global branding in education

Interesting piece, Global Branding and the Celebrity University, by Sheldon Rothblatt.

He focuses on universities, but some of the themes apply to schools and the broad educational context.

For universities to thrive in the global economy, they must be world class university brands.

A strong brand is required, not just for basic recognition and awareness, but to inform people’s perceptions of the university and its standing  in terms of teaching and research.

Some of these perceptions are created by global rankings (eg Times Higher Education, Shanghai, Quacquarelli Symonds).

In the ranking stakes, European universities lag behind US universities – only one (Oxford) is in Shanghai’s top ten, for example.

While ranking offers a necessarily limited perspective, it is highly influential.

But, because ranking methodologies tend to focus mainly on research outcomes and awards, they have an inbuilt weakness: they sideline some of the classic aims of university education – to develop intelligence, citizenship and cultural values in students.

As such, rankings give little insight – or, if so, a distorted view – into the learning experience that students will have at a given university, which is the most important aspect driving their choice of which university to attend.

In building world-class educational brands, therefore, it is important to take the wider view and to achieve a balance between learning and teaching.


speechwriter’s notes: on voice and vision

A while back, I was writing a speech for a visionary leader.

(To be clear, it wasn’t Martin Luther King… this was 2006!)

It was the first time we’d worked together.

I was having a hard time finding the right “voice” for him, one to suit both the topic and the leader’s character – he was a blunt, plain-speaking type.

He was truly charismatic. But that came out in his ideas and the values he stood for, not in the way he spoke.

I was halfway through when he asked me to share it, so I showed him my draft.

“This language… is too simple,” he said. “Can’t you make it more inspirational?”

“I can make it whatever you want,” I said. “But what does inspirational mean to you?”

He mentioned Martin Luther King – the March on Washington.. John F. Kennedy – the Inauguration… Ronald Reagan – the Berlin Wall…

Three of the most famous and influential speeches of the past century – no false modesty there. Three speeches, delivered by masters of delivery, blessed with a faultless sense of drama and timing – true performers, who relished their performances, and believed, believed in their message.

But then, thinking about those speeches, something struck me.

I have a dream… Ask not what your country… Mr Gorbachev, tear down this wall!

They were all written in very simple words, talking about very simple (but very high) ideals – making appeals which remain inspirational today. They didn’t just believe in their ideals, they lived, they embodied them…

My client’s thoughts on the circular economy, for all their topical edginess, weren’t really in the same league.

More to the point, now, he was misremembering the speeches. In his memory, they’d become something they weren’t. He thought their power came from some occult power of words. He thought they were full of cute rhetorical tricks, flowery poetic language – he wanted some of that. But the power of those speeches is in their truths, the beliefs and conviction they convey, not in the words used to convey them. In a speech, words are mere vehicles for vision, and it’s not what you say that shapes a vision, it’s what you make people see – that’s why getting the voice right is so crucial.

Sometimes, a speechwriter has to prune the words, strip them down to let the vision shine through.

I tried to explain this to my visionary leader – he wasn’t having any, insisted he wanted a fancier speech. So to show him, I gave him what he wanted. I composed a speech full of high-falutin’, flowery, Latinate language, climactic rhythms, telling poetic images. A tired Hollywood scriptwriter’s idea of a speechwriter’s skill, a visionary voice.

He practised delivering the speech to a couple of colleagues. It fell very flat. The people listening were too polite to make it plain, but they weren’t being swept away by the power of his oratory.

He looked at me with grudging resentment. I told him we had to ditch the flowery stuff. Express his ideas the simplest way we could.

Finally he let me do what I do; I rewrote the speech.

Now, it is much, much harder to write simply, to cut and edit your words so that they sound like the speech of a blunt, plain-speaking man. Like his own, unmediated words.

In the end, when he made his speech, it went down very well. People gathered round to congratulate him. They said they’d never known he was such a powerful speaker. They said his words had inspired them, opened their eyes to dazzling new possibilities.

He joined me afterwards to sort of thank me.

“It went really well,” he said with a smile. He spread his arms in a somewhat hapless gesture. “It looks like I don’t really need a speechwriter.”

I laughed.

Because words can get in the way of vision. And sometimes, a speechwriter should just get out of the way.

churchillplein 6, the hague

Churchillplein 6, The Hague

Churchillplein 6, The Hague

I started working at the Churchillplein in The Hague last week.

Churchillplein 6 is home to the International Baccalaureate, the world’s leading non-profit educational organization, motivated by a mission to improve the world through education.

It is next to the World Forum, where the Nuclear Security Summit will be hosted on March 24-25 2014.

Other neighbours include Europol, the EU’s law enforcement agency, and the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia.

europol building the hague

Europol, The Hague

International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia

International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia









Such neighbours might inhibit an easy flow of discourse and wit in many, but I learned today that my department had 500,000 words translated in 2013 – and, I’d guess, at least the same again was left untranslated. That’s the equivalent of twelve and half novels…

My word-count productivity, in short (or rather, not), looks set to rise vertiginously.

shoredays, yoredays

DSC02124Shoredays, yoredays – I see them as special days, days which stay with you all your life. They’re not fixed places in time nor in space – it’s like they’re at the edge of your existence, a kind of metaphorical beach between the sea and the land…

freddie omm: shoredays, yoredays: seven haiku on a beach

endings & beginnings

For my New Year’s greeting this year I refer to this sonnet by my poetic alter ego, Freddie Omm:

endings & beginnings31122013_00000For those unable to decipher the handwriting, here’s the text:

endings & beginnings

(in a winter’s garden)


BEGIN with the word that comes first, like light

from a twilit winter’s garden, when soft rainfalls

drop on dewy, leaf-pocked grass, showering bright

like a sudden flow of MOMENTS through the calls

of a goosequilled V tooting past, this starry night…


I sometimes try to freeze TIME, so it stops

and in an INSTANT feel and think all blend

and merge within MOMENTS—consciousness drops

like heaven’s rainfall in a winter garden—

inconsummate, unbegun, word without END,


but now SOMETIMES I forget such somethings,

and in your love I’ve found SEASONS to care

about the here, NOW, not some perfected place where

there are no more ENDINGS and BEGINNINGS.


freddie o

viersen, 29-31 december 2013

Hitler’s Hot Jazz Band (Transcreation II)


Although the Nazis claimed Jazz was “Negermusik” – devised by Jews to undermine Aryan culture – they did have a Hot Jazz band of their own, called Charlie and his Orchestra.

It was part of the weirdest propaganda effort of the war, devised by Joseph Goebbels and aimed at subverting the morale of Allied civilians and invading troops.

aaaaahitler and goebbels dancing to hot jazz

Charlie and his Orchestra featured a crooner, Karl Schwedler, who’d lived in the USA before the war and could warble his way through the latest hits with a tolerable, if decidedly Teutonic, accent.

Hitler's Crooner, Karl Schwedler

Hitler’s Crooner, Karl Schwedler

More to the point, he could twist the original lyrics to give them pro-Nazi slants – transcreation avant la lettre (or rather, seiner Zeit voraus)…

So Cole Porter’s You’re the Top‘s lyrics, which started out like this:
You’re the top! You’re a Waldorf salad/You’re the top! You’re a Berlin ballad. /You’re the boats that glide /On the sleepy Zuider Zee, /You’re an old Dutch master…

would become:

You”re The Tops, You”re A German Flyer/You”re The Tops, You”re Machine Gun Fire/ You”re A U-boat Chap With a Lot Of Pep/ You”re Grand, You”re A German Blitz, The Paris Ritz…

Many of the lyrics are battier even than this, with ludicrously sinister insults about Jews (I’m fightin’ for democracy/I’m fightin’ for the Jew, from I’ve Got a Pocketful of Dreams)  and “Negroes”:

“A negro from the London Docks,” Schwedler raps over the intro to the St Louis Blues, “sings the Blackout Blues.” Schwedler goes on to sing: I hate to see the evenin’ sun go down – cos da Germans, dey don bomb dis town! and blames “Churchill’s bloody war” for making him “feel so sore.”

More than a quarter of the British civilian population is estimated to have listened to the German broadcasts which played these recordings. Churchill is said to have found them hilarious.

In any case, this pioneering example of transcreation is a cautionary tale – transcreation can be used for evil, as well as good objectives. And, even under the direction of a Kommunikationsgenie, a Strategiemeister like Goebbels, it’s a weapon which can backfire badly – if you go for the wrong, badly-devised strategy, and sing from the wrong song sheet…



Consumed in Bytes (Big Data, Big Profits, Big Government)

Reviewing Big Data: A Revolution That Will Transform How We Live, Work and Think (by Viktor Mayer-Schonberger and Kenneth Cukier), Mark P. Mills, writing in the City Journal, takes a distinctly rosy view of the data revolution, a revolution powered by an estimated 1200 exabytes (1.2 zettabytes and growing) of stored data.

Computer technology in action

In a week in which the traitor-hero, whistleblowing ex-spy and fugitive Edward Snowden has been tasting the Kafkaesque experience of statelessness in a Moscow airport lounge, this book is timely, even if its optimism seems naive.

Mills reckons that the emergence of Big Data “marks the pivot in history when computing will finally become useful for nearly everyone and everything.”

Big data analytics will see software growing from a $350 billion to a multi-trillion dollar industry as companies and governments mine the information consumers leave scattered on the web and turn it into profit and power.

A world measured in Zettabytes

One can, of course, view this as benign, and Mills points out that the NSA, Google, Facebook and Amazon can monitor data without invading personal privacy. They are more interested, initially, in the patterns and correlations that the data reveal, rather than the specific content. He writes: “Sometimes the data associated with an object, activity or transaction have more value than the thing they measure… Observational data can yield enormously predictive tools.”

But this won’t always be so.

At some point, Big Data will end up hacking itself to pieces and consuming them in a vast, self-referential mess of bytes.

Consumed in Bytes

Karl Lagerfeld – “Auf jung machen macht alt…”

Karl Lagerfeld in Milan, 2009

Karl Lagerfeld in Milan, 2009

Karl Lagerfeld, known for bon mots as well as fashion, claims “Auf jung machen macht alt” (Acting young makes you old).

This may sound odd coming from a man addicted to his trademark, wrinkle-hiding sunglasses and high collars (He once said: I am like a caricature of myself, and I like that. It is like a mask. And for me the Carnival of Venice lasts all year long).

But he looks pretty sharp for a 77 year old and he’s surely right to warn against the affectations of youth.

Lagerfeld, also known as Kaiser Karl, was criticised for expressing disparaging remarks about curvy women, something he later tried to make up for by photographing one.

He claimed that anorexia is caused not by the beauty standards set by fashion but by psychological problems (People who have that [anorexia] have problems to do with family and things like that).

That sounds sort of half right.

Just like Auf jung machen macht alt, really.


Stella Tennant in Chanel bikini

Stella Tennant in Chanel bikini

Kafka’s “Ungeziefer” in “The Metamorphosis”

franz kafka

franz kafka

I first came across Kafka’s Metamorphosis when I saw Mel Brooks’ Producers on TV. Plotting to produce a sure-fire Broadway flop, the characters look for the worst musical plot in the world – a premise so dire it’ll get booed off stage and close on the first night, so the producers can run off with their investors’ money.

Max, played by Zero Mostel, is reading through a list of plot ideas. When he reads this one: “Gregor Samsa awoke one morning to discover that he had been transformed into a giant cockroach -“  he tosses it aside, saying:  ‘ Nah, it’s too good.’

Despite that, as any pedant will tell you, the zoological specificity of Mel Brook’s line is far from precise as a translation of Kafka’s humour.

Describing Gregor Samsa’s metamorphosis, Kafka uses a vague term, “ungeheures Ungeziefer.” Although vague, that term carries some heavy symbolic baggage. And translators have struggled with it these hundred years (Die Verwandlung was first published in 1915). Aside from the Producers’ giant cockroach, the “ungeheures Ungeziefer” has been translated as “a monstrous vermin” and “a verminous bug”.

Etymology gives no clear guide on how to translate “Ungeziefer”, even when adding to the heavy symbolic load.
The etymological roots of “Ungeziefer” are in Middle High German (whose literature Kafka studied in Prague) –  “ungezibere”,  which means “non-sacrificial animal” (especially insects – and similar to the idea, in
other cultures, of the “unclean animal”.).

The difficulty is not so much in the specific words as the fact that Gregor’s point of view concerning his own state mutates as the story proceeds. The metamorphosis, in other words, is not a fait accompli at the beginning, but a process yet to be completed. Hence the imprecision in that first sentence.
In later passages the Ungeziefer is more precisely, but always contradictorily, described. The charlady, for example, calls Gregor a “dung beetle” (“Mistkäfer”). She seems to say it quite affectionately, but that term, too, is symbolically loaded. According to the ancients, the dung beetle was a protector of the written word, as well as a symbol of fertility – to the Egyptians, scarabs were talismans and amulets, used on seals,
rings and grave goods.

egyptian scarab beetle

egyptian scarab beetle

At the physical level Gregor, at different points in the story, starts to talk with a squeaking, animal-like voice, loses control of his legs, hangs from the ceiling, starts to lose his eyesight, and wants to bite his sister – not really helpful in determining his taxonomy.
Although Kafka famously wrote that he hated metaphors, these varied aspects of Gregor’s metamorphosis – both physical and symbolic – add to the resonance of the story, a resonance made more baffling, more moving by the very fluid nature of its inspecificity. That inspecificity contrasts with the earnestly specific way Gregor describes his physical condition, and intends to commute to his work as a salesman.
None of this  helps the translator looking for the perfect rendition of “ungeheures Ungeziefer”. I think I’ll put my money on Mel Brooks’ giant cockroach after all.

I’m Lovin’ It – Ich Liebe Es

McDonald’s has been running  i’m lovin’ it, its first global campaign, since 2003.

Although developed by a German agency (Heye & Partner, part of the global DDB network), Germany is one of a minority of countries where the line is translated – ich liebe es. (The French went for c’est tout ce que j’aime, and the Spanish have me encanta.)

Although a fine and successful line, it does open McDonald’s up to mockery, doubtless unfair, based on the corpulence a love of fast food brings in its wake. One of the best-known persiflages was a calendar, featured in 2007 on the lollitop blog.


Lost in Translation – Transcreation – 1

transcreation may seem a bullshitty type of word, a neologism we didn’t need.

but is it?

here’s a stab at some answers:

no, it isn’t bullshit:

it fuses the words translation and creation. this is a new discipline, especially geared to international advertising campaigns which are developed in one country and then adapted for others.

yes, it is bullshit:

adapting ad campaigns has always involved more than word-for-word translation – creation has always been part of it, so the word didn’t need inventing.

in fact, translating anything creative, be it the works of du fu, nizami, snorri sturulson, dante, or a line of copy, always requires additonal creativity if it is to succeed. in this sense, distinctions between translating and transcreating could be seen as superfluous….

 AAAoomkenscom graphic logo thicker

… but in that case – if all translation is creative, where does that leave word-for-word translations?

are they worthless, then?

no – they are essential, even if somewhat limited in what they do. they”re an essential part of good translating. they”re like a first draft, and more than this:

they are the best means of arriving at a precise idea of the sense of the original.

in other words, word for word translations are of great use –

either for highly technical documents, about scientific or legal subjects,say,

or any text where a perfect replication of the sense of the original is paramount,

or as a basis for a more “creative” translation (more creative, for example, in adding poetic rhythm analogous to the original to an otherwise dry and unrhythmic translation purely of the meaning).

but word-for-word translations go no further than giving the sense, and that limits them – because they struggle to get across the ideas, concepts, sound and voice of the original.

in fact, the husband and wife translating team richard pevear and larissa volokhonsky (celebrated for their translations of tolstoy) split their duties, with volokhonsky doing a literal word for word version which her husband (whose russian is basic) uses as the basis for his far more literary, structured – sophisticated in its echoes, terms, and symbolism – more reader-friendly final version.

richard pevear and larissa volokhonsky

richard pevear and larissa volokhonsky

they are widely seen, today, as the best translators of classic russian novelists operating today, and their translations are masterclasses in translation.

of course literary and advertising translation are different animals.

but i do think we can take some lessons from their example. what it suggests to me is that to produce a worthwhile, effective translation, a thorough knowledge of the ins and outs of the language must be combined with creative insight.

that creative insight covers a wide scope of abilities.

first, the ability to immerse oneself in the whole world created in the original text (or campaign).

and then, from this basis, to shape a translated version which may only be a version, but is the truest approximation possible of that world in another language.

second, the ability to mimic the sound of the original in a way that works in the target language.

the sound of language operates most obviously at the level of the word and the sentence, and the cadences they create, which carry paragraphs and make them soar with verbal music.

it also extends, in hypnotically cumulative ways, across chapters and beyond – whole books, epics and series of novels.

from homer and virgil through vondel, shakespeare, gibbon, tolstoy, dickens, balzac, proust, pound and waugh and powell, the essence of classic works is often found in that characteristic sound, which some would call the writer’s voice.

that voice can never be captured.

(and as time passes, so one generation’s attempts to do capture it come to sound dated, limited, inadequate to the next…)

but, in the more workaday world of advertising, campaigns and messages and language are more about today’s consumers than timeless literary quality. and the concept of an advertising voice is not established (except in the sense of a brand voice, or the tone of voice we want the advertising to express).

in advertising, the essence we try to adapt from one language to another comprises

  1. the overall campaign concept or idea
  2. the tone of voice (eg. humorous, ironic, hard-sell, corporate etc)
  3. the link to the target audience which 1 and 2 embody.

this third aspect is the strategic consumer insight.

this insight into the consumer connection may be the very hardest of all to transplant from one culture to another (leaving aside problems of language alone)…

and this may be the single most compelling argument in favour of transcreation (as a term) – the fact that (unlike most classic literature) the best campaigns may not be strictly translateable at all, because they speak so directly – uniquely – to their target in an inimitable voice which expresses their innermost culture…

campaigns like that cannot be translated: they can only work if they are re-created from scratch.

so what’s my bottom line on that term, transcreation?

bullshit or not?

not wanting to hedge my bets, i’d say

it sort of is but it describes something very important

Something crucial to making ideas understandable in different languages and across different cultures, and something which is partly but not wholly conveyed in the terms “translation” and “adaptation” because in some cases, the only way to get an idea across is to recreate it virtually from scratch.

what do you think?

Translator’s notes – “Waves” by Eduard von Keyserling

I have started my translation of Eduard von Keyserling’s Wellen (Waves), a pioneering work of pre-World War I literary Impressionism which has never before been properly translated into English.

It doesn’t take long to run into the first hurdle. In the very first sentence a simple little word is untranslateable, word for word (as words so often are): Generalin Palikow.

In the context it doesn’t mean a female General, but the widow of General Palikow.

To translate this as “Widow Palikow” would be faintly absurd – bizarre not just to the reader’s eye but also in evoking indecorous, pantomimic, cross-dressing echoes of the Widow Twankey.

Wholly inappropriate for the dignified Generalin Palikow.

So what about just leaving it as Generalin Palikow?

At first, I was tempted by this (and I see in the Wikipedia article about the book and film they too have left it so). But then I saw that most readers would wonder what on earth was meant. They’d probably go for the female General option. And so, in the very first sentence, I would have confused, given them a bum steer.

A brazen cop-out, I thought, which would never do.

What about Mrs Palikow? It’s what she might have been called in Britain (well, much more likely Lady Palikow, as most British generals were either knights or lords at the time) and the USA, if she had been transplanted there. But to call her Mrs would give the lie to where she is, who she is in her time and place.

So much for Mrs Palikow, then.

The Generalin – General Palikow’s widow is probably the best way – at least for that first mention. It gets the right sense across immediately, and explains the meaning upfront. Keyserling refers to her as die Generalin throughout the book, giving this agreeably wise old bird (far from military herself) an incongruously militaristic aura so typical of the period. Once the reader knows what’s meant, we can do likewise.

I wonder if it was this hurdle in the first sentence which put off my predecessors, interpid translators of yore, who gave up the Keyserling game before they’d started…

Or maybe there’s further unsuspected, far more treacherous conundrums ahead.