Lost in Translation
Bill Cottringer

Hagar the Horrible was giving worldly advice to his your Viking son. He says, “The secret of happiness is be content with what you got,” …so, he continues, “get enough.” ~Dik Browne.

John married Mary, his high school sweetheart, and after 20 years of marriage, he still loves here dearly. But, he is unsure what here feelings are, because she has changed so much from being mostly dependent to completely independent and her values are diametric to his. Neither knows how to approach this problem in their marriage about which they both sense and are uncomfortable.

Tim was demoted in his role at a high tech CEO, for Bob, a younger, more aggressive programmer who brought numerous valuable contacts with him. Tim is feeling like he is being pushed out and not being listened to enough about disruptive employee and other business problems. The company owner, Harry, who hired both Tim and Bob, has accumulated a lot of negative information about Tim, which he knows may be unreliable and so he doesn’t use it openly; but never-the-less these negative perceptions adversely affect the working relationship of the senior management team. This conflict, never being exposed, continues to grow underground and impacts the company from being more productive and profitable.

Joan is an aspiring young writer who has a great idea for a book or screenplay that begs to be turned into a great movie about a serious conflict in life that has a very intriguing and urgent solution. But she struggles to translate this vague idea into an actual product that works. After many unsuccessful attempts, she gives up and just starts writing human interest articles for a local newspaper, not achieving the great success she knows is possible in her heart and mind’s eye.

What is being lost in translation in the above scenarios to impede good communication and resolve these painful conflicts? Beneath the surface, there are four things interacting furiously to keep any successful resolution from being realized. Understanding how these four communication termites bite away at success, is just the beginning to avoiding failure:


We are just beginning to understand what the conscious and unconscious activities of the brain really are that fill our minds. One thing is becoming quite clear and that is that we don’t “think” in the same language we invented to communicate things from our mind to our mouths to other people’s ears and minds.

And, much of what goes on in the mind is unconscious and completely out of any clear awareness of what is going on to be communicated effectively. This all leads to one very big translation gap between the non-verbal content of our minds and the words our mouths speak, and of course what is then re-translated back from the other person’s ears to their mind. Lots of translation drops.


Psychologists have never quite understood the sequence of thoughts and feelings and how they interact to produce behavior. Which comes first and where exactly does one stop and the other start and which has the most effect on behavior? We really don’t know, but one explanation is that they are both different sides to the same coin and can’t be separated or dissected to study well enough to know the answers to our questions.

At any rate, we do know that conflicts that come with strong feelings, are very difficult to put the right words to and communicate clearly enough to expose and resolve a serious conflict, such as the above three scenarios describe. Another problem is that we have too many words to describe different emotions, when in reality a division into positive or negative probably suffices to guide us properly and how to act in a particular situation. Positive feelings about what we are doing, likely suggest we are headed in the right direction and so we should probably keep going that way; whereas negative feelings might be life’s polite way of warning us that our approach may be wrong and needs a slight course correction.


Language development is still a mystery unfolding as is the same with understanding what human and animal consciousness is all about. We originally invented words to convey physical objects which we were seeing or “thinking” about, clearly and completely enough to others, so in turn they could think or see these things as we were. Over the years, too many words came about in the information overload, and too much abstract space grew the gap between the physical objects and realities from our minds, eyes, ears, and mouths, and the very words that were supposed to represent these things with which we were attempting to communicate.

This is currently one very huge translation gap—between the words and anything they supposedly represent in reality. This is because of the many connotations, multiple denotative meanings, level of abstraction and comprehension differences and feelings people have about what they are thinking in their minds and trying to communicate with their mouths. What a verbal mess!


When you think about all these possible translation gaps, it is a miracle that most things aren’t lost in translation and that communication occurs at all. First, we have to translate our conscious vague thoughts, feelings, ideas, images and sensations from our pre-verbal minds, missing all the unconscious stuff that makes up the majority of our minds, to the right words in order to accurately convey these things to others, so that their ears hear and then properly translate these words back into the language of which their brain operates. At this point it becomes obvious that peak communication usually only occurs through empathy and silence.

Now, just because there are formidable obstacles to not losing too much in translation, this doesn’t mean improvement isn’t on the horizon. One crucial thing to remember is that words themselves may have created the communication problem, but at the same time, are the only way through to the other side in resolving the problems we helped create. Fine literature, art and music, great movies, exceptional plays and creative poems still do a grand job at this!

“It is not the things in life that bother us, but rather our opinions about these things.” ~Epictetus. What is your opinion?

Author's Bio: 

William Cottringer, Ph.D. is Executive Vice-President of Employee Relations for Puget Sound Security patrol, Inc. in Bellevue, WA., along with being a Sport Psychologist, Business Success Coach, Photographer and Writer living in the mountains of North Bend. He is author of several business and self-development books, including, You Can Have Your Cheese & Eat It Too (Executive Excellence), The Bow-Wow Secrets (Wisdom Tree), and Do What Matters Most and “P” Point Management (Atlantic Book Publishers) Reality Repair Rx (PublishAmerica), and Reality Repair (Global Vision Press) Bill can be reached for comments or questions at (425) 652-8067, 425-454-5011 or bcottringer@pssp.net or ckuretdoc@comcast.net