and What We Can Learn From the Confusion
According to ABC News, the State Department said that a defiant statement by the Iranian Foreign Minister linking cooperation against ISIS in Iraq to sanctions relief might actually be a giant, lost-in-translation misunderstanding.
In Iran's state-run media, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said that Iran would help the West with the crisis in Iraq if the West lifts sanctions – a report that was published in English-speaking media.
"If we agree to do something in Iraq, the other side of the negotiations should do something in return,” Zarif is quoted as saying. “"All the sanctions that are related to Iran's nuclear program should be lifted,” he added.
But State Department translators believe Zarif was actually referring to “Arak,” the nuclear reactor in Iran that is pronounced just like "Iraq,” the country. Of course, he could also have been referring to a licorice-flavored liqueur called, you guessed it, Arak. But that seems less likely. International headlines trumpeted the linkage of Iran’s fighting ISIS with progress in Iraq – and they were all caught flat-footed.
Now perhaps the Iranians knew they were likely to be misunderstood and gleefully spouted the homonym of Arak and Iraq. But maybe it was just a simple mistake in interpretation. While this incident involved spoken communication, misunderstandings because of sound-alikes or wrong words abound in written communication as well. What can we as business writers learn from this embarrassing misunderstanding?
1. Clarify your reference.
If the Iranians had said, “the Arak nuclear power plant”, there would have been no misunderstanding. If a few extra words will eliminate the possibility that you will be misunderstood, add the necessary words. Brevity is good, but clarity is better.
When writing about projects or clients for an audience outside your closest cohorts, give the reader clues about your meaning. I recently edited a corporate press release which said, “Our shipping schedule depends on Drax.” I, and presumably the readers of the release, had no idea whether Drax was a client, a shipper, or something else. When I Googled the term, I came up with “Drax the destroyer” and “Drax versus Thanos,” which presumably were not the references my client was alluding to. A few extra words would clue us in to the ballpark in which we were playing.
2. Beware of words that sound similar.
Using the wrong word damages your credibility. You can avoid common errors such as writing “your welcome ” instead of “you’re welcome” or “their not home” instead of “they’re not home” by simply taking a moment to reread what you’ve written and asking yourself if it makes sense. Other words require a bit more thought. I was once in a meeting with a highly paid consultant who said, “Let me share a little antidote with you.” Expecting him to produce a test tube of anti-venom, I was disappointed when he proceeded to tell a little story. Another consultant once barreled through a two-hour sales pitch for a logistics contract, bragging that he was “a master at deploring”. Not surprisingly, both consultants failed to get the jobs they were hoping for.
Bob, an executive at a power company, recently shared with me a performance review written by Jeffrey, one of his managers. It was full of near-misses – Jeffrey had used almost the right words but still seemed incoherent. Ranging from “I am very please with your participation” to “I have witnessed and improved commitment among all your reports, and this is also efficient with your team,” his writing became laughable. Presumably he meant, “this is evident with your team.” Bob was left wondering whether Jeffrey had used a computerized translation or writing program to generate the review. We can be sure that the need to improve writing skills will appear on the agenda when Jeffrey’s performance review comes around.
Proofread by Reading Aloud
How can we avoid mistakes and misinterpretations? Thinking about how our words might be interpreted is our first line of defense. As Robert Louis Stevenson wrote, "Don't write merely to understand. Write so that you cannot possibly be misunderstood."
Proofreading by reading aloud will help you avoid errors. Just looking at the page will not solve the problem, as our eyes are always seeing things that are not there and correcting mistakes in our brains without correcting them in the text. Reading aloud forces you to really look at the page and see what is written there.
Also, have mercy on the reader, the person who must decode your message and comprehend it. If your reader might not know which Iraq you are referring to, help him out. If he won’t understand a reference in your text, clarify it. Putting yourself in the reader’s position will help you see where you need to clarify your language.
© 2014 Elizabeth Danziger All rights reserved