Sunday, August 16, 2009

Translation Trip

One of the more difficult language classes we had was one where Graziella came into our class with fake bruises on her face, wrapped in a shawl and pretending to be a single mom who was being physically abused and threatened by the father of her child. She was there to seek counseling from us. We had to offer suggestions and try to alleviate her situation (using mainly the second rule of subjunctive tense, "verbos de influencia" in case you're curious).

Each person took a turn, but I quickly realized that each person slipped into a role during that class. The pastors said pastorly things, trying to connect her with the church and trying to straighten out her view of God's love and her identity in Christ. The more evangelistic types tried to explain to her how to have a relationship with Jesus and what that meant. The social workers/health providers asked what type of public or private options she could hook up with, what social services were available through the church or state, and if the law could do anything. And what did I say? I think my response in a real situation would have been anthropological - I would ask more questions, trying to penetrate to the social and cultural injustices that create such situations, and I'd try to understand from her point of view what a desirable outcome would be. Which probably reveals a bit about why I'm the type of missionary I am, instead of a "minister" or a "preacher," which is why I'll never deliver a silver bullet counseling solution, but hope to possibly foster a learning environments where solutions are discovered internally in ways that could simply never come from an outsider like me. But what I actually said touched on all the areas I just mentioned, because the point of the exercise was to give suggestions, not ask questions.

Interesting note here, that we never covered specifically how to ask questions. Most of what we learn is how to make statements. How to give answers. We are asked the questions and taught to answer, we don't learn to use the language to ask others questions. Shame.

All that to say... tough lesson. And left me depressed for most of the day, questioning whether any of this schoolwork would get me to a point where I could field situations like that, confidently.

And no. It didn't. I joined a group of doctors and teenagers (about 15 docs and 25 high-schoolers) from Hinsdale Hospital in Chicago. I found myself seated between a well-trained doctor and counselor, and a thin young man about my age who'd limped in using an umbrella for a cane, holding a diagnosis from a local hospital of schizophernia and suicidal tendencies. In fact, he'd just come straight from the hospital. His eyes were watery and his hand trembled involuntarily. As he put it... "they couldn't do anything for me. So I might as well try here."

The following counseling session was extremely difficult to translate. The doctor gave him her full attention and as I translated I realized she'd done this before and was going methodically through a process - but it was hard to tell, she was doing it well and with genuine concern. I translated back and forth between them. Not just the situation was difficult. The grammar was hard. The ideas on both end were extremely hard to translate. They were talking in different directions, he about utter hopelessness, only able to focus on the bad. She about God's love and hope, which was meaningless to him. Since I was having difficulty translating ideas, I started translating literally, which suddenly became very depressing because the gap in ideology became evident real fast. At one point we found a photo of his wife who'd left him, which he dismissed with a wave of his hand as totally irrelevant, and kept talking about his leg which had suddenly become lame. "The only thing I like about that picture is that I'm standing in it," he fixated on. I immediately began to think about some of the characters in Dostoyevsky's books who exhibit severe physical disabilities that result from emotional trauma they're experiencing. There are connections within ourselves we often can't even understand. I began to think the problem wasn't his leg. And that's when I didn't know what to do and started translating literally. And like I mentioned before, a million questions came to mind as I talked with him. He showed us his most recent employment ID from Walmart (or its local equivalant) which I think was covering his health care costs. And I began asking myself questions about what type of societal pressures cause situations like this in Quepos, the more commercialized town we were in that supports the hugely popular tourist destination of Manuel Antonio. Fortunately the doctor was guiding the conversation and not my curiosity.

I met a friend named Steve on that trip. He was here helping with Conexiones, the group hosting the team of doctors. Steve had just come down from Washington and had been using his Spanish for 2 weeks and he had just had to translate for a pregnant woman, explaining to her that while she still had a baby in her, she was no longer technically pregnant because the baby had died and was stuck in her fallopian tube. She was hospitalized immediately. Stephen had me write this in his journal for him so he wouldn't forget. He also had me write that he had received a shot to allieve his tenanitis, a shot given to him for free by one of the doctors here that he couldn't afford to get before he left the U.S. His hand was still strengthening up after getting the shot, that's why I was writing things down for him to remember.

I loved meeting the people on this team. Our group was a hodgepodge of different ministries (christians, non-christians, catholics, evangelicals, nazarenes, seventh-day adventists), and for that reason I learned a LOT from them. When they found out I was from Haiti, several were familiar with Paul Farmer's work there. I translated for the infectologist, the pediatrician, the lung doc guy (can't remember what that's called, numologist or something), and general family practice. As it turns out, I worked hard with them all week, traveling to 4 different parts of Costa Rica to provide free medical attention and kids activities for the locals, and then had to leave for the fun part when they went to the beach, white-water rafting, hiking, and nice hotels. And for some reason this time I actually wanted to do those things. Probably just to spend more time with them.

I'm happy to be resourceful for visiting teams like these. I'm immensely excited to see ministries working together, and to get to be a part of that. It brings me great joy and I think God gets a kick out of it as well. It happens a lot at language school, before everyone gets pidgeon-holed into whatever specific denomination they're working with. Everyone unites around a common purpose - learning Spanish, medical work, rebuilding a house. MAF by its very design can't work except by partnering with other groups like these, that are open to working together with others. I'm realizing how crucial it is to work together like this as time goes on - and how rarely it happens. That's one thing I came out of language school firmly convinced of. I'll partner with anyone as often as I can.

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