Mangled translation – one of my pet peeves

When words threaten to lose their meaning, those of us who care about such things have to be scrupulous about our use of language. Mangled translation has always been one of my pet peeves.

So when I got an email from the smart folks at TED Talks with this in it, I socked it into my idea file for a future blog posts. The future has arrived.

mangled translation leaves people with the wrong idea about Descartes' most famous saying

There’s a reason cogito, ergo sum is “routinely translated as ‘I think, therefore I am.'” It’s because that’s what René Descartes meant when he wrote those words.

Funny how that works.

Go back to the source and you’ll find Descartes actually wrote, Dubito, ergo cogito, ergo sum. I doubt, therefore I think, therefore I am.

Geary’s mangled translation relies on an alternative meaning of agitare—one that makes absolutely no sense if you return to the source.

But let’s go back to the original original source—because Descartes wrote and published his Le Discours de la Méthode in French before he translated it into Latin; he wanted his work to reach the widest audience possible, and no one much spoke Latin outside of academia or the church. The French is not as compact, not as bumper sticker-ready as the Latin. But bumper stickers were not in wide use in 1637:

…si je doute, je pense, et si je pense, je suis.”

If I doubt, I think, and if I think, I am.

Shake things up with mangled translation

James Geary may be peddling mangled translation but I like the point he’s trying to make. Why were we put on this earth if not to shake things up? Here’s how I would rewrite to preserve both Descartes’ intent and Geary’s point:

The three most famous words in all of Western philosophy—Cogito, ergo sum—are routinely translated as “I think, therefore I am.” But it’s possible to read that another way, too. Because the root of the Latin word cogito is the verb agitare—which does indeed mean “to put something in motion” or even to shake. So you might think of cogito, ergo sum as meaning, “I shake things up, therefore I am.” In fact, that’s the meaning I’m going to adopt today. I don’t expect much pushback from Descartes about this; he’s been dead for 367 years.

You get to the same point. But you bring truth along with you. And especially these days, truth should travel with us wherever we go.

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To reach an audience, they have to understand you

My favorite parable about the perils of not reaching an audience comes to us courtesy of the mid-19th century philosopher Søren Kierkegaard. If you haven’t heard of him, that’s probably not your fault. Especially if you’re a native English-speaker.

Kierkegaard was Danish, you see. And although that may be the world’s favorite breakfast pastry, it’s far from the world’s favorite language—devilishly hard to learn, I’m told. So although Kierkegaard had become quite well-known in his native land by the time he died in 1855, it took a full half-century for his ideas to gain traction elsewhere. The first German translations didn’t appear until 1905; nearly another 30 years passed before someone got around to translating his books into English.

Now, full disclosure: I haven’t read Kierkegaard either, in any language. But I did edit a series of academic essays on philosophy, God help me (although some of those philosophers would say I’d be better off helping myself), which is how I came across the sad tale of his neglected ideas.

What were those ideas? Not important for this discussion, but feel free to look them up. What’s most important to me right now is that his ideas came close to being lost to the wider world.

Why? Because no one understood the words he used. Literally.


Speaking a different language than your audience is not, shall we say, a best practice. But you don’t have to babble in Danish to become incomprehensible to readers or listeners. Acronyms are a language of their own—especially those company-specific acronyms you love to throw about in internal meetings. If you’re not speaking to an internal audience—heck, even if you are speaking to an internal audience—leave the acronyms back in your cubicle. Preferably locked in a drawer. (And then please lose the key.)

Technical language or jargon, too. Redline that stuff right out. The only time you want to sound like an academic is if you are an academic—and you’re communicating with your peers. I came across a Ph.D. once who wondered why she wasn’t being booked for more speaking gigs. She had a website and everything—couldn’t figure out what she was doing wrong. When I went to said website, I found a banner at the top with a quotation from one of her speeches: It was as dense and complex as a Ph.D. thesis.

I explained that the words that got her there—to the point in her academic career that she had developed some marketable expertise—were not going to help her reach wider audiences as a speaker.

People hearing you speak can’t go back and re-read a long, complex sentence. They can’t look up an unfamiliar word. They can’t pause to contemplate the profound thing you just said—because you’re still talking.

Her audience already knew she was smart; she’d been booked to speak to them. And if that isn’t irrefutable social proof, I don’t know what is. The academic didn’t need to demonstrate her intelligence by using fancy language; she needed to help them understand her material. You don’t need $10 words for that. You just need a passion for the material and a desire to ignite that passion in other people.

In other words—and regular readers may know what’s coming–to reach an audience, you have to establish an emotional connection with them. Whether you’re talking about Kierkegaard or Kindergarten, emotions are what capture people’s attention.