On Design & Translation (Les Belles Infidèles)

De släcker lampan och dess vita kupa skimrar
ett ögonblick innan den löses upp
som en tablett i ett glas mörker. Sedan lyftas.
Hotellets väggar skjuter upp i himmelsmörkret.
Kärlekens rörelser har mojnat och de sover
men deras hemligaste tankar möts
som när två färger möts och flyter in i varann
på det våta papperet i en skolpojksmålning.
Det är mörkt och tyst. Men staden har ryckt närmare
i natt. Med släckta fönster. Husen kom.
De står i hopträngd väntan mycket nära,
en folkmassa med uttryckslösa ansikten.

“Paret” (The Couple”). A poem by Tomas Tranströmer, written in Swedish in 1962.


When French philosopher and writer Gilles Ménage commented on the humanist translations of Nicolas Perrot d’Ablancourt some four hundred years ago, he was criticizing the re-interpreted dimension of beauty that the translator had added to the original work.
Translations, like women, can be either faithful or beautiful, but not both” wrote Ménage referring to a brief romance he had once had in the past, and went on to describe the lost connection between the original piece and the translators’ repurposed sibling.

Fidelity & Transparency

While Ménage’s view on gender archetypes can be debated, he appropriately outlined the primary conflict in the world of translation — the one that dictates the balance between fidelity and transparency.

Being too literal versus being too interpretive.

Writers, poets, philosophers and thinkers have struggled with translations for centuries, in communicating the meaning of a piece of work without loosing fidelity to the original language, in re-articulating the original piece coherently while maintaining the poetry beyond the actual wording.

Spanish writer Mariano Antolín Rato once said “Translation is one of the few human activities in which the impossible occurs by principle” describing the difficulty in working with an art that is always seems destined for humiliation and outrage.

Whatever you do, argued Rato, you will always offend someone who could have done it better, who understood the subject matter better.


They turn off the light and its white shade shimmers
a moment before it dissolves
like a tablet in a glass of darkness. Then lifted.
The hotel walls shoot up in the sky dark.
Love’s movements have subsided and they sleep
but their most secret thoughts meet
that when two colors meet and flow into each other
on the wet paper in a schoolboy’s painting.
It is dark and quiet. But the town has pulled closer
in the night. With darkened windows. The houses came.
They stand in constricted waiting very near,
a crowd with expressionless faces.

(Tranströmer’s poem, translated using Google Translate)


Design = Translation

So, what about designers? How is design related to Gilles Ménage, Mariano Antolín Rato and translation? I would argue that our craft is about continuous translation, one of the reasons why design is so difficult to get right.

As designers we rarely engage in activities where we are expressing our own opinions, motivations or belief systems. Our craft is about taking someone else’s ideas and turning them into concepts, artifacts or pieces of communication. A designer’s work is the filter between what is abstract (the original idea) and what is tangible (the outcome).

There are exceptions of course, but I won’t get into those.

We translate client semantics and industry vocabularies into design principles. We translate business strategies and financial targets into design briefs. We ultimately make the final translation in creating the language in which the design solution speaks. It’s all translation from the beginning to the end.

We make the connections.

Designers use ‘language’ as an analogy for the systems we build to frame the visual expression of a product or a service. The language of visual communication is built on a foundation of components (signs), rules (grammar) and a number of principles (conveying meaning) that ultimately enable users — human beings — to decode the communicated message.

All the efforts and all the methodologies we bring are tools to make sure that the one essential message, meaning or promise gets through to people. Translation.


They turn the light off, and its white globe glows
an instant and then dissolves, like a tablet
in a glass of darkness. Then a rising.
The hotel walls shoot up into heaven’s darkness.
Their movements have grown softer, and they sleep,
but their most secret thoughts begin to meet
like two colors that meet and run together
on the wet paper in a schoolboy’s painting.
It is dark and silent. The city however has come nearer
tonight. With its windows turned off. Houses have come.
They stand packed and waiting very near,
a mob of people with blank faces.

(Tranströmer’s poem, translated by American poet Robert Bly)


The Craft of Translation

When we develop ideas we try to learn and understand the complex context of the concept we’ve been commissioned to translate; user needs, brand needs, strategic needs and so forth. We take that knowledge forward create a response to our given task.

We create.

We arrange colours, shapes and space in the same way a composer would arrange a sequence of musical notes or a writer would arrange verbs, nouns and adjectives in a piece of writing. We create functional frameworks of rules and restrictions that will guarantee the quality of the language system as it grows in the future; we draw boundaries and narrow down.

All languages — visceral, spoken or symbolic — share concepts like rhythm, tempo, climax and movement. These themes can be used to find connections between languages, as clues for translation.

Have a look around you.

That logo your colleague is awkwardly kerning next to you is the visual translation of a brand vision that was previously translated from a business strategy. That person who is freelancing for a startup in the other side of the room is translating some scribbled notes from an entrepreneur into a concept for a web-site landing page.

And what about you?

That UI you’re perfecting is the translation of thousands of customer service complaints, two years of internal politics between client stakeholders, a new marketing campaign and the color green. You’ve taken everything you’ve heard, everything you didn’t want to hear and you’re now making it all work. You achieve this while maintaining the original meaning of the brief, the original promise of the product.

In the end, much like in translation in its’ original sense, it comes down to themes like fidelity and transparency, interpretation and creation, narrative and meaning.

We are the narrators, the curators and the creators of our output, all at the same time.


They switch off the light and its white shade
glimmers for a moment before dissolving
like a tablet in a glass of darkness. Then up.
The hotel walls rise into the black sky.
The movements of love have settled, and they sleep
but their most secret thoughts meet as when
two colours meet and flow into each other
on the wet paper of a schoolboy’s painting.
It is dark and silent. But the town has pulled closer
tonight. With quenched windows. The houses have approached.
They stand close up in a throng, waiting,
a crowd whose faces have no expressions.

(Tranströmer’s poem, translated by Scottish Poet Robin Fulton)


Fluency is the ultimate aspiration

As far as languages go, the highest level of achievement is reaching fluency. A fluent speaker of any language understands the complexities and peculiarities of that given language, the pitfalls and the potential; all the subtle details that makes a phrase or choice of wording something extra, something impactful, something beautiful.

For designers, I believe fluency is the ultimate aspiration.

A fluent designer is not bound a singular language or mode of expression, we are beyond that. We can understand and empathize any context and adapt our approach to any scenario. We look for meaning and give it new interpretations. We take the original ideas and shape them in ways our clients didn’t see it possible. We add poetry adapted for the medium we working in and for the people who are the recipients of our work. We translate with equal measures of fidelity and transparency, and we make every translation beautiful.

Gilles Ménage would have hated that.

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