Thursday, November 6, 2014


   I have encountered many translation errors thus far in my semester abroad. Which is to be expected, of course. Some of them have been hilarious, others embarrassing, a few disastrous and almost all of them completely my fault. An improper conjugation, a forgotten accent, or (most often) flat out wrong vocabulary words are all culprits, but most misunderstandings are relatively easy to straighten out. I have come to realize that this is because in general, Costa Rican culture and American culture are similar enough that both parties are able to conceptualize the subject of the conversation. It wasn't until I visited a Ngöbe tribe in La Casona that I realized how the seemingly daunting translation errors in my every day life pale in comparison to those that arise when two radically different cultures attempt to communicate.
   During our visit, we were fortunate enough to be granted a Q&A session with two traditional Ngöbe healers. Our professors Claudine and Jessica translated our questions into Spanish and, when necessary, a Ngöbe translator stepped in to translate the question for the healers. Occasionally Claudine wouldn't translate our questions, telling us we needed to rephrase them. At first, I was puzzled. The questions were relatively simple, wasn't it the translators' jobs to convey that question into culturally relevant terms? But the more I listened, the more complicated the translation process seemed. The healers mentioned sicknesses like "snake bite cancer" and "madness". A question about depression was rejected because it would not have been conceptualized as a treatable disease. Finding exactly the right words to get my question answered satisfactorily became the goal.
   Later that day on the bus ride back, Claudine summed up our translation experience perfectly. She explained that it was not that the healers were in any way less intelligent than us. In fact, we were the ones who were slow to catch on, our brains too engrained in 21st century culture and western medicine to truly analyze the connotations behind our questions. It was just that our conceptualizations of disease, our surroundings and the universe in general are different. Because the Ngöbe consider snake bites to be a type of cancer, they can "cure" cancer. Because many Americans consider depression to be a disease, we can "cure" depression. A vocabulary translation error is one thing, but a translation error based on thousands of years of culture, external influences, personal experiences and preconceived notions of being is entirely different. This realization is extremely humbling and I have a new respect for cross-cultural communication.
-Keelin Moehl

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