Lost in Translation?

This is the third blog in a series of four in which I document my research in Dhaka and the Sirajganj district of Bangladesh. You can read the other posts here. My work was facilitated by Lepra, but all views expressed are my own.

30 words a day. That was the target. While I’m not as well-versed in Bangla as I would have liked in the final days of my stay, I have developed a potentially useless food and drinks vocabulary, as well as being able to throw about basic emotions. No doubt my everyday spatterings are loosely translated as ‘pumpkin, happy, I’ll eat fish tonight, comfortable – are you?, thanks, tasty’. Fortuitously, I have had both a facilitator and translator while working with Lepra. The former – Chanchal, a coordinator of the leprosy programme in Sirajganj was a welcome surprise, but a necessary third party during interviews able to support my official translator – Raha, who also happened to be a first year student of English Literature at Dhaka University and the regional director’s daughter.

Raha and I in the gardens of the former summer residence of poet R. Tagore. Image Credit: A. Bow-Bertrand

Raha and I in the gardens of the former summer residence of poet R. Tagore. Image Credit: A. Bow-Bertrand

Between us we completed thirty-one in-depth interviews. I’d like to add ‘successfully’ because isn’t that the popular lexical precursor to ‘completed’ but such a marker of quality is too subjective to be warranted, and for all our peaceable interactions, the data collection approaches of interviews and focus group discussions were not without their challenges. Above all, these included the two-way struggle to be heard, or rather ‘heard’ in the oscillating rapport between participant and I. Prior to engaging with the team in Bangladesh I had spoken to Cahn Vasudevan, a longtime supporter of the Colchester branch of Lepra and mental health researcher in his own right. It was his guidance that shaped my persistent focus that the people whom were sharing with me their stories and answers were just that – people. Not subjects, certainly, participants perhaps but thinking, feeling beings above all.

This trip to Bangladesh is the first solo travels I have made to a country where I cannot confidently make myself understood in the native tongue. Through no effort of my own Gallic is in my blood thanks to my Montpelier born Dad, while Spanish and some Central American dialects have been what my Curriculum Vitae most probably lists as something horrific i.e. ‘linguistic passions’. Sadly enough this is actually entirely true. I always favoured Spanish studies over say Ancient Greek, purely because of a cost-per-use attitude. I’m an aficionado of all things Hispanic (apologies eye-rollers, I am being a little facetious) and have made my entire family very aware that I wish to relocate to Mexico post-Masters, so if they want to see me again they better start banking those air miles.

Image Credit: A. Bow-Bertrand

Image Credit: A. Bow-Bertrand

Anyway, apart from sounding like an intolerable voluntourist, my motivation to speak the language of the place I am visiting is not solely self-serving – it is also inspired by a wish to be able to integrate into a locale, so that I am living there rather than just passing by, and invariably local inhabitants respond remarkably well to even the most over-excitable, and grammatically questionable, speakers of their mother tongue. In Bangladesh I wanted to resist the English speaker abroad stereotype, and was immediately thrown not only by the questionability of the assertion that English is the second language in Bangladesh (officially it is, but the competence and universality of such deviates enormously from country to country) but by my complete inability to either make myself understood or to understand the people around me without resorting to a mortifying mixture of signed actions (no, I don’t follow my logic here either) and facial muscle stretching.

Even in the London-based Bangladesh embassy I am ashamed to say that I had to resort to Google Translate to iterate my wish for them to relocate my passport and update me of the visa status. Safe to say I was put to the back of the queue (who am I kidding?!) and had to befriend (read: was taken pity on) a fellow travel applicant who was returning home to see his family over the Bangla New Year celebrations. With the entire world around me completely unrehearsed and unfamiliar, even non-verbal cues or fields of possible perception that might normally be derived from another persons’ accent, sartorial inclination or mannerisms are done away with when everything is plainly foreign.

As an avid people watcher, and constructer of improbable life narratives for strangers, I found this ignorance to social pointers frustrating on a personal level and potentially restrictive in the capacity of researcher. Asking people about their understandings of mental health, and indeed their experiences of it, cannot be plunged into blindly. While Lepra’s association had pre-established an element of trust and the information sheet and consent process soaked up any immediate practical questions, I found myself smiling inanely, nodding without knowing what I was agreeing with and generally looking so intently that I was probably just eyeballing everyone. The flipside to this potential weakness is that my total ignorance to any externally derived or verbal semiotic system avoided my interactions tipping into researcher prejudice or associative bias.

(L-R) Raha, me, Mr Shakhawat (TB Programme Officer) and Masud (office support officer and cook). Image Credit: A. Bow-Bertrand

(L-R) Raha, me, Mr Shakhawat (TB Programme Officer) and Masud (office support officer and cook). Image Credit: A. Bow-Bertrand

Perhaps this post is inspired by participant 10, or rather the reason for our having 31 rather than 30 interviewees as originally scheduled. Whether a selection error, or just incomplete patient details on the Lepra record sheets, this participant arrived, stooped over a self-fashioned wood crutch, with saliva pooling in his beard from a face half dropped from what I guess was a mild stroke. It was soon apparent that he was near wholly deaf, with his paralysis inhibiting all but the most restricted consonant sounds. The interview did not proceed as the others – the questionnaire was immediately disregarded as was any attempt to pursue the pre-defined topic guide.

The man was evidently desperate to make himself understood, clutching my hands and speaking in broken ejaculations. The majority of his narrative, or medical story perhaps, was relayed via the clinic staff in an assembly of dates, facts and diagnosis labels, all negating any reference to the psychological self that was so palpably in need of being explored and given room for in this interaction. Moving away from questions of suitability of the participant in relation to the selection criterion, it was painful to neither be able to make myself heard nor to be able to receive, verbatim, what he wished to say. I doubt he was fully aware that I neither spoke nor understood Bengali, but the complete lack of verbal offering and response afforded by the trajectory and closure of the normal research interview was an impossibility with participant 10. The session was considered closed once the clinic staff’s notes had dried up, and this was uncomfortably signaled to the participant with the monetary transaction or compensation for his travel costs, which in itself falsely pins ‘value’ to participant stories and their willingness to share.

Did I really understand anything about this individual? No. Could I sense and see his struggle? Absolutely. For felt communication is as essential to both verbal and visible communication and was something I took forward in the subsequent interviews. It is pertinent to close with this translated section from Closed Path by Bangladesh’s infamous poet Rabindranath Tagore whose language transcends national boundaries of geography and language, and continues to touch many: ‘and when old words die out on the tongue, new melodies break forth from the heart’.


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