• Payam Javan Channels Youtube Payam Javan on Facebook
  • Miscommunication

    Many years ago I asked someone about the name of one visitor. She responded that her friend’s name was Nada. I was puzzled and responded along the lines of “as in nothing?” Who would name their daughter “Nothing?” Nada’s name in Serbo-Croatian meant “Hope.” In Spanish the word means “nothing.”

    A story which narrates the division of languages can be found in the tower of Babel story. In that story people were building a big tower reaching to the heavens. The tower was located in what is now Iran. In order to stop the building project, the deity in heaven confused the languages of people so they could not communicate with each other. Ever since then the name Babel has the connotation of different nationalities and languages. For example there is the online translation tool called Babelfish. And there was a 2006 movie which interconnected people of various nationalities called BABEL. One wonders if the deity in the heavens had a sense of humor. In addition to languages in which different words are used to describe the same idea, sometimes the same word is used to communicate different ideas.

    While Farsi and Japanese are two different languages belonging to different families there are similar sounding words with different meanings. For example the word “are” in Farsi means “yes,” while in Japanese it means “there.” And for some reason even related languages can be confusing. One of the languages spoken in Belgium is Flemish. This language is related to German. But a Belgian said that a word common to both Flemish and German can sometimes have opposite meanings. So he has to be careful when speaking German.

    Other factors in communication involve idioms. While English and French are spoken outside of England and France, the place where those languages develop different expressions. For example the idiom for graduating from college is “pass out.” An Indian who says he passed out of college would confuse a speaker of American English. In American English, the expression “pass out,” means to lose consciousness. Some expressions taken literally can be downright confusing. Chai Ling, in her book, mentioned she was puzzled by the expression “drop dead gorgeous.” How can you include the word “dead” in a compliment?

    Chinese can be an especially difficult language since it is based on tone. Mispronunciation of the tone can lead to hilarious sentences. Ruth Hayhoe, in her book FULL CIRCLE, mentioned a lesson in which the speaker meant to say in Chinese “The devil is dangerous.” Instead the sentence came out as “The devil is a Shanghai man.” The audience roared with laughter. My guess is any Shanghai members of the audience were less than flattered. On the other hand they may have been amused by the gaffe.

    A well-known gaffe occurred when President Kennedy tried to say “I am a Berliner” or I am a native of Berlin.” Instead he actually said “I am a jelly donut.” I am not sure if this was a tonal gaffe or a vocabulary gaffe. The people of Berlin apparently understood what he was trying to say and had a good laugh.

    While some miscommunications may be comical, others can be of a more critical nature. During the Korean War, Japanese Americans would interrogate Chinese prisoners, since they had a common writing system. The only problem was difference in meaning. While both Japanese and Chinese used the “li” as a unit of measurement, the distance for the Chinese li was shorter than the distance for the Japanese li, called “ri.” As a result of this misunderstanding, the Japanese American interpreter incorrectly guessed the distance of the enemy to be further away. This could be very serious if the enemy was assumed to be 36 miles away when in fact they were only 6 miles away.

    Given the various nuances and pitfalls in languages, it is this writer’s guess that people who work at the United Nations as simultaneous translators must be very talented and have a very difficult job.

    Filed in: Articles of the month