Monthly Archives: June 2007


Translator-traitor is a phrase the Italians have for describing the translation of poetry. It’s an interesting subject to think about in respect of knowledge work and writing which so often demands translation from one world and sensibility to an entirely different one.

The italian poet, Eugenio Montale played with this in ‘Poesia Travestita’, a kind of poetry round game he played in 1978. He found somebody to translate a poem ‘Nuove Stanze’ into arabic, and then it goes like this:
arabic to french, french to polish, polish to russian, russian to czech, czech to bulgarian, bulgarian to dutch, dutch to german, german to spanish, and finally spanish back to the original italian, by which time the poem had become unrecognisable.

A friend once told me that it’s almost impossible to translate poetry without at least two people engaged and 3 sets of skills: 2 mother tongues and at least one, preferably two poets. So the translation of the poem cannot exist in any one person but in the space created between the people and their skills. as a metaphor for the best kind of knowledge work, I think that’s a pretty good one.

In August 2000, in the Knowledge at Wharton online magazine there was an interview with John Barr, an investment banker turned poet, called ‘Poems are Long Journeys in Risk’
. In it, he talked of potential power of putting the worlds of business and poetry very close together:

‘Let me tell you a story to illustrate the power of letting the two sides—business and poetry—get as close together as possible rather than far apart in a separate briefcase. There’s a story about the early days of atomic energy, before scientists understood it really well. One American scientist had a game that he played with two halves of uranium. The concept of critical mass is that if you let those two halves come together, it would result in a nuclear explosion. If the two are kept separate, it won’t cause an explosion because each half has less than critical mass. Well, this scientist would put these two halves on a table with a geiger counter, and bring them closer and closer together. The geiger counter would soar, and then he would take the two halves away from each other. This is a true story.

One day he made a mistake and the two halves got too close together. There was a nuclear flash, and ultimately everyone in the laboratory died from the radiation exposure. But because they were scientists, all of them noted how many feet away they were from the critical mass. Their data was used as raw material in measuring the effect of nuclear blasts.

The scientist called what he was doing “tickling the dragon’s tail.” My metaphor in all this is that if the poet-businessman decides to ticke the dragon’s tail—and bring the two hemispheres of business and poetry together—he should let them get close but not too close. If it’s done right, it can be a great source of energy.’

And these five tipson translating poetry are as good for knowledge work as any other guidance I’ve come across if, for the word poem, you substitute the words ‘knowledge thing’ – a bit graceless I know, but it serves the purpose for now. The first sentences here come from the original tips. The companion sentences are mine.

1. Stay Close to the Poem. Get thoroughly intimate with the thing.

2. Know the poet. Understand it’s context and origins inside out. Get familiar with everything you can about the thing.

3. Go for Grace. Convey the essence of the thing with pith and elegance.

4. Be Wary. Don’t take other’s people’s ways of looking at the thing as your own. Own your own way of relating to and conveying the thing and ignore the noise.

5. Take a Deep Breath. Sit with it. Go away. Come back and look at it again.

It reminds me of something I read by Peter Hall, about slowing down and stepping into Shakespeare when you are directing it. When he directs a Shakespeare play, his first act is to sit down and write it out by hand.

‘Those ain’t our rules’

‘Those ain’t our rules
We didn’t write’m
No need to read’m’
[From the film of ‘The Cider House Rules’ – the apple pickers come back each season and only when Homer Wells joins them and reads the rules out loud have the rules ever been shared. Rules, and doing the right thing regardless of the rules, are the core themes of the film, elaborated in the book.]

We come across that a lot. How to to make rules that work and are not just the voice of a pointlessly rigid authority. Three illustrations.

1. Early on in the life of Spark, Philippa joined us, rejoining having left the team for a while and gone via one of the Big Five consulting firms. She brought with her the dress code instructions (lipstick, belts, earrings, every tiny detail proscribed). We wondered why there could not be a rule which was ‘dress appropriately’.

2. There’s a health centre in East London which has a bunch of rules, protocols, guidance, around diversity, inclusion, whatever. Not a single one of these is displayed, or even taught. These lists are filed somewhere and come out when they need to be attached to a bid for money. The rest of the time, those who work or have been around the centre a long time walk newcomers over an invisible boundary into the space where certain behaviour is OK and other behaviour is not. This is a part of East London rife with racism, confrontation, social tension. But the rules are not ever articulated as explicit constraints. Rather, when someone steps over in a line in their behaviour, somebody who understands what does and does not go will gently, in companionship, prompt an interruption, a reflection, and indication of what will and won’t wash. It comes from within, a tacitly shared understanding of what this place means. It’s a place made over 15 or 20 years of repetition, reincorporation, embodiment of what the health centre stands for.

3. Last year we spent most of the year engaged in a substantial lessons learned review for the Chief Scientific Advisor and Futures and Horizon Scanning head of a government department. The intention of the work was to research, emerge lessons and lead to production of governance and good practice guidelines for commissioning, carrying out and disseminating this kind of work. We initiated the work with private interviews with those directly involved with the original programme, supplemented by 10 minute telephone calls with 70 – 80 of those more on the periphery. Then we used this raw material to create an annotated timeline of the key turning points in the first 5 years and pinpoint where lessons might be found and to frame more detailed questions to work through in short, recorded conversations supplemented by a week of structured cross-department events, using pinboarding and narrative techniques. All the audio and visual material was documented. The body of materials was segmented and analysed in a tailormade cataloguing and research device designed for us by Spanner ( and the emergent insights used to construct provocative essays on aspects of governance – a way of reporting back to the client and inviting department-wide reflection on developing and upholding standards and behaviours in these emergent and complex areas of evidence-gathering. At no stage did will tell anyone what to do or that that was a definitive guideline. Rather, we gathered experience and presented this back in such a way that the recipient would be inclined to consider it and form judgements in relation to it which would affect how they acted in future.

It calls to mind the story of the hotel key, as told by Bruno Latour in a essay on knowledge claims. The question is, how do you get the hotel guest to return the key? Do you put up rules? (‘Those ain’t our rules’) Do you attach a huge wooden object to the key that is a constant physical reminder and makes it bulky, uncomfortable and easier to leave at reception? Are the rules outside the object, or prompts, embedded in the object? So do you get to rules by words, or by a kind of oddness which interrupts the flow, the autopilot of actions and reactions, and shifts the relationship between person and object without anything having to be said?

Of course nowadays, the key is a disposable credit card sliver of a thing which mostly doesn’t work and needs reprogramming after several increasingly irritable trips to reception.

[Latour, Bruno (1991) ‘Materials of Power: Technology is society made durable’ in John Law (ed.) A Sociology of Monsters: Essays on Power, Technology and Domination Sociological Review Monograph 38 Routledge, London, pp 103 – 132]

‘You jumped over the essential story as though it was a pool of water, and you were afraid of drowning’

One of the challenges in narrative interviewing is the defended interviewee. This, from some Sparknow materials on narrative research.

‘In any research topic, there are two overarching questions that have to be addressed: what is the object of the enquiry and how can it be enquired into.’ [Doing qualitative research differently: free association, narrative and the interview method’ Hollway, Wendy and Jefferson, Tony, Sage 2000]

Hollway and Jefferson draw examples from their Economic and Social Research Council project on ‘Gender difference, anxiety and the fear of crime.’ The authors aim is to recognise and question generalisations of fear and crime from the British Crime Survey (BSC) e.g. Are women afraid of the dark? The problem is that if you ask a woman if she is afraid of the dark, you are likely to be asking altogether the wrong question to find and in some way be able to assess her experience comparatively with those of other interviewees.

Some of the things we have learned about about how to find the essential story, rather than have people leap over it include

• be a good listener and the interviewee is a storyteller, not just a respondent to an interview question
• use open ended not closed questions, and use the questions as storytelling invitations
• avoid ‘why’ questions, they lead to intellectualisations, abstractions, disconnections (this comes from appreciative inquiry)
• seek not to be a visible asker of questions, instead to be an almost invisible, facilitating catalyst to stories – if necessary find indirect and gentle ways to pick up on gaps, omissions, hesitations and pauses to give you, as an interview pair, a chance to go deeper and find their meaning
• seek not to offer judgements, or lead, but use the subject’s ordering and language to retain their meaning frames without offering interpretations or judgements
• invite metaphor and vivid language which might deepen and enrich insight into aspects of the experience which would probably not be visible by using more traditional methods (what does fear feel like? what does pain feel like? these emotions are only accessible to the listener through metaphor and analogy)
• allow the story to emerge uninterrupted – leave it until later to follow up on facts, omissions, spellings, details which trigger curiosity
• take extensive fieldnotes

The narrative enquirer is always tussling with questions of accuracy, comparability and representativeness. How the storytellers motivations, memories and anxieties affect the telling? How do the tellers assumptions about what the listener is looking for, or about some social gap between teller and listener affect the story? How does the listeners need for coherence and patterns close their ears to the importance of fragments, trailings off, pauses and omissions?

There are particular, ironic, challenges in narrative research, in that the tendency is to recall a well rehearsed story. And a well rehearsed story or ‘whole’ episode is likely to contain drama. Indeed the insight we seek may not qualify, in the mind of the subject, as a story at all. So we need to look for gaps and hidden qualities and apparent ‘nothings’, as well as the more evident something which story-seeking questions throw up.

There is something beyond the ‘nothings’ which is the hiddens, and these may, or may not be, easy or appropriate to identify. In his book ‘The Gate of the Sun’ Elias Khoury weaves together true life stories of Lebanese refugee camps into a fictional setting. At one point, the narrator is talking to a someone in a coma and he says

‘You only spoke about one woman, and even that one you only talked about a little. Piecing the tale together and arranging or scattered sentences, I turned it into a story. But you only mentioned love incidentally. You jumped over the essential story as though it was a pool and you were afraid of drowning.’

This can happen with narrative research too. Sometimes, interviewees will jump over the essential story ‘as though it was a pool’ and the interviewer must judge whether it is appropriate to pay attention to this or not.

There is also the temptation to draw on other observations, outside the actual product of the interviews between researcher and subject. There needs to be agreement as to the degree to which inference is valid or peripheral vision – things noticed which creep beyond the scope of the specific piece of research – should be permitted.

In addition, the positioning of the researchers needs to be considered. They need to be seen as clearly kinds of episodes collected through narrative research are, in part, skewed by the assumption of an authority figure and the relationship of the subject with faceless authority figures in general. One challenge we have found in our interviewing and facilitation work is the casting of our interviewers and facilitators as witnesses, not as pushers or snoops for the mangers who generally commission us.

The challenges of developing consistent standards in this kind of approach are compounded by Sparknow’s particular leaning towards collaborative enquiry, working in partnership with untrained volunteers in the client to build a sharper provocation and a deeper set of insights, while risking a more uneven, subjective and rawer approach. We take the view that this kind of situated learning has a value in its own right. But it’s not easy to pull off.

Travelling storytellers as miniaturists.

Charlie Beckett wrote on opendemocracy yesterday on the dangers of formulaic narrative journalism, the codification of small snatched soundbites and imagebites into packaged materials whose liberal intent is not in doubt, with the consequence that we hold back from challenging the context and validity of what we are seeing, hearing and being told. He says:

“The evidence of a problem, one that crosses broadcasting boundaries, is not hard to find. Take Unreported World on Channel 4. Each week, brave young independent journalists are seen in some unpleasant part of the globe contradicting the title of the programme. From Haiti to Darfur they dodge bullets and meet up with intimidating guerrilla leaders. Their commitment and courage is evident. Sometimes they display excellent language skills and sometimes good local knowledge. But it can end up feeling like breathless travel journalism with flak-jackets because the formula becomes dominant over analysis, reflection or context. Just because the subject is Sri Lanka or children in Côte d’Ivoire doesn’t mean that it is a “progressive” or even valuable programme. By emphasising a narrative-driven structure it can become as predictable a formula as the two-minute piece on the BBC’s 10 o’clock news.”

Breathless travel jounalism with flak jackets is the unhealthy tendency of those of us who consult to organisations too: punch at the expense of considered thought and a weighing and reweighing of the fragments of evidence, narrative and metaphor which might illuminate a greater truth. Not only is it what consultants offer. They offer it because it’s what clients commission. Clients often want to commission something which will tidy things up for them, not make them messier. A former colleague once pointed me at Clifford Geertz’s Islam Observed: Religious Development in Morocco and Indonesia (1968) in which he says, of the anthropologist’s role:

“In attempting to answer grand questions …, the anthropologist is always inclined to turn toward the concrete, the particular, the microscopic. We are the miniaturists of the social sciences, painting on Lilliputian canvases with what we take to be delicate strokes. We hope to find in the little what eludes us in the large, to stumble upon general truths while sorting through special cases.”

There isn’t time, it seems, with deadlines and budgets and the voracious cuckoo of the media to be constantly fed, to stumble on special truths while sorting through special cases. Walter Benjamin, in his essay ‘The Storyteller’, written between the World Wars in 1936 regrets the passing of the art of storytelling:
“..the art of storytelling is coming to an end. Less and less frequently do we encounter people with the ability to tell a tale properly. More and more often there is embarrassment all around when the wish to hear a story is experessed. It is as if somethign that seemed inalienable to us, the securest among our possessions, were taken from us: the ability to exchange experiences.”

He proposes that this is because experience has fallen in value, that our picture of the external and of the moral world had been damaged by the first world war, which impoverished communicable experience while unleashing floods of information;

“A generation that had gone to school on a horse-drawn streetcar now stood under the open sky in a countryside in which nothing remained unchagned but the clouds, and beneath these clouds in a field of force of destructive torrents and explosions, was the tiny, fragile, human body.”

He goes on to draw a distinction which I’ve used repeatedly between the storytellers who are travellers and those who are stayers:

“people imagine the storyteller as someone who comes from afar. But they enjoy no less listening to the man who has stayed at home, making an honest living, and who knows the local tales and traditions.”

But what we often have is a passing journalist or aid worker listening to the man who has stayed at home and the apparently interesting bits (told no doubt through an interpreter, perhaps in a workshop even) or even been seduced into carrying a story performed only for his benefit, as those who stay at home and need aid from afar find ways to couch their stories so as to get attention and aid. There is a kind of unhealthy complicity here between the original tellers and those who travel with the stories and put them to work and this can often turn into the misappropriation of stories, turning them into externalised objects constructed without proper thought. I’m reminded of a brief moment in ‘The Reporter’, a play just on at the National Theatre, by Nicholas Wright, just before end of first half when the senior BBC bloke is giving a coded instruction to Jim Mossman (the journalist whose life and suicide is being investigated by himself) about what he choses to communicate to the press as the story about the death of his gay lover from an overdose:

“It is in the nature of every tragedy to be ambiguous. But ambiguity is what we can’t afford. What is essential both for you and the Corporation is to focus down these multiple contradictions into a single story that can be easily understood and soon forgotten. Now, I’ve told you the truth as it seems to me but I can’t instruct you. If the truth for you is the story of drink and shared medication and a troubled relationship with a younger man, then you must tell it like that.”

I hold that it is the complexity, ambiguity, discomfort and unease in storytelling (contextualised appropriately through facts and evidence) that is the point. It should not speed up transmission. It should slow transmission, make things messier, harder to grasp, so that the listener/viewer must absorb layers of complexity and develop his or her own judgements about how to act in the light of the experience of receiving the story. Charlie Beckett says in his article yesterday:

“And where the complexity of the story is greatest, surely new media with its ability to link and to source and to refer can provide a more attenuated, more informed and more intelligent rendition of the situation? Instead of endless headlines about icecaps melting and capital cities drowning, the internet allows a multilayered reportage of climate change, from the scientific data to the implications for each family’s household.”

Exactly so. So there are two very importantly different things going on here. One is to embrace the emergent patterns, cross linkages and complex reverberations offered by the existence of many amateur and professional authors, journalists and commentators and use these to find more intelligent renditions of of the human condition. The other is to pay a great deal more attention to our role as witnesses.

As intermediaries, interpreters, translators, witnesses, some of whom have voices which are loud and can echo round the world, we have a custodial duty to do our best to act as thoughtful miniaturists, seeking to communicate the essence of the big picture in our careful selection of the small illustrations which will illuminate it. And yes, we must use delicate strokes.

‘Man has closed himself up, till he sees all things thro’ narrow chinks of his cavern’

From ‘His sense of exile’ by William Blake. The whole poem goes thus:

‘I am like an atom, a nothing left in darkness,
And yet I am an identitiy.

They told me that I had five senses to close me up,
And the enclosed my infinite brain into a narrow
And sunk my heart into the Abyss…
Till all from FLie I was obliterated and erased.

Man has closed himself up, till he sees all things
thro’ narraow chinks of his cavern.

If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing
would appear to man as it is, infinite.’

At the recent conference in Wrexham on Excellence in Narrative Practice
there was considerable reflection on the role of the narrative interviewer and their relationship with the interviewee. And then on what to do with the transcription and analysis of materials. This is a huge area and not an easy one. In different work on oral histories with the founding brothers of the Islamic Development Bank, lessons learned and governance of futures and horizon scanning research at Defra, enquiry into merger culture, and into the customer experience at HMRC, we’ve grappled in many different ways with the casting of the interviewer and with the analysis of resulting materials. I’ll write more on this as a subject over time, but simply wanted to record today a metaphor for the role of the enquirer/witness that struck me in one talk. The researcher described herself as feeling like an amateur archaeologist in sifting through the materials. For many old fragments of artefacts, you need to have some idea of the overall shape of what you are looking for to stand any chance of recognising it among the rubble. And all the same, you must keep an open mind and a keen eye to discern things and possibilities you may not have had in mind. So you need to be both open and closed minded in reviewing the assembled materials.

This reminds me of the end 17th point in Quaker Advices and Queries:

‘Think it possible that you may be mistaken.’

Marginalia – part of the equipment of the modern day knowledge worker.

A friend bought a gift over from the US last week. A pre-publication of a book by Jim Lord called ‘What kind of World do you Want?’ – broadly a slim but nicely done volume which proposes appreciative enquiry as a way to tip towards positive and against negative action, without referring explicitly to appreciative enquiry (or inquiry as the originators in the US would have it).

Before the index page is an exhortation in a box:


Everything in this books is offered to stimulate your thinking.
As you turn the pages of this slim volume, allow your experience to be foremost. Write your insights in the book.
Most of us hear the grade-school librarian in the back of our heads and treat a book like a sacred object. To that I say: Go ahead, write in it. Make friends with it. Make it yours.

I was reminded of an excellent article from the Times on marginalia in December 2004 by Ben Macintyre. It tells of the rise and fall of marginalia:

“Marginalia blurred distinctions between writer, reader and critic. Passed from one reader to another, the margins and flypapers of some books became a sort of message board for this unique form of intellectual graffiti, with brief accolades, argumentative asides, addenda and insults. Even the greatest writers could be deflated with a sharp jab from the margins. An anonymous reader who rebelled against Samuel Johnson’s description of the weather as “gloomy, frigid and ungenial ” scrawled in exasperation: “Why can’t you say Cold like the rest of ye world?” Quite.”

The fall, largely brought about by the increasing access to Everyman brought about by printing, literacy and the rise of the public library in the mid nineteenth centry. And it was then, as books became public, borrowed rather than private, owned property that rules against writing in books crept in and marginalia were erased from the habits of the better behaved (always excluding the inevitable Eating Grammar owned by every prep school boy).

In the DEMOCRATIC REVIEW, November, 1844 Edgar Allan Poe says that the tone of marginalia (private jottings, thinkings out loud, or loudthinking as our driver in Saudi would have it) gives it a unconceited freshness which holds particular value:

“But the purely marginal jottings, done with no eye to the Memorandum Book, have a distinct complexion, and not only a distinct purpose, but none at all; this it is which imparts to them a value. They have a rank somewhat above the chance and desultory comments of literary chit-chat–for these latter are not unfrequently “talk for talk’s sake,” hurried out of the mouth; while the marginalia are deliberately pencilled, because the mind of the reader wishes to unburthen itself of a thought;–however flippant–however silly–however trivial–still a thought indeed, not merely a thing that might have been a thought in time, and under more favorable circumstances. In the marginalia, too, we talk only to ourselves; we therefore talk freshly–boldly- originally–with abandonnement–without conceit”

Although then there is the challenge of carrying the text away from its context if the scribbles are to be put to work elsewhere.

We live in a written world of marginalia now although often written with the eyes of another reader in mind so a bit more self conscious. School books are to be written on (not as graffiit as in our day but it seems much private note taking is on the text now); texts are to be circulated and added to and amended collaboratively, “blurring the distinction between reader, writer and and critic” pdfs are annotated as they are passed round as collaborative texts; blogs inviting sprawling responses from the passerby; wikis even invite people to overwrite each other. The traces left by others become important clues for those who follow as to what stands out. These clues might be misleading, borrowed without thought from other references so that references become self-referential in a pointless way; footnotes might be accumulated and cross-referenced purely to notch up credibility and lead ultimately to circular superficiality which does little to deepen and broaden insight. But we should pay attention to these notes and journallings, private, original or borrowed. They are an inevitable part of the armoury of the modern day knowledge worker, offering thoughtul traces of noticing or provocation to others as they travel and so help individuals shape their own journey and gatherings.

If you know exactly what you are going to do, what is the point of doing it?

So Picasso.

It comes up over and over again. Handing yourself over to the not-knowing and to full immersion in attention to the present, trusting your instinct will find the deep knowledge you need in any instant.

I’m told Declan Donnellan has written of this in actors. In Shakespeare’s time in fact the actor did not know. The actor had a gift, given by god, and was the channel for divine inspiration. Now that the actor must stand on his own two feet, without the flow of the divine through his performance, he tends to concentrate too hard, feel it’s all down to perspiration with a soupcon of genius (or vice versa depending on the ego quotient I suppose). But good acting is not about concentrating too hard, its about paying attention and then letting things happen.

My friend Chris Heimann once ran a workshop for our little network. First he asked us all to imagine a thing on a shelf in our houses, then take the imaginary objects of the shelf, examine and caress it, then describe it to others. We all had beautiful vases, mirrors, picture, photos, nothing out of place in Designer’s Guild. Then he asked us to imagine a dusty old cupboard under the stairs in the cellar, a shelf, hidden behind an old frayed velvet curtain which had on it objects we knew nothing of, left by the previous owner. We had to, in the dark, put our hand through the curtain, fumble on the shelf for an unknown object and try, unseen, to work out what it was. These objects were slimy, mouldy, spongy things which revolted us. They were what was there when we took the borders of control off our imaginations. Those are the things we need to be willing to find if we are to express the whole of our messy experience, not just the tidy stuff that can go on show for visitors.

My singing teacher, Howard Millner, says pretty much the same in a different way. For him its the wave, the wave of the life force that can knock you off your feet. We don’t sing, we are sung through. All we need to do is learn how to get out of the way, make an empty space through which the force flows. This is where our attention needs to be directed. To making and loving the uncertainty of a narratively whole empty space which allows expression of who we really are to take shape beyond our control.

In The Happiness Hypothesis, Jonathon Haidt uses the metaphor of a rider on an elephant:

‘Modern theories about rational choice and information processing don’t adequately explain weakness of the will. The older metaphors about contolling animals work beautifully. The image that I came up with for msuyelf, as I marveled at my weakness, was that I was a rider on the back of an elephant. I’m holding the reins in my hand, and by pulling one way or another I can tell the elephant to turn, to stop or to go. I can direct things, but only when the elpehant doesn’t have desires of his own. When the elephant really wants to do something, I’m no match for him.’

The mahoot is not the man in charge. The elephant is the elephant in charge, or most likely charging.

And somehow from elephants to Matisse. This from an article in the Guardian on 12th May about the unknowing and anxiety with which he approached his back sculptures:

“Henriette III was completed in 1929 at a point when it seemed to Matisse that his painting had reached a dead end. He made the last and most uncompromising of the Backs the same year, manipulating a vast mass of wet clay alone all through a sweltering Paris summer, knowing, or at any rate suspecting, that nobody but himself would ever see the finished work. It was as if he needed to touch base before veering blindly in a new direction without knowing where he was heading, or what he might find if he got there. Back IV was the last work he completed before setting sail for Tahiti on a voyage of discovery that would eventually lead to the great cut-and-painted paper compositions of his last decade. “I learned the meaning of the horizontal and the vertical from the shoreline and the coco palms,” he said afterwards.

Matisse’s sculptures seem now so sure of themselves, so full of energy and poise, so taut, even sleek in their confidence and clarity, that it is not easy to re-see them as they first presented themselves to their creator, groping his way forward by his own account in a fog of anxiety, rising often to panic.’

Veering blindly in a new direction without knowing where he was going. Just as we do on our elephants. Just as Chris got us to do as we fumbled behind the curtain in the cupboard under the stairs to find we knew not what. Which could take me back to where I started with Anne Carson’s ‘from the sleep side’.