose just as well? The result, as Orwell has argued elsewhere, defeats complex thought.

This is no post-modern critique. It demonstrates at a practical level the problem of the language involved. What should bring more clarity makes this subject more obscure because it begs the question of what, exactly, power is (a specific point I hope to bring up in a later post). And in this case – which damns Nye the most in my eyes – he is willing to acknowledge that “hard power” is the equivalent of force but then won’t simply use the term, which is much more precise and accurate. But also inconvenient. When is hard power not force? When it’s paired with soft power. Which in turn is what, exactly?

In short, Nye’s language obfuscates. It refuses to name what we are really talking about, which is power and force. When we use language like this, it is far more clear what we are discussing. True power is not attractive, as Nye posits, it is conductive, and can for example include a wide array of (painful) economic and diplomatic tools. The full array of national power includes the organized, destructive and denying tools of military and paramilitary violence. Force can be coercive, punitive and destructive – aspects Nye strangely ignores in his description of power.

And that explains the false comfort we find in “soft power,” which as we will see here is not very soft at all. Nye makes quite a case for attracting and convincing countries, but that is simply another way of talking about diplomacy. Nations talking to one another can come to agreements based on mutual interests or previously unknown commonalities. In addition to forgetting this plain fact of international political history, Nye ignores the nuanced realities of foreign relations, which can also resemble parliamentary “horse-trading” — the barter in trade of deals that have been the staple of international diplomacy for centuries. (Most countries today see America’s ability to give away something for nothing as idiocy, not benevolence. The rest of the world simply can’t afford that kind of charity without an explicit quid pro quo.)

But beyond that we are talking about coercive if nominally peaceful means, non-violent tools that are powerful nonetheless. Coercion short of force can be almost as destructive as warfare and certainly as disruptive. We need look no further than the collapsing economies of the European Union and the power of the European Central Bank, the International Monetary Fund (for some) and the stronger economies (Germany foremost) have to wield over them to reform. This is simple power and there is nothing soft about it for the people living under it.

Nye has carved out an advantage for himself, of course, by wrapping up virtually every non-military aspect of national power in the non-threatening mien of “soft power”. But enlarging the basket and giving it an anodyne label should make us all the more suspicious. Because it is the difference among the tools in the various baskets, and the consequences of using them – or not using them – that has real effects for real people. And perhaps Nye, as well as his defenders and detractors, have forgotten that those real people are the ultimate source of power in political life.

I would replace Nye’s soft power language with this: there is only power – the full combined measure of a nation to act on the world — and force is a subset of national power; we have alternative tools of national power that are no less coercive but less destructive such as trade barriers, economic countermeasures, and sanctions. These are rightly labeled power because some countries have greater power (and more tools) than others. We have means to induce, cajole and convince without coercion and these are called diplomacy, public diplomacy, communications and (sometimes) propaganda.

There is nothing to be gainsaid from simplifying to the point of simple-mindedness. That is what, in part, Nye has done. We can use language to describe, accurately and with precision, exactly what power and force are and can do among nations.


Smile! How to Talk with ESL Speakers

original_open-english-mission-1aobcdrI was in the emergency ward at Inova Fairfax Hospital in Northern Virginia recently when I witnessed one of those daily heroic events that usually pass without notice. A young mother and her two daughters were trying to negotiate the Emergency Room. The younger girl had broken her right arm. She held it out in front of her, wrapped in a shirt. Pain and fear wracked her sallow face. She couldn’t have been more than eight years old. Her mother was a mask of worry and confusion. Leading her sister and her mother was the older daughter, probably 10 years old, who with a mixture of bravado and reserve navigated the front desk and then the parade of nurses and doctors on the ward.

I met them when the older sister asked to use the telephone in to our bay. They were barely six months into the United States from Jordan, the older sister explained to me. She was using the English she had learned at school in her home country and whatever she had picked up in the half-year since. It was strong, but she was still just a girl. Her mother was taking English as a Second Language (ESL), and she proudly if tentatively tried out a little of what she learned with me. I told her daughter to keep studying hard but not to forget her Arabic. She repeated what I said to her mother, who smiled and gave me a thumb’s-up.

Any hospital under any condition is intimidating enough. Can you imagine entrusting your ten-year-old to navigate the Emergency Room for you in a foreign language?  I couldn’t explain to the girls or their mother at the time how I felt for them, but their experience was not far removed from my own during six years in Belgium and Luxembourg, where I negotiated the Belgian medical and legal systems. There, many people did speak English but often enough the only language we had in common was French, which I speak without confidence. (I speak it so haltingly I was once mistaken for Flemish.)

Especially for an adult, navigating and negotiating a different language environment can be frustrating and humiliating. What used to be natural and simple – going to the post office, buying groceries, talking to your children’s teacher – can become a bewildering ordeal. Compound that with a medical crisis or an encounter with authority (I was summoned to court once after Belgian police sent a traffic violation to an old address) and you can imagine how fraught even routine interactions can become.

Back at Inova Fairfax, I had watched closely how the understandably harried admission nurses handled this little family of three. Of course, the nurses likely wouldn’t speak Arabic, and they couldn’t possibly speak all of the languages represented in their service the area. Admirably, at least one of the five I saw on station spoke Spanish – a large demographic in Northern Virginia.

But their communications skills, even with English speakers, could improve. They didn’t speak directly to patients. Their language was unclear, discursive, or filled with jargon. They seemed indifferent.  For anyone, entering the ER is difficult and traumatic enough. For ESL speakers, disorientation is only compounded by unclear communication. And just looking around the ER, I would guess that would apply to recent immigrants from East and West Africa, the Arab countries, South Asia, East Asia, and Central and South America.

We need to adapt to this reality. Today, 20 percent of American citizens speak a language other than English at home.  All of them either were raised in a bilingual household or passed a test of English to become naturalized, so that number doesn’t include legal residents and immigrating relatives who are here as well. All of them, too, presumably are learning English in order to naturalize. But that also suggests there are now, and will be, far more foreign-language speakers in the United States than the 20 percent number indicates. In high-immigration areas like Northern Virginia, Southern California, Chicago and New York City, those numbers are substantially higher. Ten years ago, half of the Brooklyn Congressional district I worked for spoke Spanish, but the fastest-growing linguistic groups were from Eastern Europe – particularly Poland, Russia and Ukraine.

So here is some advice for people working with that public – a linguistically diverse, dramatically changing public – whether at home and abroad, to help two-way communication go more smoothly:

1)   Smile! It’s a universal sign of good will and it goes a long way to establish trust and a bond of communication. Recognize the heroic effort somebody with limited English is making to communicate with you. Meet them at least half way by trying to understand their intent and to help them articulate what they want to say. If you get this right they will appreciate you for it. Any indication you give that they are a burden or annoyance is humiliating to them, or worse, frustrating and angering.

2)  Make eye contact. (You can type or take notes later or in between interrogatories.)  This shows attention and respect in most cultures. (You can even explain why you are doing it.)  More practically, it makes it easier for you to hear the person you are talking to – and to be heard. The person can see your face and read your expression, which are crucial non-verbal cues that aide comprehension. Similarly, you will be able to read their non-verbal communication as well.

3)  Speak simply, literally, clearly and directly. We live in a metaphorical age and we speak a language littered with dead horses, old dogs, bad seeds, busy bees, flying pigs, little birds and elephants in the room. ESL speakers are learning a very basic, literal language where object follows verb follows subject. You don’t have to speak to them as a child because they already have one (and probably more) language(s) available to them. But they are learning an entirely new language and culture to apply to things and ways of living that once were very straight-forward and simple. This is extraordinarily disorienting, often embarrassing and can be humiliating to a proud adult. If you can help them navigate this new language universe with some dignity they will appreciate it.

4)  Avoid discursive or irrelevant remarks and interjections. This relates to the previous point. Maintain a straight narrative track as much as possible, and avoid straying from this track, which can be confusing. Americans particularly are prone to abrupt interjections, OK? You know what I mean? You know what I mean. And then continuing their thought. For someone learning English this is incredibly disruptive and can be very disorienting and frustrating.

5)  Use appropriate inflection.  Make declamatory statements that sound like statements. Should you ask questions that sound like statements? Of course not! Emphasize when emphasis is necessary! Americans have a tendency in casual speech to use “uptalk” – probably to maintain your attention? – that can sound like an interrogatory. Again, for an ESL speaker, this can be diverting, confounding, and frustrating.

6)  If you think you are not being understood, do not necessarily repeat yourself. (Do not try speaking more loudly. This is an aural cue of escalation that communicates anger, not clarity.) Try to rearticulate what you said in a different way. If you speak another language – Spanish, or French, for example – think about how you would articulate what you want to say in that language, in literal terms, and try that out in English.

In the end, if you try all this and you still fail to communicate, you at least will have preserved the dignity of the person you are talking to. That is of immeasurable worth.  Keep a list of available languages handy and an interpreter service on speed dial, if those services are available to you.

George Orwell , who served in Burma and wrote for the BBC’s South Asia arm during the war, once wrote that English is a very easy language at the basic level but a very difficult language at its most complex, which may explain both why there are so many students of English but so few truly brilliant English writers and speakers. Keep that in mind the next time you are talking to somebody learning the language of William Shakespeare, King James, and Walt Whitman.


How To Write for Translation

A conversation with a colleague recently posed a question that I’m surprised I hadn’t considered before: How do we write for effective translation?

Surrounded as we are, especially if we are anglophones, by competent speakers and writers of English, and with machines translators at our fingertips, it is easy to forget that translation is still an important and necessary function performed well by professionally trained people so that we can communicate with one another across the language barrier

But sometimes, as in the case of my colleague, a professional translator is not available (for reasons of cost, time or convenience) so a few hard and fast rules may be necessary to help the non-professional make good translations. (And I’m sure the professional translator would appreciate the effort to make their job easier.) The following, therefore, is similar to a previous post I wrote on speaking effectively through interpretation, for it requires the same attention paid to language and how it is used in the day to day. But it departs from speaking because of the usual attention paid to grammar, structure, and rhetoric in most drafted documents.

This presumes that you are not a poet, journalist or literary writer of some kind who is otherwise focused on the craft of molding the language; in that case it is the job of the translator to transmogrify your work into another’s language (on which see Edith Grossman’s excellent book, above). For the rest of us, these guidelines will help you, and your translator, make yourself understood in another language.

Rule #1: Write as literally and as simply as possible. Use language that is commonly understood and definitions that are confined to the first or second entries in most dictionaries. You will get no extra credit, as it were, for elaborate hidden meanings, double entendres, or word play, because most words are stripped of their additional load-bearing meanings when translated into another language. If you want or need to use such complex meanings clear in another language, you need to describe them as such in the text.

Rule #2: Avoid complex sentences and elaborate subordinate clause structures. These are either likely to confuse the translator or, if they are translated more literally, not to come out in a way that is comprehensible in the foreign language. At the same time, sentences should not be so simple that the flow of thought is cut up in the chop.

Rule #3: Avoid metaphor and simile, especially obscure or culturally unique metaphors and comparisons; purge cliche. Metaphors have a bad habit of translating poorly (think of “the mother of all battles”). As with Rule #2, if you must use a metaphor, explain it, its background and relevance. Cliches should never be used unless absolutely necessary and literally true.

Rule #4: Purge jargon and acronyms whenever possible. This is generally a good rule for solid writing in any case, but often it is not possible, especially with technical or professional writing. If jargon or acronyms are not commonly understood, the Associated Press rule is best: spell it out on first reference and refer to the acronym. As necessary explain the context of the jargon, acronym or organization.

Rule #5: Set off and explain terms of art and other important language. You may need to communicate terms of art or other important words that has precise or specific meaning in your own language. (For example, legal jurisdiction in English is usually translated as competence in French. But competence in English has an entirely different meaning.) It will be important to separate these terms with quotation marks, or italics, and then explain or define them so there is no risk of a mistranslation.

I’ve been told that English, particularly American English, is perhaps too blunt and straight-forward, that its grammatical structure encourages punch and pith rather than thought and consideration. That may be. So you may want to take into account cultural sensitivities, perhaps by talking to your translator about pleasantries, honorifics, and sign-offs that are considerate and sensitive rather than brusque. But for certain there again you’ll want to make sure that it translates well.