Lost and Found In Translation

by Avesta Khursand

The office is filled with the sound of people typing, pausing, and typing only to pause again. One woman is working on the best way to translate a news piece into Dari, one of the languages spoken in Afghanistan. She asks a colleague, “What do you think is a good translation for the word ‘valid’?”

The other looks as though he is mentally shuffling through words, then asks, “What is the context?” before suggesting “qabeli etabar,” which in English means “worthy of trust.

In Persian, a language related to Dari, “valid” would be “mutabar”, according to Google Translate. In Dari, “mutabar” can also mean “rich”

These subtleties present an exquisite challenge when translating science and health topics, with all their complexities, for a population that, for the most part, is not educated.

So began my journey at Voice Of America.

In January 2014, I did an internship at VOA’s Afghan Service, and I did exactly what I had prepared for during my years of attending Stony Brook University.

I am a graduate student in the school of journalism and the school of nursing at Stony Brook University. My bachelor’s degrees, one in psychology and one in nursing, are both from Stony Brook. The graduate degree in journalism prepares one for communicating health, science and technology to the public and was an asset for this internship.

I enjoy my role as a health-care provider, and I am fascinated by the constant opportunity for learning and growth. Journalism classes have taught me to become an active participant in the health-care dialogue and to simplify information for the general public.

The ability to simplify complex science and health information is one of the most rewarding things I have gained during my time in the School of Journalism. One of the most useful courses that helped me acquire these skills was JRN 525, taught by Professor Elizabeth Bass and Professor Barbara Selvin. This six-credit course exposed me to many science and health topics and allowed for the opportunities to meet with leading scientists. It helped me learn not to get lost in the jargon and get the main message that is essential for science and health reporting. Most important, it taught me to ask important questions, questions that elicit information that readers and viewers find the most relevant and important.   I wanted to do this with a media platform and exponentially increase my ability to reach audiences. VOA offered that platform. It disseminates news to global audiences in 45 languages; three of them are ones I speak: Dari, Pashtu and, of course, English.

I was nervous when I arrived at VOA in Washington, D.C., not knowing what to expect. Once I was on the third floor, where the Afghan Service was, I was graciously welcomed and quickly made to feel at home. I got set up with an email and a computer and was quickly bombarded with emails in Dari, Pashtu and English about issues that were swirling in Afghanistan and around the world.  I was perplexed and overwhelmed, but geared up about thinking critically, and tried to answer some questions.

Afghanistan has a deficient health care system, and few people have access to the little care that there is. The topic of choice would have to be about prevention, given the limited or nonexistent resources available to this population. I kept my eyes open for this type of topic, and there it was.  I read a story about a heroin-addicted man who cut his wife’s lips and nose. The wife had refused to let him take her jewelry and sell it to buy heroin. This story was in the mainstream media as a story about the abuse towards women, but to me, it was also about addiction, given my knowledge of the heroin- addicted brain.

Once I decided on the topic, my research led me to the World Drug Report 2013, published by the United Nations Offices on Drug and Crime, which listed Afghanistan as the world’s leading opium producer and the one of the countries with the highest rate of drug abuse and addiction. I had a very short time to produce a package, and the goal was education and awareness. On many days, numerous phone calls and emails amounted to nothing. A handful of professionals in the field would show interest in being part of the project, but at the last minute would say they didn’t have time to meet for an interview. Snowstorms and government shutdowns slowed things even further.

Some changes were necessary because of the lack of time, but the essential element was the message that addiction is a disease and that availability of the drug and the environment are significant factors in raising the prevalence of addiction. In Afghanistan, addiction is viewed as a moral weakness, and scant attention is given to the treatment of addiction.  Those who eventually die due to their addiction are not even offered proper burials.

Those educational elements were delivered – in Dari –with the help of Voice of America staff. I came full circle. I used my health-care knowledge in assessing a population for risk factors and my journalism skills in delivering the message in the most appropriate method.