Photo credit: Paul Middleton

Words fail us so often I marvel we trust them at all. And that happens when two people speak the same language and share a common culture. The failure of words can be “epic” (to be current) when you throw a variety of languages and diverse cultures into the mix.

Yesterday, I was dumbfounded by the realization that a Portuguese word I have been using for years—a word that I grew up understanding since I learned Portuguese as a child/teenager, and that is even in our health manual—is not well understood in the local context.  This is how I found out…

A gentleman who works here at the mission has a teenage daughter who was in hospital several months back for a miscarriage and seizures. The seizures were not new but had become worse with the pregnancy. She was discharged on the usual short-term supply of anti-seizure medication that is given here. Seizures are surprisingly commonplace in these parts, due in part to the tropical illnesses that lend themselves to the condition. So treatment is more focused on treating possible underlying causes like malaria, bilharzia, etc. than it is on identifying and treating a possible case of epilepsy. Besides, the most effective meds for its control are unavailable here.But getting back to the story.

I had heard via the grapevine that this young lady was still having seizures and I wanted to do what I could to help her. So I sought this man out to find out more. I approached him recently and asked, “Is your daughter still having a ‘convulsão’ (seizure, or convulsion) periodically?”
“No.” He said.
“Oh, I heard that she was. So she’s healthy again and not having any problems?”
“Well no, she still has problems. At times she falls down and shakes, then sleeps for awhile, then is weak for the rest of the day.”
“I see. But when I asked if she has the periodic ‘convulsão’, you first said ‘no’. Did you know what I meant when I asked about a ‘convulsão’?”
“Well…I’m not really sure what a ‘conversão’ (conversion) is.” He said.

Hmm. So I decide to consult another gentleman. “Mr. R., I have a question for you.” (Mr. R. is used to my strange questions already so he takes a deep breath and looks at me inquisitively.) “If I say the word “convulsão” to you, what do you understand that to be? I mean, what is a convulsão?”

A few pensive moments pass. First, he looks down and shuffles his feet. Then, “Hmmm. Well…” He glances up and weighs his response as he squints past me to the rooftop and beyond. “I think the word ‘convulsão’ means confusão (Portuguese for ‘confusion’).”
“Ok. So convulsão means confusion?”
“Thank you Mr. R.”

The light is beginning to dawn on me that there are likely others, possibly many of them, who also don’t know what the word convulsão means. Actually, they’re confusing it with “confusion”. Portuguese isn’t their home language, just as it isn’t mine, so that’s especially understandable. It does have some important implications for me, however.

I decide to consult one other guy who has done more schooling than the other two. I pose the same question to him. He takes a few moments to turn it over in his mind, then looks at me squarely and says, “I am not familiar with the word.”

Now that I have 3 very curious guys on my hands, I describe the scenario in question. “Ohhh!!!” They say as they chuckle, “You mean ataques (attacks)? Oh yes, we know ataques. We’ve all seen them many times.”

Ok, so, I have just been educated. And pretty much have some serious revamping to do on the section on convulsions in the (pending) 2nd edition of our health manual! Not to mention the revamping I need to do in simple conversation and teaching from here on out any time I need to discuss seizures or convulsions.

The next day, still a bit incredulous that I could be so oblivious that I was using a largely unfamiliar word on a regular basis, I decide to ask someone who works in the health sector that self same question. “What is a convulsão?” His response… “Doesn’t it mean ‘confusão’ (confusion)?”

Well yes, apparently it does.

Working across languages and cultures has its challenges. But those are not insurmountable so long as I remember that others don’t always understand what I’m saying nearly as clearly as I understand myself!