Lingo in the New Yorker

Gaston Dorren‘s book Lingo got the following short-and-sweet write-up in the New Yorker last week:

LINGO, by Gaston Dorren, translated from the Dutch by Alison Edwards (Atlantic). In this playful survey of sixty languages spoken in Europe, each chapter takes a different approach: parody, folktale, personal essay. A lesson on the Cyrillic alphabet follows an extended metaphor in which window shades illustrate the range and influence of the three languages—Galician, Catalan, Castilian—at the top of the Iberian Peninsula. A venture into Scots Gaelic, which has only thirteen consonants to spell thirty consonant sounds, gives way to chapters on diacritics; diminutives and augmentatives in Italian; and the gender-neutral Swedish pronoun hen. The British Isles alone have nine languages (counting Channel Island Norman). Dorren gives voice to an important linguistic truth: “Today’s errors tend to become tomorrow’s correct usage.”

lingo

The right stuff: English translation of Hanke Lange’s ‘Uit het goede hout gesneden’

One project keeping me busy right now is translating Uit het goede hout gesneden: De enerverende stap van manager naar bestuurder (Mediawerf, 2014). Working title: The right stuff: Stepping up to the C-suite.

cover

The book is all about what managers face when they make the transition to being a C-level executive. It was written by Hanke Lange, a boardroom consultant of over thirty years for corporations, hospitals and other mega institutions.

(And, incidentally, my father-in-law. Because a bit of nepotism never hurt anyone.)

The English version is in the works. Here’s a teaser:

It’s the greatest privilege, having a hand in the development of a company. Being able to make your mark. The status is nice too, of course, and the pay. But the most rewarding thing is knowing that whatever success the company enjoys, it’s partly thanks to you.

*

I feel like everything is crashing down around my ears. Whatever I try to do, it goes wrong. Whichever way I turn, I hit a wall. It’s like I’m in free fall.

*

Executives go through it all. Ups and downs, highs and lows. Tales from the trenches – or the boardroom, rather – range from the peachy to the downright disastrous. And just about every executive, from fresh appointee to old hand, from family firm to major multinational, from banking to building to broadcasting, will over the course of their career find themselves facing both ends of the spectrum.

Gripping, no? That’s what critics of the Dutch version thought too. The book spent time in the top ten as ranked by Managementboek.nl. Below, I’ve translated a review that appeared in Goed Bestuur en Toezicht 2015 (1): 52.

Executive management: Not for everyone

Based on Hanke Lange’s writing style, it’s not hard to imagine how this experienced management consultant addresses executives in the boardroom: with purpose, precision and empathy. In this same way he shares his insights into executive management, shedding light on the kind of cloth you need to be cut from to transition successfully from manager to executive.

The structure of the book reflects the same sort of clarity. The titles of the eleven chapters set out as many “essential executive challenges”, from “know your place in the organisation” and “create a high-functioning top tier” to “safeguard your credibility”.

But what actually is the difference between a manager and an executive? Lange doesn’t define these terms exactly. Instead, he identifies the tasks of the executive, such as positioning the organisation, collaborating with external parties and integrating the interests of stakeholders. Managers do these sorts of things too, but on a much more limited scale and within a narrow range of responsibility.

Successful managers work well within clear frameworks, and many consider it a blessing that they’re not accountable for “everything”. These managers should not seek to become executives. Those who do work their way up to the C-suite may miss the safety of a clearly delimited playing field, but they get something in return: they get to set the course of the organisation; to make a real difference. Not everyone gets that chance.

The essence of executive management lies in leadership, which crucially involves having a holistic vision and being able to weigh up different interests. Leadership, according to Lange, goes hand in hand with democracy and equality. People are happy to be led by capable leaders, but don’t want to be dominated. This is Lesson 1 for aspiring executives (and, incidentally, also relevant for most management positions). Executives are expected to take the reins. Their added value, as Lange sees it, lies in three things: analysing situations, drawing conclusions and taking charge. Executives can carry out these tasks in different ways, but what an organisation invariably wants from its leaders is direction.

Lange also addresses the relationship between the C-level executives and the directors. The key variables in this relationship are distance and trust. These often shift in direct proportion to one another: whenever the directors’ faith is shaken, they tighten their leash on the C-suite. Rightly, Lange observes that many executives adopt a defensive stance towards the directors, seeing them as a threat to their own autonomy. Executives should be more open to the directors’ wishes and influence; this is not only a more constructive approach but can also prevent unpleasant surprises.

At only 123 pages, the book’s modest size is deceptive. Thanks to Lange’s precise style, every page offers valuable insights into executive management. If I have one criticism, it’s the limited attention he pays to the many managers who fancy themselves, quite unjustifiably, as contenders for the C-suite. Readers will certainly take away from this book an appreciation of the qualities and competences of a good executive. But that’s not the same as figuring out whether you yourself are made of the right stuff for the role.

Full of charm and pleasing detail

The title is not about me – although I, too, am full of charm and pleasing detail – but about Gaston Dorren‘s book Lingo. At least according to one reviewer.

I translated the book a few years back and am pleased to report that under Profile Books in the UK it’s going swimmingly. Gaston now also has an app out called the Language Lover’s Guide to Europe. It’s pretty nifty.

Here’s what other reviewers say about Lingo (from Amazon):

Gaston Dorren offers an excellent overview of Europe’s languages … It’s very enlightening, and very well done (NRC Handelsblad)

Joyful … Lingo is that rare thing: a book about language the manages to be both genuinely interesting and enormous fun. Particularly impressive is Dorren’s ability to flip with ease from jokes and surprising facts to the discussion of complex linguistic ideas … For the sadly monoglot, Lingo is a wake-up call: a book that brims with joy at linguistic variety and invention, and reminds us what he – and we – are missing (John Gallagher Sunday Telegraph Seven 2014-11-09)

Full of charm and pleasing detail … [an] amusing tour of Europe’s linguistic landscape (Spectator 2014-11-13)

Learned and pleasantly ironic … [an] entertaining exercise in “language tourism” … [Dorren’s] tour of the continent is a richly diverting exercise … He has something interesting to point out about nearly every topic … brilliant (Steven Poole Guardian 2014-11-28)

The depth and breadth of [Dorren’s] understanding and knowledge are awesome … this charming, funny and fascinating gem of a book has persuaded me of the richness we are in danger of losing. (Rose Wild The Times 2014-11-29)

I love this book. It’s witty and informative, with a wealth of engaging comments on all things language-related on our continent … highly amusing … the book’s mine of information, make[s] this a great seasonal stocking filler – whether you’re a lingophile or not. (Gwyn Griffiths Morning Star 2014-12-02)

A new approach to understanding the world … ideal for any cunning linguist (Wanderlust 2014-12-01)

This year’s sleeper Christmas hit … an amiable and entertaining examination of European languages in all their idiosyncratic glory (Michael Conaghan Belfast Telegraph 2014-12-09)

Full of odd linguistic facts … fascinating (Tom Chivers Times Literary Supplement 2014-12-12)

I can’t praise it enough. If you ever wanted to know how exactly Finnish and Hungarian are related and how Turkish fits in, it is clearly explained here in two to three pages. And so is everything else you ever wanted to learn about European languages but were afraid to ask. Brilliant, witty, excellent! (Alan Sked Times Higher Education 2014-12-17)

Through 60 compelling stories about European linguistics, it tells us an impressive amount about Europe … An entertaining, accessible guide (Stephanie Boland Financial Times 2015-01-03)

A pleasurable read (The Linguist 2015-03-27)

Lingo: A language spotter’s guide to Europe

A while back I translated Taaltoerisme, a most excellent popular language book by the journalist Gaston Dorren. It was picked up by Profile and the English version is out in the UK now: Lingo: A language spotter’s guide to Europe. Obviously I’m biased, but obviously I recommend it!

lingo

Here’s the blurb:

Welcome to Europe as you’ve never known it before, seen through the peculiarities of its languages and dialects. Combining linguistics and cultural history, Gaston Dorren takes us on an intriguing tour of the continent, from Proto-Indo-European (the common ancestor of most European languages) to the rise and rise of English, via the complexities of Welsh plurals and Czech pronunciation. Along the way we learn why Esperanto will never catch on, how the language of William the Conqueror lives on in the Channel Islands and why Finnish is the easiest European language.

Surprising, witty and full of extraordinary facts, this book will change the way you think about the languages around you. Polyglot Gaston Dorren might even persuade you that English is like Chinese.