Lost In Translation

In 1980 I took advantage of a college junior year abroad program, and went off to spend a year at Hebrew University in Israel. Jerusalem was an interesting place to live, but the academic program for English-only speakers was a joke, and after one semester I decided to leave the big city and go live on a kibbutz (a communal farm) for a while.

Before and during my first six months in Israel, I took many, many Hebrew language courses. I have to confess however, that I never became all that good at it. So many Jerusalemites spoke at least passable English (and were eager to test it), that I never got much chance to use what little Hebrew I knew.

All that changed when I arrived at the kibbutz. Out in the country, most people didn’t speak English at all, and after a brief conversation with the kibbutz leader (during which he decided that I, Ïknew enough Hebrew”), he assigned me to the grapefruit juice factory — a place without any English speakers (cue scary music).

Needless to say, my Hebrew got better fast.

Partly because I needed to understand the warning instructions given to me by my factory colleagues, and partly because for 10 hours a day, I was working, eating and hanging around with people who otherwise couldn’t communicate with me (I vividly remember not understanding, as one of my co-workers tried to tell me at breakfast one morning that Ronald Reagan had been shot).

And then one day, after a couple of months, something flipped. I suddenly realized that I was no longer translating from Hebrew to English and back again as I struggled to communicate. There were plenty of words I didn’t know, and I was a long way from being fluent, but my brain had somehow become directly wired to Hebrew. When somebody spoke (and when I answered) I wasn’t translating anymore — the Hebrew words themselves had meaning.

Likewise, if you’re new to E-Newsletter publishing, I’m betting that you’re still in the “pre-flipped” stage. Coming up with topic ideas, writing the content, formatting the newsletter, and just taking care of all the minutiae involved with publishing, requires lots of your attention. It’s hard to imagine the care and feeding of the monster known as your E-Newsletter ever becoming second nature.

That’s the bad news. The good news is that I guarantee you that the day will come where you suddenly realize that your newsletter is on autopilot, and you too no longer need to actively “translate” every action.

To help that day arrive as soon as possible, I offer three recommendations:

  1. Hang around with others who are already fluent.
  2. I didn’t learn Hebrew by trying to practice with my English-speaking buddies, no matter how hard we tried. It wasn’t until I was living with native speakers that I got a real feel for it. By the same token, you’ll learn faster if you pay close attention to what other experienced newsletter publishers are doing. Go ahead and subscribe to every newsletter you can find for a little while and immerse yourself in the example that others provide.

  3. Raise the stakes.
  4. I leaned more Hebrew in six months than in the preceding 20 years, partly because I had no choice. I was operating machines that sliced and crushed grapefruits, loading pallets onto trucks, and doing my best to stay out of the way of a bunch of guys driving forklifts all day long. Understanding the language was closely tied to safety.

    In the case of your E-Newsletter, “raising the stakes” means launching it. You can read about it and prepare for it and try to stockpile a bunch of articles from now until the end of time. But until you move from the classroom to the factory floor, it’s just a theoretical exercise. Stop talking about “someday” and just get on with it.

  5. Give yourself time.
  6. In my experience it takes most companies about six months to digest the launch of an E-Newsletter and build it into the ongoing workflow of the business. Until then, every issue will take your full concentration. My suggestion is to simply not worry about it — just make sure you publish something once a month, no matter what.

Bottom Line: Like many things worth doing, publishing an effective E-Newsletter for your business comes with its own learning curve. The good news is that once you “break through” and achieve a level of fluency, you’ll find that it only gets easier and easier. Good luck getting yours off the ground, and as they say in Israel, “Look out for that forklift!” I mean, “Shalom.”

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