Translation Dilemmas

April 26, 2014

I have been touring Beijing, Shanghai, Nanjing, HangZhou, and HuangShen with my Chinese born wife on a 2 week tour Chinese born overseas Chinese people. We had Mandarin speaking guides, ate Chinese food for breakfast, lunch and dinner with weak Chinese beer. I have been to interesting places, seen ordinary street life with amazing contrasts of massive wealth and residual poverty. Mercedes 350sl and bicycle trucks.

I have been disconcerted by my sense of isolation,  I could understand any of the tourist guide’s information, the chitchat, the humour and the camaraderie amongst the group, who were kind and tried to involve me, but .

It set me to musing about problems with translation when seeing patients from different cultures.

The tourist guides spoke about the history of places referring to literature, myth, poems and especially well known stories. My wife and others struggled to explain what has been said because so much knowledge was taken as a given. When I first wrote this post, the day after Anzac Day, it set me to musing about what Anzac Day meant to me and other Australian as a story, a history, a myth and the traditions and literature that has grown from that, so that the word Anzac has a profound depth of meaning. But not to my wife who has no idea about World War 1, the growth of the nation etc, How do I explain all that in a few words, it seemed the problems she and others had translating the tourist information was similar. It struck me how much accidents and work injuries have a similar range of meanings according to our particular culture and how difficult it is to understand those meanings in another culture.  A Samoan church-going father of 3 had his right hand crushed in a machine at work.  He had a useless right hand and was unable to work.  I understood his sense of despair and concern for the future, what surprised me was that in his culture, a physical deformity was abhorred.  He was treated with contempt by his friends and Church members, his wife was ostracized and his children taunted. This was beyond my cultural experience.

When we see a claimant with an interpreter, does the claimant understand our role? Does the claimant understand our questions when translated and the implication of the questions? We have all had the experience of a lengthy dialogue between a claimant and the interpreter that concludes with the interpreter giving a one word answer. What has transpired in that conversation?

What is the experience of being in a English-speaking world without any English endeavouring to get treatment? How does one navigate the WorkCover system or the motor accident system?

This experience has led to me asking questions of the interpreter including questions such as “Doesthis accident have any specific meaning in your culture, does the type of injury have any specific meaning, are there any cultural issues with regard to treatment, are there any cultural issues with regard to seeing a psychiatrist?” I’m sure there are many other questions I could ask but these seem to be the most pertinent.

it is always a salutary experience being on the other side of the fence..




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