Sunday, 9 September 2012

Gremlins, monkeys & mischievous spirits

I have a very good friend who has been working for several years as a translator and interpreter. She's highly professional, loves what she does, and seems to earn a decent living doing it. If you know who I'm talking about, or live anywhere within a 10 mile radius of central Brighton, you'll have heard the distinct sound of her blowing her own trumpet. And so she should. She has great hair, is well respected in the linguistic world and has a serious and enthusiastic following in the blogosphere. At least, so she tells me. I've certainly enjoyed talking to her about my encounters with the language barrier whilst in Sri Lanka; the joys of painstakingly clambering over it, cunningly negotiating a way around it, or just clumsily ploughing headlong into it. However, I must also admit to some friendly teasing over the years in view of what appears to be a fairly easy gig. can speak a couple of languages and type a bit! But I mean, really! How hard can it be? In truth she seems to spend more time drinking coffee, lunching, or hanging out at geeks & their games dot com than she does doing actual work. However, my time in Sri Lanka has highlighted just how much skill is required in the trade. So, perhaps the refreshments and games of scrabble are deserved after all! She has been pestering me for some time now to dedicate a blog post to her line of work, so here goes.

I've been working with a couple of the occupational therapists at the hospital to run a group for people who hear voices as part of a mental illness. The group aims to provide a non-judgemental space for people to discuss their experiences and also attempts to normalise them to some extent. The stigma surrounding such things remains shockingly present. And yet, did you know that up to 10% of people across the world have experienced voices; that a number of talented and well-known people past and present have heard voices; that it is not always a sign of mental illness, and that many people can lead meaningful and fulfilling lives despite hearing voices? And, be honest, have you really never heard or seen something that others around you did not? I for one had an unshakable fever-induced belief in the imminent destruction of the world after watching an episode of Knight Rider as a kid. It was one of the most terrifying couple of hours I have ever endured. But that's whole other blog post. The point is, focusing on these experiences purely from a medical perspective is not always helpful. Most importantly, the group teaches new skills to tolerate difficult experiences and encourages individuals to take positive steps towards their values and goals in life.

It's the first time such a group has been run at the hospital and I feel very pleased to be involved in it. I am extremely grateful to my UK and VSO colleagues for providing resources, advice and peer support. Running a group like this is hard work at the best of times, but this has been particularly challenging as I am facilitating the sessions through an interpreter. This is a completely new experience for me and I've been especially glad to know my trumpet blowing friend who has been able to offer me some insider top tips. As funds for interpreters aren't so easy to come by, one of the OT's is stepping into this role. Whilst he is not a professional interpreter, he appears to be taking it in his stride and doing a great job.

In order that we stay as true as possible to the original concepts, we have been having some interesting discussions. One of the most fascinating has involved a long conversation about gremlins. I don't mean the fluffy but evil mogwais from the 1984 film of the same name, but rather gremlins in general; those imaginary mischievous sprites thought to be responsible for unexplained problems. One of the sessions shared by my UK colleague used the metaphor of a gremlin to represent those unwanted experiences we can all have. Participants are asked to imagine their voices are like having a gremlin telling them unpleasant or upsetting things. They are then encouraged to consider how they might manage this irritating visitor. The main point is that we do not have to listen to the gremlin, do what it tells us or believe that what it says. Whilst it is helpful to acknowledge their presence, we can end up giving them power they do not deserve. If we instead refuse to engage with them on any meaningful level, it is possible to put more energy into the things which are important to us.

Are you still following me? I hope so. Well, it turns out that gremlin is not a word or concept that has made it's way into Sri Lankan culture. And so, we were faced with a linguistic quandary. I was rather pleased with my idea of changing it to a monkey. Whilst not invisible, they are certainly mischievous and often unseen. They seem to cause all sorts of problems here in Sri Lanka, be it looting a shop of it's wares or cheekily swiping snacks left out on the balcony. However, this suggestion was met with an unimpressed silence. I was reminded that for many people in Sri Lanka, monkeys have a sacred status. So, that wont do then! Returning to the definition of a gremlin, we went on to discuss sprites, elves, fairies, imps, ghosts and ghouls.

By now, a huddle of interested staff had gathered around us. The first suggestion from the group was that of a boothaya. In Sri Lankan culture, there is a strong belief in karma; if someone has been bad in life, they might come back as some kind of spirit. One such spirit is a boothaya, thought to cause trouble to the living but also capable of good deeds. This was therefore dismissed in favour of a yakshia. The yakshia, emerging from the same karmic process, is also a spirit. However, it is considered to be much more problematic and never the source of good deeds. If someone is having difficulties in life, they might attribute them to a yakshia. It seemed to fit. And so this is what we settled on. But not without a certain amount of trepidation on my part.

I was concerned about how the translation might be misunderstood by the group, so much so I considered removing the whole session. I was especially anxious that we might reinforce certain unhelpful beliefs; for example, that mental illness is the result of bad karma and some kind of punishment for bad deeds. This was certainly not the idea! The gremlin was intended purely as a metaphor, a tool to help people understand their inner experiences, and I wasn't totally convinced that the yakshia would be taken in this way. And so, I quizzed and questioned my colleagues and Sri Lankan friends. And then I quizzed them some more. I was reassured again and again that yakshia was a suitable translation and that my concerns were not founded. In the end, I had to trust them.

I'm pleased to report that the session appeared to go well and people seemed to get it. However, this whole experience has made me realise just how much responsibility and power is held by the translator/interpreter and how much trust is placed in them. Perhaps it's not such an easy gig after all! If you are Sri Lankan and reading this, perhaps you have another suggestion? I'd be interested to hear it. If you are a translator or interpreter, hats off to you. Go treat yourself to a fancy lunch and pour yourself another coffee. You deserve it!


  1. This interpreter friend of yours sounds lovely, you must introduce her to me when you come back!

    About the boothaya/yakshia distinction. So, so interesting, and a good example of the tricky choices us interpreters have to make on the hoof, while conveying what the speaker said 10 seconds before and listening to what they’re saying and that we’ll need to interpret next. At least when we’re doing written translation, we can take our time to reflect on all the different possibilities, which is why long lunch and coffee breaks are so essential to our work.

    1. Yes, you'd like her. Perhaps we can all go out for a long lunch together when I return? She'll buy. She's ever so generous and has a gold plated magic credit card.

  2. If you google 'Yakshia Sri Lanka' your blog comes up second, after wikipedia! How cool is that Beth? I was going to look up more about what it means but was so excited to have such a brilliant and now famous blog writing friend that I was distracted and just had to tell you....
    That friend of yours, I'm wondering if she is paying you for this blog, seems to be some coded message in the lunch and credit card references? I'm not sure you should trust her. I better come along to the long lunch (that she's buying) too just to make sure you're ok! xx

    1. Great. Yes, she'll not mind an extra person for lunch. She loves spending her hard earned cash. It makes her very very happy. x

  3. Totti
    So very interesting Beth! Karma - isn't it a wonderful thing! I think your blogs are truly fantastic! I will come along to the lunch too particularly as your Interpreter friend might be paying and the fact that it would make her very happy. Let me know the date? ;-) xx

  4. You are on! She'll be delighted. See you then x