Beyond Words - Language Blog

Language and Culture Book Recommendation:The Spirit Catches You And You Fall Down by Anne Fadiman

In the years that I’ve worked at ALTA, I’ve read a lot of literature about test design, validation techniques, and testing standards. Most of this literature comes in the form of dry, statistic-laden academic materials (apologies to all who enjoy statistic-laden academic materials), but one resource in particular stood out as informative as well as entertaining, and really put many aspects of what we deal with as a language company into focus. I refer to the book, The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down by Anne Fadiman. As the subtitle explains, Fadiman’s wonderful book tells the story of “a Hmong child, her American doctors, and the collision of two cultures.”

I won’t divulge too much because I feel it is a must-read for anyone interested in language and culture, but here are the basics: A child of refugee parents from Laos, Lia Lee, has severe epilepsy and is taken to a small county hospital in California for treatment. Both parties become frustrated when they find that the Western medical practices and Eastern cultural practices don’t mesh. The Hmong parents are deeply connected to their cultural beliefs, which involve spiritual practices to help their daughter, whereas the hospital’s physicians are deeply concerned about Lia receiving the proper dosages of the medications they have provided to calm her seizures. The title of the book underscores the struggle that they both face:

The spirit catches you and you fall down is the closest translation of the word seizure into the Hmong language. How can a physician impress the need to treat a condition upon individuals who don’t believe the body contains organs? How can these individuals impress it upon the physician that they believe their daughter would be better off using healing ceremonies versus watching her suffer the side effects caused by the medication being prescribed?

The reason this book impacted me the way it did is Fadiman’s way of illustrating, not just the occasional difficulty of translating certain words, but that certain concepts are difficult to translate across cultural divides. This is the reason why we use highly skilled translators in our translation division, and why we concern ourselves with cultural equivalence in our language testing. We need to make sure that what we produce not only meets our client’s expectations in terms of the words in black and white, but also that it reflects the layers of meaning across cultures.