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Cecile Collineau: My Journey With What Gives Us Our Names


I don’t precisely remember when or how I came across this book from BooksActually. Kenny had probably shoved it in my hands saying, “read this, you won’t regret it.” Indeed I didn’t and it turned out to be the book I have offered the most in my life. I would usually grab a copy on my way out of the store at Kinokuniya where I work, whenever I was invited for dinner at a friend’s house. Much cheaper than a bottle of wine and it lingers longer on the palate than Pinot Noir.

I remember reading aloud the first chapter, Community, at the opening session of my book club a few years ago. Alvin's words had perfectly depicted the caring atmosphere of our group. It’s like he had always witnessed first-hand our joys, our pains, and our friendships.

The book particularly resonated with me because of The Virtues Project¹, which my children were involved in at St Joseph International Elementary School. I offered a copy to each of the facilitators and I hope they were inspired by it for their workshops to the children, their teachers, parents and nannies. The emphasis on 52 key virtues influences the ethos of the school and I sincerely believe in its positive impact on human relationships.

Kenny had mentioned a few years ago that the book was in the process of being translated to French. I was excited to hear this but didn’t hear much about it afterwards. In September, I learned that my friends Catherine and Dong Mei, who work at the library of Alliance Française, were finishing working on the translation. It had to be ready by the end of the month. I asked if I could join to help proofread and edit, and they pulled me into their boat.

I dived in straight away. I had forgotten the tremendous intellectual intensity and stimulation and pleasure of translation. And it was draining too. Back in my university days, I studied Spanish literature. I remember spending hours on 17th century Spanish texts which we had to translate into classical French. We were doing this in small groups of 3 or 4 students and there were often strong arguments on why we should use a term instead of another. Luckily, Catherine and Dong Mei were way more civilised. Instead of quarrelling, I witnessed encouragement and teamwork. In constant search of the most precise, faithful expressions, we were building the vocabulary up through our brainstorming sessions until the (almost) perfect nuance was reached.

Working on Alvin’s deceivingly simple prose poetry was a great challenge. Breaking apart each paragraph, expression, word, semicolon and comma made me realise the depth of the meaning of his message. There was more than a few 'a-ha !' moments when we’d realise what he had meant. This is why I think a casual one-off reading of What Gives Us Our Names isn’t enough. The book grows onto you, a bit like the seeds which are mentioned throughout its pages.

The Italians say, “traduttore, traditore.” Do I feel I was a traitor in translating the words of Alvin Pang? To a certain extent yes and I apologise to the him in advance. But we sincerely did our best and if a mistake exists “the error was made from honest ignorance.” Purpose would understand what I mean.

Du fond de mon cœur, merci Catherine et Dong Mei, merci Kenny et un grand merci à toi, Alvin.


Cecile Collineau
Singapore, October 2019


1. The Virtues Project is a global grassroots initiative to inspire the practice of virtues in everyday life, sparking a global revolution of kindness, justice, and integrity. It was honored by the United Nations during the International Year of the Family as a "model global program for families of all cultures".

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