Anna Bryant, Marketing Intern at Common Purpose Ireland, reflects on how engaging with translation can help you practice and improve your Cultural Intelligence.

Translation is taking something in one language and then saying or writing it again, but in another language. Seems simple, right? The beauty and, indeed, the risk of translation is that it’s not simple at all. Some words carry entire concepts, as well as any given meaning that can be translated. For example, the Irish word gaisce describes the achievement of an arduous task and its associated glory. To translate it as just ‘an achievement’ isn’t quite enough. It’s the same for a word like hygge, which we now know isn’t just about feeling cosy — it’s a cultural concept which includes community, togetherness and calm.

I’m aware as I write this that these translations will be contested, and so they should be. We all have different cultural experiences and they can influence the way we see the world and communicate with others. An answer to a question during a meeting, or a reaction to a challenge at work could hold within it a whole range of cultural assumptions and practices. How do we untangle this, and lead a diverse and genuinely inclusive team without the important things getting lost in translation?

Common Purpose CEO Adirupa Sengupta visited us here in Dublin a few weeks ago. During her visit, she offered some insights about sitting between cultures, and leading from that in-between space. For her, it was about being aware of your own cultural formation and your assumptions; keeping an eye out for blind spots, as it were. Like a translator, she is aware of the complexity of cultural exchange, and how that very complexity allows her to be flexible in her leadership. This is the Common Purpose concept of Cultural Intelligence, or CQ.

When I think about CQ, it sounds very familiar. CQ describes how capable we are of adapting to and leaning into cultural difference. I’m a literary translator, so my aim is to be humble about my lack of knowledge, thorough in my research and aware of the ways my culture effects my work. Vitally, I should try to be confident in this daunting place between cultures and do the best I can. The end product is a book or a play that brings people together. This ambition translates well to other areas of life, and is central to the CQ concept.

Engaging with translation is a great way to help you practice and improve your Cultural Intelligence. It’s a workout for the brain, and it helps you to put your view of the world and of your own culture(s) into perspective. This doesn’t mean that everyone should learn another language and start work on a novel, unless you want to join us in the world of literary translation! But reading translated fiction or getting to know the different languages spoken in your office is a great start. Being more aware of the dynamic nature of your place in the world can be scary, but this knowledge frees you to make positive change happen.