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The meaning gap

March 22, 2011

Watching a Libyan government minister make an announcement to the world was, for me, a good example of the way a potential ‘meaning gap’ can open up. It’s the difference between what we write, what we say and what we mean – treacherous territory. The minister reads from a script, and from his hesitancy the message appears to be hurriedly put together. A man to his left scrutinises the paper whilst listening to the minister and announces a translation in English. We hear the words and watch the gestures of the minister, matching them to make sense of the meaning. I was so reminded of the reality of nonverbal communication. It is often said that less than 20% of meaning is conveyed by the words we hear, the rest is carried in gesture, movement, stance, and so on. The minister looked down, struggled with the document, even referred to his interpreter for his interpretation of what he should say. In this onscreen mini-drama we needed those nonverbal clues because the words were lifeless, uninvolved.

The process is curious: someone wrote the communique with a meaning in mind; the minister read it, but perhaps miscommunicated. The interpreter had the ability to completely change the words in translation and use his nonverbal gestures to impart a different meaning. Who knows how this came across in the original Arabic; that was for a different audience. Indeed, a treacherous process.

And why is this worth remarking on? Decisions were made based on that announcement. It could be that literally life and death depended on its ‘meaning’.  As viewers we make instant judgements, but in the end we turn to the published communique, if there is one (which could be yet another version). It illustrates how there might well be many a slip betwixt the written word, the spoken word, the interpreted word, and our interpretation of the interpreted word.
I noticed that the next day the government announcement was made by the interpreter alone. He spoke confidently, with a more open stance, as if he now had the authority previously carried by the minister. A swift promotion, I assume, based on the control of words.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. March 23, 2011 09:34

    Interesting and quite terrifying! So who really influences us? Interpreters? I think I might trust them better than the politicians – they must hear and understand a huge amount of discussion on both sides of arguments that is denied to the public.

    The moral of this tale for us has to be congruence. Never say something you don’t believe because your audience will believe your body language not your words.

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