Monday, September 15, 2014

Lost in Translation?

I have perfected the art of walking such that the river water hovers just two centimeters below the tops of my boots with each step I take away from the dock. It is a needed distraction, but once we have boarded the boat that will take us into Bribri territory and gotten onto the bus on the other side, I can no longer continue my game. Instead I focus on spotting chickens. Humans are not chickens, but I keep looking at them anyway. They're looking at me too. If I want to stop worrying, I shouldn't look at the people. I see, or perhaps imagine, the proof of my fears reflecting back at me in their faces.
            I've been looking forward to visiting indigenous shamans for months. I spent years of my life searching for edible and medicinal plants and my first four semesters of college navigating the never-ending process of becoming an ally to people who are disempowered, so it should have been perfect for me. I'd been telling my family, friends, and anyone who would listen about this since deciding to go on the program. Suddenly, all my excitement was replaced by worry.
            When we got to our destination in the Bribri town of Cachabri, things got worse instead of better. I felt like I should be thrilled and awed like everyone else, but I was missing it because of this feeling that something wasn't right. My head was a confused mix of memories from my philosophy class, my summer internship, and Amber's lectures on ethics and cultural appropriation. They had invited us, so there shouldn't be anything blatantly wrong, but I still felt I wouldn't be able to calm down until I could ask the awapa directly. Finally I got my chance. "Why do you choose to welcome people like us into your community?"
            I would witness much over the course of our visit that emphasized the questions that sparked my concerns. The Bribri men and women performed a traditional dance for us (What does it mean to do a spiritually significant dance for show rather than to serve its true purpose?), took us on a plant walk (Why did they bother to teach people who wouldn't use their valuable medical knowledge in the first place?), and let us watch a woman grinding corn (How does it feel to have visitors crowded around taking pictures as you do housework?).
            The awa looked at me as he spoke, addressing me for the first time in my experience in a language I didn't understand a word of. When the answer came back to me, however, it did not feel sufficient. After transitioning from Bribri into Spanish and then English, the response was that they liked having students who were interested and wanted to learn about their culture. It sounded so simple, like a politician's answer designed to please everyone. It was hard for me to trust a response such as that.
There was, however, one thing about his answer that caught my attention. I could have sworn I heard in the Spanish version that it was important to them to have young people be able to respect and learn from them rather than cause harm. That statement had a completely different connotation than the importance of education alone. How much did I miss in the Spanish version? How much was lost before it even got that far?
As I considered the necessary messiness of translations over the course of the day, I began to realize that I could never know the true reasons they chose to welcome us in and would never understand all the dimensions and historical implications of that decision. If I couldn't understand the meaning, I had to depend on the respect I had for the choices they made. Instead of worrying over details, maybe it was better that I focus on not repeating past mistakes myself. After all, it was a lack of respect from outsiders that had caused all the Bribri's problems in the first place. If I truly respected them, I should certainly trust them to make the decisions they felt were best for their people.
Once again, here I was forgetting the most basic ideas behind being an ally. Lesson #1: Listen. You are not the expert on the issues that affect others.

Submitted by Casey Morrison

Picture: Keeping my feet dry waiting for the boat. Photo credit: David Monroe

No comments: