I don’t think we’re particularly interested in the other person’s viewpoint. We like to listen to our own voice, to something that is familiar. If we had a real interest in the other person’s viewpoint, we would be avid readers of foreign literature in translation, but we’re not. Translated titles are supposed to make up only 3% of new publications in the U.S., according to the blog Three Percent. Attention paid to foreign titles in mainstream media is scarce. And translators put themselves at great risk in order to devote themselves to crossing that line between one culture and another.

It is an irony because the translator, who believes in intercultural understanding, is more or less forced to live on the land that separates cultures, in no man’s land. The translator is no man. They don’t exist. They don’t receive a salary, paid holidays, a pension. If they are paid (and there is often an expectation that they won’t be), they are often paid after the project is complete, begging the question, “How do they live while they are working?”

We prefer to hear our own voice and to believe that we are right. After all, what’s the alternative? The idea of believing that we are not right would so undermine us that we reject it out of hand. It cannot be. It is impossible. For us to hold on to our sanity, we have to be right.

There is now a crisis between Ukraine and Russia, a crisis that has been a long time in the making. Conflicts arise when people (because I don’t think anybody else does this) draw lines. When you draw a line, implying that you are an author, that something starts or ends with you (a false premise, we are translators, things pass through us), then you rely on two words to maintain the status quo (as you have established it): LAW and WAR. It is curious that these two words are obviously connected by the phonetic pair (pair of consonants pronounced in the same part of the mouth) l-r. The trouble is people don’t know their phonetic pairs, so they don’t see this.

I could give more examples. The reverse of LIVE is EVIL, one path open to us in this life – to do evil. But if we take the ego, “I” in English, and remove it from LIVE (that is, if we count down from “I” to “O”, from 1 to 0), we get LOVE, the other path open to us in this life. Live: evil-love. I study these connections in my book Seven Brief Lessons on Language.

The line that is the ego in English (I) is the same line that separates countries, properties, rich and poor, whatever social divide you care to think about. And where there is a line, there is conflict. Which is why the translator works so hard to engage with the other (OTHER, by the way, is connected to LOVE and THEOS), to cross that line, even though they know they cannot make a living.

I wrote an article at the time of the outbreak of the Covid pandemic about the connection between where the pandemic is said to have started, WUHAN, and the word HUMAN (turn the w upside down and rearrange the letters). Also, between COVID and VOICE (rearrange the letters and take a step in the alphabet, d-e). Human voice. Was Covid, a terrible disease causing pain and suffering in the world, meant somehow to bring us to our senses, to make us pay more attention to the vulnerable, to make us work together in the face of a common enemy? I don’t know, but the connections are there.

Now, this morning, looking at the word UKRAINE on my phone, I suddenly realized there was a very clear connection. It involves the similarity between a capital I and a lower case l. It can then be seen that UKRAINE with the letters rearranged spells NUCLEAR (c and k have the same pronunciation).

There is meaning in words, even though we don’t usually (choose to) see it. There is meaning in words, but, like all things spiritual, it is slightly hidden: a step in the alphabet (d-e), a phonetic pair (l-r), pairs of letters that are similar (i-l, m-w)… You just have to turn a corner.

Why is it that the word NUCLEAR can be found in UKRAINE? Is this a reference to the Chernobyl disaster in 1986 that affected not just Ukraine, but other countries as well? I certainly wouldn’t want to think that the current crisis between Ukraine and Russia could lead to nuclear war. Such an outcome would be unthinkable.

Another clear connection with UKRAINE relates to another phonetic pair: g-k. If we apply the phonetic pair g-k to the word UKRAINE, we will see that in the middle of the country is GRAIN. Two dangers have been highlighted during the conflict in Ukraine: the danger of damage to nuclear plants, and the danger to world food supplies if grain is not exported. It is interesting that both these words are found in the name of the country. And if we take away GRAIN, we are left with two letters: U-E, which could be a reference to the European Union (EU).

We need to consider the other. We need to hear the human voice, the voice of the other. And that involves not judging people on the basis of our own criteria and actually trying to get to know them, to understand their motives. That hasn’t happened very much between Ukraine, Russia and the West. Perhaps now would be a good time to start. To see what we have in common instead of spitting at each other over the fence. And to hire a translator who will enable us to hear what the other is saying.

Jonathan Dunne,

Word in Language (0): Coronavirus – Human Voice

It is almost two months now since the Coronavirus has taken hold of our lives and we have been in lockdown, confined to our homes except for necessary trips to work or for food. People have fallen seriously ill, and some have died. Health workers have shown admirable courage and perseverance in the face of adversity, one of humanity’s greatest characteristics. There have undoubtedly been some positive aspects. We have had time, some of us, to recollect, to pay attention to aspects of our lives that we had perhaps neglected. Of course, no one wants this to continue for ever, but we have perhaps understood that life is not about production and movement, the earth is not an amusement park, the environment has had time to recover, CO2 emissions are down and fish have been spotted in the canals of Venice. We also have a heightened sense of our own mortality. This makes us humble and a little less proud. In a sense, we have been forced to listen, and this is important because to LISTEN you must be SILENT, you must slow down.


There have been various debates as to the cause of this outbreak: it escaped from a lab, it was a bat, it was poor hygiene in a fish market. I am not a scientist and I do not know the cause, but it seems to me that while there is always a superficial reason for something (something or someone we can blame), there is also always an underlying reason (where the blame has more perhaps to do with ourselves).


I work with word connections. Language is like the environment – there is much more to it than may initially appear to be the case. We treat them both two-dimensionally, as having been put there for our own use. But they have a deeper meaning, hidden secrets which only come to light when we stop to pay attention, when we look at them less for our own profit (in this case we see nothing at all) and more for what they themselves might have to say. Scientists examine life under the microscope, they observe and take notes, hidden wonders come to view that may have something to tell us about the way we lead our lives.


Language is just the same. Words have their own meaning, not just the meaning we would give them. And this hidden meaning can be very illuminating. This hidden meaning can be unearthed in the following ways: by rearranging the letters (sometimes reading them back to front) and by making changes to the letters according to where in the mouth they are pronounced (phonetics), according to their position in the alphabet and according to their appearance (a letter may be turned upside down, for example).


It seems remarkable to me that no one has noticed the name of the city where the virus began, WUHAN in China – if we rearrange the letters and turn the W upside down – spells HUMAN. I saw a video of some inhabitants of Wuhan describing their experience of the lockdown, and they were very much like anybody else – human beings with their family ties, their hopes and aspirations, their sense of humour, their sense of right and wrong. Isn’t that what defines us? Hasn’t the virus to some extent reminded us of what we hold in common?


The Coronavirus is often referred to by another name: COVID-19. Now this time instead of paying attention to the appearance of the letters, we are going to take a step in the alphabet. If we change one of these letters according to its position in the alphabet – and of course rearrange the letters – we get VOICE. So perhaps the underlying reason for the Coronavirus is to make us hear the human voice, to hear human need.


You may think I’m making this up. Well, I’ve worked with language long enough to know that these are not isolated examples. Let us look at the word VIRUS. I wonder if it reminds you of any other word in the English language. I have mentioned three ways of making word connections – it is also possible to repeat a letter or to add a letter (especially a final e). You will then see that VIRUS is in SURVIVE – the purpose of the virus is to survive, and our purpose, when we catch the virus, is also to survive. But surviving, as any adult will tell you, is not always easy.


Now here comes the difficult part, because you cannot make word connections without knowing your phonetic pairs – pairs of consonants that are pronounced in the same part of the mouth. One such pair is f-v  – both these letters are pronounced with the teeth on your lower lip, the only difference is that f is voiceless and v is voiced (you feel a vibration in your throat when you say it).


If we apply this pair f-v, it shouldn’t be too difficult to see that SURVIVE contains I SUFFER. Well, yes, we do suffer in this life, but isn’t that the point somehow – that we are meant to rein in the ego, not to succumb to our selfish desires, not to want everything for ourselves, but to love the other? To love the other – ah, there is the secret! Would it surprise you if I told you these two words, LOVE and OTHER, are connected?


The vowels, o and e, are the same. Then there is the phonetic pair l-r (both these letters are pronounced with the tongue against the roof of the mouth), and the alphabetical pair t-v (we take a step in the alphabet, as we did before with d-e in COVID, but in this instance we miss out the intervening vowel, u). After that, all we have to do is add the letter h, which represents breath; h and e are the most commonly added letters.


I think the Coronavirus has brought out much love for the other in society. While there has been much suffering, there has also been great appreciation for the work carried out by doctors, nurses, shop staff, factory workers, waste collectors, couriers… The people who help our lives to function. In a way, with the Coronavirus, life has been stripped down to its bare necessities, to what is necessary. This doesn’t mean we want to continue in this way – we don’t – but it does remind us of something important. Love for the other.


So language can be seen to confirm what many people have felt – that in this difficult time it is important to have respect and love for the other, to appreciate what people do to make our lives better, to hear the human voice of the other – not to see people as two-dimensional, as put there for our own use (like language or the environment), but rather as human beings with their own intrinsic value. This seems to me to be the experience of the vast majority of the human race. Language is just confirming it.


Jonathan Dunne,