How are English words connected? Is there a consistent set of rules by which words in the English language are connected not according to their etymology, their evolution over time, but according to their letters? These letters may be rearranged, read back to front, altered according to the laws of phonetics, their position in the alphabet, their physical appearance, their numerical value. So while the reverse of live is evil, we can count down from I to O and find love instead (as sin gives son). The ego, by taking a step back in the alphabet, can be turned into God. Using the laws of phonetics, we can realize that the true purpose of the self is to serve. In The Life of a Translator, Jonathan Dunne offers a clear, direct introduction to the ways in which English words can be connected according to their DNA, arguing that words have something to tell us about human life, but their meaning is hidden and must be deciphered (God is code). In this sense, language is similar to the environment. We think we see what is around us, but we are spiritually blind even after we have opened our eyes, and it is this spiritual blindness causing a crisis in the world because of how we treat our world, the environment, each other and, ultimately, ourselves.

Consonants: Alphabet and Appearance

There are two other ways to change the consonants. One is according to their position in the alphabet and we have seen examples. The other is according to their appearance.

So, through b-c in the alphabet, we find that bake and cake are connected, as are believe and receive (with l-r). When we believe, we become open to God’s grace working in our lives and receive a hundredfold, together with persecutions. Grace gives us the courage (addition of o and u) to confront these persecutions with equanimity. Using the phonetic pairs d-t and l-r, we find that birth gives child, as is logical.

We have discussed how life is a progression away from the ego to the other (who is God, theos in Greek), from self to serve, from I or 1 to O (as we discovered that the earth was round, despite likening it to ourselves first by making it out to be a flat line: we opened our eyes/Is). Through the alphabetical pair d-e, we see this progression in God and ego, separated by only one letter. Ego also produces fog and foe. The world is lower (and heathen is nether in reverse, as heaven is never). Word is love through the phonetic pairs l-r and v-w.

If we apply the alphabetical pair f-g, we find that father is gather. The father would bring us together, the devil would have us differ (f-v, l-r). Through the alphabetical pair k-l (and v-w), we find that wicked is devil. Moving on to l-m, we find that bowl is womb (penis can be spoon) and line is mine. The ego (‘I’) draws a line and says this is mine. This is the beginning of authorship, but author is not other and leads to confrontation. It is far easier to say we are translators, things do not begin or end with us, they pass through us, including our life.

In the alphabet, we see a correspondence between grain, grape and grace (c pronounced s, n-p-s), which relates to the Eucharist, where the bread and wine are blessed through the intervention of the Holy Spirit. Through r-s, we have seen the other is theos, which brings to mind the judgement of the nations (‘Just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me’, Matthew 25:40). We have also seen tree and seed (with d-t). Fear gives safe. We are safe when we have fear of the Lord, fear for the consequences of our intemperate behaviour. Earth gives Hades, which in turn (s-t) gives death and with the letters rearranged spells shade. Continuing with s-t, we find a connection between bosom and bottom or mercy and merit. In this world, we claim to get what we work for, but grace is freely given. Finally, we might find a connection between tomb and womb through the alphabet (as in the grave we are on the verge of something).

The other way to link consonants is through their appearance. We can reverse them (b-d), lengthen them (h-n), upturn them (m-w). As birth gave child, so it gives third in reverse (b-d). We find this same connection in breath and thread. Breath is the thread linking birth and death (a-e-i, addition of r). Through the pair c-e, we can connect cross and eros. Through f-t (with m-n), we discover I am free in eternal.

We have talked about how creatures are blind at birth (h-n, with d-t and l-r). So hope makes us open. In winter, plants wither. When we’ve watched a film, we come to the end (with d-t). With i-l, we find I’m sane in mental. I owe becomes love – we cease to be in debt, which is connected to death (a-b, addition of h). If we put a line through l, it becomes t: a male wishes to mate. The pair m-w takes us from me to we, as the addition of h takes us from I’m to him. Language is trying to get us out of ourselves and to Christ. I am (the name of God in the Old Testament, although other languages omit the pronoun ‘I’) produces way (with the connection between i and the semi-vowel y). In John 14:6, Christ says ‘I am the way, and the truth, and the life’. Surely language confirms this. I am is also connected with the law Christ came not to abolish, but to fulfil. This is not the law that protects human property (made with things a human could at best be said to have translated, but did not create), this is the divine law that surpasses our boundaries.

Through n-u, as deaf gave feed, so blind gives build. Once we realize our need, we are equipped to be useful. Anger causes us to argue. In north (with r-s), we find south, as east and west are connected through the addition of a and w (w is the Greek letter omega, so we might say east and west are connected by Alpha and Omega). Through v-y, the devil would have us yield. The devil does not want us to stay in one place, but wants us to stray, because stay gives yeast (addition of e and r, as God gives dough through the addition of h and u). And finally the reverse of venom is money.

Translation and the Environment

Language turns somersaults. The translator knows this. People think of translation as a straight line from text to translation, author to translator, with something lost along the way, but in fact I think both texts are translations and make reference to a third point, the source, as when we cross a river, we may be aware of the source of the river in the mountains. In effect, everything we do is translation, because we cannot create out of nothing. Breathing is translation as we inhale oxygen and exhale carbon dioxide (thank God there are trees and plants that do the opposite). Eating is translation as we consume food, extract what we need (meaning) and dispose of the waste. Cooking is the same. If we didn’t have the basic ingredients, we would be at a loss.

Life is translation. I didn’t create life, it came to me from my parents and, if I am lucky, I will transfer it to my children. Nothing starts or ends with us. So it is absurd for us to think of translation as somehow inferior or second-rate, since in effect we are thinking of ourselves and everything we do in this way. When we translate, we hear a voice, we are inspired, just as a writer is. It is not that translation is a lower form of writing, but that writing is a form of translation (as the writer recalls experiences, things he has heard; very little if anything of what he writes down could be said to begin with him). And yet translation is considered to be the Cinderella of the writing world (we all know how that story ends).

Translation is life. And it is here that I would like to draw a comparison between language and the environment. I believe that, after birth, we continue to be spiritually blind. We need spiritual healing so that we can hear. This healing comes from Christ, just as he healed the man born blind in John’s Gospel. He opens our eyes and we begin to see things around us we hadn’t noticed before, another dimension. I have tried to show how this dimension is present in the English language, which is my mother tongue and the language I work with. It is quite possibly present in and between all languages, which may not be as fragmented as they seem. This extra dimension is also present in the environment we claim to want to protect, but do not see. Are we truly aware of what is going on around us? Do we see with our inner eyes the things around us, such as a tree, a plant, a flower, a rock, a river? Do we know what or who they are, or do we simply regard them as resources at our disposal?

I once translated a poem from Bulgarian called ‘Beetles’ that talked about ladybirds. That afternoon, I went with my wife to Samokov, a town in southern Bulgaria. We stopped outside a monastery and, as I was waiting in the car for my wife to return, with the door open, a ladybird landed on the dashboard. I learned that coincidences happen, they are a form of spiritual language. I also learned that what we do is not unrelated to the environment in which we live.

Several years later, I translated a poem from Galician called ‘Sleepless nights like damp sheets’. The poet had previously referred to the ‘eternal sleep’, which he followed in English with ‘Big Sleep’. In the last two lines of the poem I was translating, he talked about ‘the sad pulchritude of another dress rehearsal for the eternal sleep’. He was dying. I finished the poem and moved on to another project involving crime novels. I was living in Santiago de Compostela in Galicia at the time and went to the local library to take out a book in English. I came across Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep and, without making the connection to the previous poem, took it out to read because it was a crime novel. Only when I got home did I remember that this was the phrase the poet had quoted in English.

When I asked my wife her favourite poem by this poet (out of 110 that I had translated), she answered ‘Sleepless nights like damp sheets’ and translated the poem into Bulgarian for an event taking place in A Coruña. The next day, we travelled to Madrid and, on our last day there, had lunch in an American restaurant. At one point, I went down to the toilet in the basement. On coming out, I noticed a large poster on the wall, which was advertising the 1946 film of Raymond Chandler’s book The Big Sleep, directed by Howard Hawks and starring Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. The Spanish translation of the film’s title was The Eternal Sleep. I finally realized that they were one and the same, although there is a big difference when talking about death between the adjectives ‘big’ and ‘eternal’. And yet the book of poems I had translated was already at the printer’s and I didn’t react.

Two days later, I was travelling by train within Spain (from Vigo to Santiago) and the person in front of me was reading a copy of The Big Sleep in English, probably the same copy I had borrowed from the public library. At this point, I realized I had to change my translation of the end of the poem to ‘the sad pulchritude of another dress rehearsal for the big sleep’, because, while it said ‘eternal sleep’ in Galician, it was clearly a translation of the title of Raymond Chandler’s novel. The book had been at the printer’s, with a deadline, for ten days. I contacted the designer, offering to pay for that page to be printed again, but surprisingly the printer hadn’t started work yet, even though ten days had passed, and I was able to insert the change.

The world in which we live wishes to participate in our creativity. The language we use, the environment we inhabit, wish to communicate, but we have to learn to speak their language. I have tried in this short book – which is a continuation of a book I published in 2007, The DNA of the English Language – to show what I believe to be the hidden code behind the English language.

Part of this extract appeared in volume 1, number 3, of Poem magazine (autumn 2013)

Additional Info

  • purchase text:

    THE LIFE OF A TRANSLATOR by Jonathan Dunne, the second title in the series Small Stations Essay, is available for purchase through your local or online bookshop

    Barnes & Noble

    Book Depository


    ISBN: 978-954-384-021-2

    Publication Date: 06 October 2013

    Language: English

    Paperback: 108 pages

    Dimensions: 178 x 127 mm