The Great Migration: Where I've been

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Cultural Dictionary

“Culture” is such a pretty word. “Inter –cultural” has such a nice ring. “Cultural exchange” conjures images of bright-colored clothing and trading hamburgers for curry. But culture is complicated and intricate and unyielding: every day in Colombia I am reminded that language and culture are so much more subtle than dictionary definitions and gastronomic choices.

In my work at Kidsave, I am essentially the liaison between the Los Angeles and Bogotá offices. At its most basic, this means that I am a translator—I translate family studies, child profiles, email communication, phone calls, psychological evaluations, whatever needs to be done. But I am finding that I must translate far more than words, which, make no mistake, is hard enough.

The word “adecuada” for example is a constant source of internal conflict. One might want to say “adequate”, which is one dictionary translation. But to me, in English the word “adequate” means “enough” or “sufficient.” I often find that the Spanish word in contexts where the meaning is more along the lines of “proper” or “good enough.” For example, a child that is neither malnourished nor obese has an “adecuada” weight. If I translate it as “adequate,” will I get across the right meaning? How much am I allowed to alter the words in my translation so that the meaning is properly understood? I’m sure a professional translator would have something to say on the subject, but I have made my skill level and lack of professional or any other type of experience no secret to my employers since day one.

Whether a child’s weight is adequate or proper may not be a deal breaker, but other things are. The story of the day is the approval of a potential host family in the States; let’s call them the Jolie family to protect their privacy. La Senora Angelina Jolie is a business executive, has been married for three years, and volunteers at a shelter for sex workers as well as the Make a Wish Foundation. She mentored a boy from the States as part of Kidsave’s Weekend Miracles program for three years and has been approved to adopt in Los Angeles County. So far so good. However, she’s had a few bumps in the road. Twenty-five years ago, when she was in her late teens, she tried cutting herself. She was subsequently hospitalized for a month. Furthermore, seven years ago, Angelina’s sister and two nieces were attacked by the sister’s boyfriend, and one of her niece’s was killed. The social worker who conducted the study reported that Angelina is very stable and completely ready to host, but should receive bereavement therapy should she move forward to adopt. Both her private agency social worker and Los Angeles County social worker have approved her as ready to participate.

But ICBF, child protective services here in Colombia, is worried. They won’t approve the Jolie family to participate unless Angelina can get a note from a psychologist or psychiatrist confirming her stable mental state and ability to participate. As we need to know the final list of participating families a week ago and such a letter will take at least a week, in addition to costing a good deal of money, we have a problem. Let the barrage of emails and phone calls begin.

It soon becomes clear that there was a communication problem, and not just because of my stuttery Spanish. Cutting, it turns out, is not well understood in Colombia. Apparently this subject of many a Hallmark channel afterschool special and the affliction of every Degrassi character possible is practically non-existent among Colombian adolescents, even those living in institutions (read: orphanages). Even something as intrinsic as the expression of pain is culturally constructed, it seems. Despite my very best explanations, “cutting of wrists” was understood as attempted suicide. Serious business indeed.

So they came to blows. My authority, practically non-existent, quickly proved insufficient for my boss in the States, Lauren, who demanded to speak to the Executive Director of the Colombia program, Martha. For Martha, my main function is to absorb all of the shrapnel from Lauren’s demands that are intended for her, and keep Lauren from contacting her directly at all costs. I usually serve my purpose well. This time, however, I didn’t prove strong enough to stem the flood of Lauren’s persistence. Lauren called her own boss over, Aleyda and Maria Fernanda, the only other people in the Colombia office, joined in, and we all had a fun little international conference call via Skype.

Lauren always tells me, “Hayley, make sure they understand. I don’t think they understand. Make them understand.” I have been told separately by Martha, Aleyda, and Maria Fernanda on multiple occasions that “Lauren doesn’t understand anything.” Understanding is a delicate concept. As far as I understand, this kind of work is not about mistranslations—using the wrong word, the difference between adequate and sufficient. It is about misinterpretations. Martha got her master’s at Harvard—her English is just fine. But her years in the States do not make her American, and will not allow her to understand like a local how we operate, hard as she tries, just as a few months in Colombia does not make me an expert in navigating Colombian culture.

Which brings me to our next cultural snafu. The decision that the Jolie family would need this psyche letter in order to participate came from Maria Carolina, a young social worker at ICBF, who went through a carefully organized and scripted process, including a meeting with other psychologists, to come to this conclusion. In Colombia, protocol is very important. Authority is respected and organizations are very hierarchical. People are annoyingly polite—directness is neither practiced nor appreciated. Every phone call, no matter how urgent, must begin with a slew of pleasantries. Every email must begin with most humble of apologies for bothering the receiver to do their job. Translated emails from Aleyda are long, drawn-out affairs, full of formal jargon that I must fastidiously look up. Emails between Lauren and I are clipped and to the point, and often include snide remarks or snarky jokes—some of which I end up attempting to translate for Aleyda’s benefit. Lauren will have none of this formality. She will send direct email after direct email, she will try to jump to the top of the food chain to get what she wants, and she is constantly trying to cut corners and avoid protocol to get things done. Lauren may or may not be the norm in the States, but her go-getter attitude and refusal to accept no as an answer is something to be commended, when it’s not making you crazy. Here, she is constantly on the verge of offending Kidsave’s allies to the point of severing ties and stopping their work all together.

So in our conference call, she and her boss Randi implored us to get ICBF to change its mind about the Jolie family. But as Martha explained to me, it is not about throwing your weight around to get what you want. You must follow the proper channels and negotiate. The idea that we could obtain the approval by the force of our persistence and Martha’s authority is completely culturally inappropriate—an odd concept in a country so fraught with corruption that it is a national joke. Martha explained to me privately how offensive Lauren’s claims can be; Lauren, without a college degree, Martha was careful to point out, does NOT know better than the Colombian government. This is not a banana republic, she assured me. ICBF’s decisions must be respected. Lauren, on the other hand, was aghast that a young social worker who has never met this family thinks she knows better than the team of social workers working directly with the family in California who think the family is suitable to adopt. Lauren is worried about the family’s financial contributions being at stake, Martha says under her breath. Martha doesn’t work hard enough in Kidsave’s interests, Lauren implies. The best translator in the world is still only translating words—how do you translate egos, power plays, and cultural norms? It is hard enough to read the silent language of human communication when we are all speaking the same verbal language. When we are thousands of miles apart speaking two languages via unreliable Skype connection, it’s a miracle the project survives.

Translation is an incredibly important job that I take very seriously. Every individual involved trusts you to express correctly what is being communicated. A tiny mistake can mean the difference between a child traveling to the states, getting adopted, and having a whole new world opened up to him or her, and the child aging out of the system at 18 and returning to the poverty and danger of the streets they were picked up from. That may sound dramatic, but we are playing with lives. I have no doubt that every person I work with has the best interest of the kids at heart—but we are all humans plagued with human folly, whether it be of ego, stubbornness, or good old fashioned misunderstanding.


Ali Littman said...

Wow hayley so how did it end? Your stories enrapture me and you are sharing with me a part of the world I knew little about. I can't imagine a better communicator than you to do this if you would only reply back to me on skype ;)

Julia H. said...

Wonderful observations, of course. I think your skill set (empathy, compassion, sensitivity) is so well suited to this position! Hope it all works out with everyone. xoxo

Adam Stooke said...

Very interesting observations! This reminds me of one of those long drawn out Malcolm Gladwell lectures I heard about some sort of social phenomenon. In this case it was regarding airline safety, and how the structure and weight of hierarchy in different cultures affected interactions between pilots and copilots. I think it was a south American country he was focusing on who, because of the strict respect for authority, experienced an increased rate of incidents (commercial jetliner crashes!). Their copilots were meek in alerting the pilots to danger, and the pilots sometimes ignored the warnings repeatedly. The good news is, they eventually figured out that this was why they were having way more accidents than everyone else, and they successfully implemented a training program to adjust the pilot/copilot relationship and reduced their crash rate. But back to your story...sounds to me like you're not just learning how to be a translator, you're practicing being an ambassador! Maybe when you come home you should introduce yourself to the state department, that sounds fun!

Debbiskis said...

This has nothing to do with cultural differences, adoption, kids, bosses, Bogata or Skype, but are you coming home for Jeffrey & Amy's wedding? (But I do so LOVE your blogs!!!)