Slowing down the cow – Innovation lessons from verse translation
As June fast approaches in the calendar – and even faster in the warmth of the wind – I remember the bucolic poem ‘Juin’ by Leconte de Lisle that I read as a schoolboy. I recall finding it pompous at the time, and I still find it so today. But in the midst of long forgotten, over-engineered stanzas, half a verse, beautiful in its meaning and simplicity, has lived on in my mind:
‘La vache lente est belle.’
To share it with friends who may not speak French, the question of translation arose, and as I wrestled with it during my morning cycling, a few creativity and innovation lessons emerged.
1. Consider all aspects of the customer experience.
On the face of it, translation is a straight forward process: read the words, get the meaning, express the same meaning in a different language, job done! ‘The slow cow is beautiful’. The problem is: the cow may look beautiful but the verse now sounds ugly. Focusing exclusively on the meaning is like developing a product by paying attention to its functionality and nothing else. Hardly a recipe for success. Innovative companies like Ideo or Apple know that all aspects of the customer experience have to be addressed: not only product functionality, but also quality, reliability, aesthetic, purchasing experience, etc. Likewise, translation has to take care not only of meaning, but also rhythm, pace, music: a verse is not just for reading, it is also for reciting and listening.
2. Brainstorm without criticising and don’t hesitate to break the rules.
In terms of rhythm ‘the slow cow’ sounds to me like a fast car. How to truly slow it down? Here is a shortened brainstorming sequence. Most of the entries turn out to be ugly or ridiculous or both, but if we let it flow and build on previous ideas, something of value eventually emerges.
- the very slow cow
- the super-slow cow
- the snail-pace cow
- the so slow cow
- the cow so slow
- the cow slow.
English grammars dictates that the adjective be placed before the noun. ‘The cow slow’ is not grammatically orthodox, but precisely for that reason it slows down the reading.
3. Accept the empirical discovery but then understand why it works.
‘The cow slow’ works not only because the inversion of the adjective and the noun forces the brain to slow down, but also because of the duration of the ‘ow’ sound in ‘cow’, which is longer than in ‘slow’. If you imagine the cow walking one word after the other, she walks more slowly as a ‘cow slow’ than as a ‘slow cow’. Countless discoveries happen by accident, stumbling upon something that works. But by the time the discovery is turned into an innovation and launched in the market, it is wise to have developed a thorough understanding of why things work and what their limitations might be. Science must rejoin the accidental discovery.
4. Incubate problems, wander around, and import unexpected solutions from different fields.
Now that ‘the cow slow is beautiful’ there remains a problem: the word ‘beautiful’ may be the most accurate translation of the French adjective ‘belle’ but it just doesn’t work. It makes the cow that I managed to slow down kick into a gallop! The reason is not difficult to identify: ‘beautiful’ has far too many syllables. But unfortunately, the thesaurus proves of little help to uncover a shorter, preferably monosyllabic, synonymous. I rake my brains, but to no avail. At that point, I could kill the whole idea of translating the verse, but I feel that it would be unfair to my cow; so I don’t kill it, I park it. I enjoy the rest of my cycling, and when, on its own initiative, my mind comes back to the word ‘belle’, I realise that it has already been adapted into English to describe, in a rather old-fashioned way, a beautiful woman. Of course, to my knowledge, it has never been applied to a cow, but what would poetry be for, if I couldn’t look into the dark wide eyes of a cow and give her a woman’s name?
‘The cow slow is belle.’
Like I said, poetry is not just for reading; reciting it and listening to the music of the words are also essential. As I do so, I realise that ‘belle’ sounds very much like a bell, unexpectedly giving a new dimension to my cow that did not exist in the original version. So the last lesson is:
5. Enjoy the unexpected.