Lost In Translation

Posted by Abdel Kadz on Saturday, February 13, 2010 with 5 comments

I remember back when my siblings and I were kids, our parents enrolled us in the madrasa (Arabic for school) to learn how to read and write Arabic. The course was basic enough; it included the Arabic alphabet, numerals, and some commonly used terms. We also did some memorizations of the surahs, the chapters of the Holy Quran, and learned the steps of the prayers and what to say with each movement. I only finished kindergarten--I believe back then it was called grade zero--and I never did learn to read, write, and speak Arabic fully. It is a shame, I admit, not knowing the language that is the heart and soul of the religion I belong to. What little I know of Arabic are all memorized, including the prayers, and what they mean I only know from the English translations that came with the books and pamphlets I committed to memory. However, this memory failed me when the opportunity came where I needed to work, live, and mingle with people who were native Arabic speakers.

I am thankful, even with this minor blunder, that most of my Arab patients are good English speakers. This is because most of the patients accommodated by the hospital are employees of the massive petrochemical plants that surrounded the area. They are educated and a few, although with some difficulty, can convey what they wanted to say through the use of English as a medium. But it’s not always a walk in the park, so to speak, and oh how I dread the time when I get to meet those who know little English, especially teenagers and very old Arabs, because the language barrier is as altitudinous as the Tower of Babel that even with effort on my part and the patient's, we're both lost in translation.

My first few months were challenging as far as conversing with Arab patients went. To make my job easier, my colleagues were more than happy to teach me words commonly used in the physical therapy setting, like harara (heat), barid (cold), karaba (electricity), nom ala daharik (lie down facing up), nom ala batnik (lie on your tummy), kullu kuwais (everything is fine) , sawi (do), tamarin (exercise), fok (up), tahad (down), zehada (more), kallas (finished), the Arabic numerals, how to tell time, and other words commonly used in daily Arabic conversation. And as the calendar incessantly flipped from month to month, I began to gradually broaden my Arabic vocabulary, though there were instances that I just keep mum to save me and my patient that arduous task where we understand neither what one of us was blabbing. It would be great if it were the other way around since I usually engage my patients in chitchats (PT treatments last for 30-45 minutes and I'd rather strike a conversation than awkwardly looking at each other while hearing crickets chirping in the background).

I'm happy to say that almost a year has passed and I'm able to understand basic Arabic and can explain to patients PT procedures and instructions in performing exercises tailor-fitted according to their conditions. I envy my female PT colleagues, though, as their grasp of Arabic is exceptional. This is because most Saudi women don't speak English, so they have to learn the language for them to carry their functions accordingly. Still, I want to speak Arabic well--writing is something I look forward to learning too--and I even bought myself instructional DVD software to be self-taught in the language from the comfort of my room. Albeit it would have been best to go to the madrasa to learn Arabic old-school, going back to grade zero and sitting through the class with five-year-olds at my age would have been a funny scene especially made for a movie.


Image (edited with pun intended) is from the critically acclaimed Lost In Translation starring Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson.