Three steps to heaven:
Translating fact into fiction

Michèle Cooke

The sky was a misty pumpkin shade, then a deep turquoise, then a bright lime. Eddie was floating, and his arms were still extended.

Eddie could only picture it at a distance, as it if happened years ago. Stranger still, he could not feel any emotions that went with it. He could only feel calm, like a child in the cradle of its mother’s arms.

The sky around him changed again, to grapefruit yellow, then a forest green, then a pink that Eddie momentarily associated with, of all things, cotton candy.

That was what was missing. Every hurt he’d ever suffered, every ache he’d ever endured – it was all as gone as an expired breath. He could not feel agony. He could not feel sadness.

Then he was under water.

Where is my worry?

Where is my pain?

(Albom 2003, p. 23-24)

Eddie is a maintenance man at a fair-ground. We know that he has gone to heaven, because that’s the title of the novel: the five people you meet in heaven. This paper will explore how Eddie’s journey through heaven can be seen as a metaphor for the translation process and how understanding, empathy and harmony are integral components of this process. I will show that the urge to understand, to see what people want to say, and why they want to say it, is a fundamental characteristic of the human condition, a longing that infuses our physical, our emotional and our rational experience of the world. Wanting to know what people mean is a fact of life.

Eddie’s story illustrates a basic fact of life: if we don’t understand other people, we are in torment. And if we do, we are in heaven. The five people Eddie meets in heaven all explain his life to him. Through their words, he comes to understand what his life means, and how the way he lived was the result and the cause of what other people did in their lives. He learns to recognise the connections between his own, personal story, and that of other people. The five people he meets in heaven translate his life into the context and through the perspective of different lives. It is through this understanding, through an act of translation, that Eddie reaches his final heaven.

… heaven can be found in the most unlikely corners. And heaven itself has many steps.

You may not have known the reason at the time, and that is what heaven is for. For understanding your life on earth.

This is the greatest gift … to understand what happened in your life. To have it explained. It is the peace you have been searching for.

(Albom 2003, p. 36-37)

Understanding, explaining, knowing what things mean is the ultimate peace. If we don’t understand what is happening with us, why things are the way they are we are not at ease. Heaven is the place where we learn to understand, where we see other people’s realities and come to a deeper knowledge of our own selves. Why should this be so?


“You beat me. You shut me out. I didn’t understand. I still don’t understand. Why did you do it? Why?” He drew in long painful breaths. “I didn’t know, OK? I didn’t know your life, what happened. I didn’t know you. But you’re my father. I’ll let it go now, all right? All right? Can we let it go?”

(Albom 2003, p. 152)

One of the five people Eddie sees in heaven is his father, with whom he had a strained and painful relationship. He never felt accepted by his father and in turn could not accept his father as he was. This estrangement came from failure on both sides to see the other’s life in its own context and from its own perspective. Eddie and his father lived side by side, but did not know each other because they couldn’t understand each other. This lack of understanding and lack of knowledge caused pain. An emotional pain, but pain nevertheless.1 The need to understand permeates all human relationships.


Take one story, viewed from two different angles.

Now take that same story from a different angle.

(Albom 2003, p. 45)

The story of Eddie’s relationship with his father shows something that we all know: there are different ways of looking at things. Your view is not my view. Where you stand is not where I stand. One life looked at in the context of other lives will give a different story. Things are not what they seem – we all stand somewhere else. Whose take on life is the right one? Whose version of reality is valid? When the reality of his father’s life is translated for him, Eddie gains a deeper insight into his own life.2


… we are all connected. … you can no more separate one life from another than you can separate a breeze from the wind.

(Albom 2003, p. 50)

But it is also difference that enables understanding. It is difference that enables us to relate, to see where someone else is coming from.3 We are all in one world together; we live different realities, but they are all part of one big picture. Reality does not consist of discrete units existing side by side but is a continuum4 from which different dimensions are highlighted or underplayed according to the needs of who is living it and who is looking at it.5


It suddenly made sense to Eddie, why the woman looked familiar. He had seen a photograph, somewhere in the back of the repair shop, among the old manuals and paperwork from the park’s initial ownership.

(Albom 2003, p. 127)

Understanding means making connections, re-cognising things in a different order, putting the picture together in a different way. This is the basis of learning, of acquiring new knowledge and accepting new meanings.6 However, re-ordering what we think we know, allowing ourselves to re-focus the world-picture we have grown so familiar with, requires looking again, looking at the already known, the all too familiar, from a different angle. In order to understand, we have to de-familiarise what we “know”.7

When Eddie is made to see the old lady in heaven who explains his father’s life to him, he realises he has seen her before. He just hadn’t noticed her. But she had been there all along. The reality we habitually see is not the only reality there is: others are there all along. It is only when we are forced to take a second look that we begin to discern other elements, to give value and meaning to what before seemed unimportant details. When Eddie learns to understand other people’s stories, and thus his own life, he does not simply add new bits of information to what he already knows: he can incorporate a new perspective on what he already knew without knowing it. His learning, and his understanding, is not summative, but integrative.8 This is why he can re-cognise what he is being told.

The translation of other people’s lives, and thus the enrichment of Eddie’s own life with new meanings, takes place on the basis of shared experience which can be viewed, accessed, explained, from a multiplicity of perspectives. Translation happens because Eddie is brought to that place where, as Rilke puts it, one can find the “common ground on which to meet ... one that is plain and true.”9 This common ground is the shared experience of the conditio humana.


… now, here, in order to move on, you must understand …

(Albom 2003, p. 150)

Eddie saw his father, he drew close. “Dad. I know what happened now.”

(Albom 2003, p. 151)

Eddie felt tears welling. He felt a shaking in his chest. Something was flushing out of him.

(Albom 2003, p. 152)

When we understand, something clicks. The pieces of a puzzle we didn’t always know we were looking for fall into place. A dis-order becomes order – at least temporarily.10


“I just want to know, that’s all,” he mumbled.

(Albom 2003, p. 100)

The urge to know, to be able to make sense of the world around us, of the people who constitute our lives is an innate human need.11 Not-understanding what happens and what other people do is what makes us engage with them.12 It makes us look more closely: it is the sine qua non of relational interaction.

The knowledge Eddie acquires in heaven comes from his relating other people’s stories to his own. He realises that he is only at the centre of his story and that there are many ways of turning the kaleidoscope to find many centres and many different pictures. What he also learns is that all the patterns stem from one basic picture, from one hub: the shared human experience of life. This knowledge does not only bring him relief – it humbles him and enables him to respect and accept other patterns of living that he did not previously know. The knowledge of the myriad versions of reality which are possible in the world enriches his own view of how things are.13 When realities meet, and are integrated with one another, understanding takes place, and translation happens.


His grip was entwined with Tala’s, … he felt his body being washed from his soul, meat from the bone, and with it went all the pain and weariness he ever held inside him, every scar, every wound, every bad memory.

He was nothing now, a leaf in the water, and she pulled him gently, through shadow and light, through shades of blue and ivory and lemon and black, and he realized all these colors, all along, were the emotions of his life. She drew him up through the breaking waves of a great gray ocean and he emerged in a brilliant light above an almost unimaginable scene: Home.

(Albom 2003, p. 205-206)

Understanding, gaining new knowledge, seeing the connections between his joys and sorrows and other people’s feelings, needs and suffering enables Eddie to make sense of it all. And, since he is in heaven it really is a question of making sense of it all. All the pieces of the picture fall into place; and since it is heaven, they stay there. Eddie understands, and finds peace. The harmony of his knowledge is eternal because he has died and gone to heaven.

Heaven or hell?

Here on earth, we can never make sense of it all; there is always something missing. Harmony can never last – our peace must be always be disturbed. There needs to be something missing so that we can go on relating, go on trying to understand, go on translating others’ realities into our own. We find one missing piece and the picture changes. The kaleidoscope never stops turning, the picture never stays still. Not-understanding, not getting the full picture is part of the excitement of living. Eternal harmony is standstill, or death; it is dis-harmony that keeps things moving. Translation has to keep on happening – it shows that we are alive. Other people do not necessarily have to make our lives a hell, but we do need them to make it not-heaven.

Three steps to heaven

Eddie’s steps to heaven, to understanding and knowledge reflect the three basic steps of the translation process:

1) Looking at something we know (culture, language, text) from our own point of view.

2) Looking at it again from somebody else’s point of view (a different culture, or for a different purpose), in other words effecting a perspectival shift.

3) Bringing both pictures or interpretations of a segment of reality into juxtaposition and re-scrambling them to create a new image or picture. In other words effecting a re-configuration of the representation of a dimension of the human condition.

Because real-life translation does not happen in heaven it is always a tenuous, temporary affair, and remains for ever open to re-interpretation and renewal.


Eddie’s journey to heaven, as well as his journey through life, also illustrate three fundamental principles of real life translation:

Translating, i.e. engaging with different realities, relating them to one another, understanding them and explaining them, are an integral part of human interaction.

Translation is never complete. Every interpretation is open to more interpretations, and there can always be another take, another angle on the story. Re-translation has to happen as long as there is engagement with reality. The search for the “right answer” will never give us the right answer, but it will give us lots of almost right ones. And for the purposes of real life communication, almost-right will be right enough, at least for a while.

We do not need a neutral vantage point to be able to view other realities, to see what other people mean. Understanding means engaging my view with yours; indeed, it cannot happen if I leave the place where I am. Realities are commensurable because human beings were made to relate to one another. This is a fact of life. Translation is always possible, because it is always necessary.


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  • 1. Neurological studies have revealed that the body processes emotional pain in the same way as physical pain. There is no somatic distinction between these different types of pain. See for example Adolphs 2001, Andersen/Guerrero 1998b, Eisenberger/Lieberman/Williams 2003, Fischer-Homberger 1996, Forgas/Fitness 2008, McDonald/Leary 2005, Panksepp 2003, Zadro/Arriaga/Williams 2008
  • 2. For a discussion of theories of reality and their relevance to translation see Kaiser-Cooke 2004: 83f and 157f.
  • 3. The ability to negotiate difference and connection is built in to our rational, emotional and physical constitution. Human infants (as well as the young of other primates) start learning a very few hours after birth to distinguish between themselves and others (primarily their mother, see Dissanayake 2000, Dunbar/Spoors 1995, Gallese 2003a/b, Gopnik/Meltzoff 1994; Meltzoff/Decety 2003, Plutchik 1990, Rizzolatti/Craighero/Fadig 2003, Rizzolatti/Sinigaglia 2008, Sternberg/Spear-Swerling 1998, Wicker/Keysers/Plailly/Royet/Gallese/Rizzolatti 2003, Wispé 1990). This differentiation is the prerequisite for establishing a relationship to the other: we can only relate to what is not-us. Empathy is a requirement for social bonding, and thus for survival.
  • 4. See for example Darwin 1859:223, “Natura non facit saltum”
  • 5. This differential relationship to reality is the basis of survival for all organisms, see for example Arnheim 1971:3; Kaufmann 1993:18f; Uexküll/Kriszat 1970), for artistic creation (see for example Rothko 2004:37) and scientific discovery (see for example Arnheim 1971:23f; Munz 1993:186f, and Schrödinger 1954:96f, and 1958:127f.).
  • 6. See for example Arnheim 1977:1, and Aristotle’s Rhetoric, ch.2.3, p.219-220, 3.10, p.235 and Poetics, ch.9.4, p.37.
  • 7. See for example Paskow 2004:69f and Higgins 1997 on defamiliarisation in art; Koestler 1964:93, 212 and 249f on defamiliarisation in science; Bruner 1962:22 and Kaiser-Cooke 2004:157f on perspectival shift in everyday cognition as well as Kaiser-Cooke 2004:185f and 269 on perspectival shift in translation.
  • 8. See Watzlawick 1969:119f on summation vs. systemic integration in human communication.
  • 9. Letter from July 16th, 1903, Worpsvede. Briefe an einen jungen Dichter, p.24 „… seinen Sie gut gegen die, welche zurückbleiben, und seien Sie sicher und ruhig vor ihnen und quälen Sie sie nicht mit Ihren Zweifeln und erschrecken Sie sie nicht mit Ihrer Zuversicht oder Freude, die sie nicht begreifen könnten. Suchen Sie sich mit ihnen irgendeine schlichte und treue Gemeinsamkeit, die sich nicht notwendig verändern muß, wenn Sie selbst anders und anders werden; lieben Sie an ihnen das Leben in einer fremden Form…“
  • 10. See Arnheim on the tenuous nature of order. The different orders in the world are bound to clash; dis-order is not utter chaos, but the clash of different orders with one another. See Arnheim 1971: p.1-3 and 13f. Systems of concepts, thought or languages also clash and create dis-order (see Maturana 1978: p.4f on ‘anti-communication’), which can be temporarily restored to order by re-adjustment (or homeostasis – see Watzlawick 1967, passim) until new disturbance from within or outside the system creates disbalance and a new re-ordering must start again. Thus, translation can also be seen as the creation of order – understanding – from dis-order, or not-understanding. See also Cooke 2011: p.63f.
  • 11. See Maturana on the basic need of all living things to relate: „Organisms do not exist in a relational vacuum“ (2011:63). The ability to change perspective, also known as empathy, or theory of mind, is hard-wired into our cognitive apparatus because without it we could not survive. See for example Strayer 1990 and Thompson 1990.
  • 12. See Kress 1989:12f and 32f on communication as the discursive resolution of referential inscrutability.
  • 13. See Maturana 1978:54f on “structural coupling” as a means of systemic development and how this must always be preceded by the struggle to attain it.