Poetic Translators - Masters of Complexity - IEDP
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Poetic Translators - Masters of Complexity

Valérie Gauthier, Associate Professor, HEC Paris and Visiting Professor, MIT Sloan explores the techniques used by the translators of poetry and sees how they can be usefully applied to leaders dealing with complex challenges.


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A major challenge in leadership today is to understand and address the increasingly dynamic complexity, paradoxes and uncertainty, in which we live and work. But the even greater challenge is to translate this complexity into meaningful and innovative paradigms that will help people recreate sense for themselves, for their organization and for people inside and outside the organization. Indeed the need for sense is critical as people search for meaning and purpose in the surrounding fast paced change that brings instability.

With poetry and poetic translation theory as a model for leadership, I suggest ways for a leader to apprehend complexity more effectively by inventing new business models, just as a poet invents new ways of understanding and facing the world in writing poems that build sense for readers.

Poetry is the language of complexity, the place where associations of sounds, images and rhythms deliver the message along with the meaning of the words themselves, a message, which speaks to the mind as well as to the senses. Poetry is also highly complex because it is based on codes, metrics, systems of signs and symbols that carry messages through sets of rhythms and music, painting sights and merging imagination with thoughts.

To grasp the essence of a poem, one must understand deeply each part of the whole and how they interact with each other to build the whole. Then to translate poetry from one language to another is to act on complexity by building new relationships between new words through a process I call “decentering”. The complete work involves rebuilding a poem, a complex unity with new sense in a new language: that work requires a person whose specificity is to be both a poet and a translator. I argue that the relational approach of poetic translation is an effective way to address complex settings.

In a business context, the relational role of a leader relies on the capacity to make intelligent connections between distinct or improbably linked elements that constantly move. Poetic translation is doing just that: at each moment in the poetic translation process, the translator is both a poet and a mediator who re-creates an original text by rebuilding relationships between different entities (sounds, meaning, images, symbols) that build sense for new readers in a different language-system.

In the same way as the poet-translator, the leader must apprehend and understand the complexity of his/her environment and be the mediator, creator of sense out of seemingly incoherent or disconnected entities to re-invent or re-create new paradigms in a changing and changed environment. Poetic translation is therefore an act comparable to leadership: it requires vision, understanding, risk taking and decision-making capacities with a mix of analytical, intuitive and creative skills.

To become a sense-builder, the leader must rely on a combination of sensible perception and analytical skills to make sound decisions with both reason and intuition. I argue that the skills required to translate poetry are those leaders should grow. Those skills are based on the capacity of a leader to build sense by recognizing and reshaping the relationships that are the engine, the mechanisms of a performing organization.

Precisely, the skills and qualities of the poet-translator or of the leader are exemplified in the systemic process that I call “relational circuit” with five dimensions:

  1. an intuitive and sensible perception of the original poem/situation;
  2. the capacity to analyze and decode the components that make the poem/situation stand;
  3. the capacity to assimilate the relationships that make the richness, diversity and complexity of the poem/situation;
  4. the capacity to anticipate and envision the new relationships that will make the poem/situation work in its new language/environment (decentering);
  5. the capacity to make the choices (words, sounds, images, syntax, style/structure, people, processes…), to re-create a complex unity that builds on the multidimensional complexity of the original and delivers an equivalent set of meaning, experience and atmosphere for the new language/environment.

The concept that underlines this approach to leadership is called savoir-relier (or sense relationships) defined as the capacity and will to build sensible, trustworthy and sustainable relationships within complex systems and across boundaries (i.e. between entities that are inherently distant, different, opposite or antagonistic), hence encouraging and valuing differences to engage in positive and mindful innovation. Savoir-relier enacts sense out of complexity for the individual, the organization and the world. SR leaders and organizations alike are then seen as relational sense-builders that are capable to perform effectively in complexity by developing innovative ideas, processes, products with respect and humility.

Further Information:

V. Gauthier, 1994, “Theoretical and practical approach to poetic translation”. Unpublished dissertation, Sorbonne University, Paris, France.

Valerie Gauthier on 'Savoir-Relier' at MIT Sloan Experts site

MIT Sloan is uniquely positioned at the intersection of technology and business practice, and participants in our programs gain access to MIT’s distinctive blend of intellectual capital and practical, hands-on learning.

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