Language, Culture, and Medical Interpreting Tips

Language, Culture, and Medical Interpreting Tips

“The dead got on top of me?” This is an example of what medical interpreters may encounter in the course of their work.

As medical interpreters, we interpret for patients who have cultural beliefs that we may not be familiar with. To gain a better understanding of this, it may be helpful to define culture and values.

According to the Webster Dictionary:

Culture – “The totality of socially transmitted behavior, patterns, art, beliefs, institutions, and all other products of human work and thoughts.”

Values – “Beliefs of a person or social group in which they have an emotional investment (either for or against something).”

The Doctor entered the room and asked the patient, “Let’s see, what you are here for?” I interpreted the patient’s response word-for-word, “Well Doctor this is what happened to me: ‘The dead (man) got on top of me’”. I continued with my interpretation even though I did not understand the patients’ meaning at that time.

“What do you mean by that?” the Doctor replied. The patient started to explain, “I was sleeping and something awoke me. I couldn’t talk. My body was not responding (Atonia). I felt like I couldn’t breathe (Dyspnea) and like a heavy body was on top of me. This was a dead person that was looking for me to take my breath away. I felt like I was dying. I was so afraid that I decided to see a witch doctor for help. I explained what had happened to me and she started to burn certain sticks and plants, and lit a circle of candles. She told me to stand in the middle of the circle and proceeded to spray some sort of liquid on me. She told me everything was going to go away but it happened again and that’s why I decided to ask you for help.”

The Doctor very patiently said, “You know, I’ve had patients who’ve had the same problem you are having right now and what they had is a phenomenon called sleep paralysis or post-dormital paralysis. This occurs when people who are either falling asleep or waking up temporarily experience an inability to move or breathe. Even though you are totally conscious, you experience strange sensations like the feeling of weight on top of you.” The patient went home satisfied with the Doctor’s explanation.

There are myths, legends, folklore, and other cultural beliefs in North America, Central America, South America, the Caribbean, and upon further investigation I found out that even in the rest of the world there are countries that have cultural beliefs about the same phenomenon but with a different interpretation.

For example, in Scandinavian Folklore, sleep paralysis is caused by a mare, (a damned woman who is cursed by a supernatural creature related to incubi and succubi). The body of this woman is mysteriously carried away during sleep and without her noticing. In this state, she visits villagers and sits on their rib cages while they are asleep, causing them to experience nightmares.

According to folk belief in Newfoundland, South Carolina, and Georgia, the figure of a hag who leaves her physical body at night and sits on the chest of her victim is described. The victim wakes with a feeling of terror and has difficulty breathing because of a perceived heavy invisible weight on his or her chest, and is unable to move. This nightmare experience is described as being “hag ridden”.

In Nigeria among the Nigerians of African descent (within African communities) it is often referred to as having “The Devil on your back”. In Southern parts of the United States, elders refer to it as the “witch riding your back”.

And so I leave you with the challenge to learn more about the term: “The dead got on top of me” and the associated phenomenon. I wasn’t able find an established translation for this term after reading about and researching this subject. How would I interpret it next time? How about using a combination of terms I came across in my research: “The dead man was riding me”.

What do you think?



Comment ( 1 )

  • Michelle McCoy

    Great Article!

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