New Scientist has a piece on culture and psychological distress by Ethan Watters, the same chap who wrote the recent and widely discussed New York Times article on the ‘globalisation of mental illness’. This new article looks at similar territory but also pulls out some examples of where concepts and symptoms don’t translate well between different societies.
The meaning matters as much as the event,” says Ken Miller, a psychologist at Pomona College, Claremont, California, who studied in Afghanistan and elsewhere the reactions to war trauma.
He found many psychological reactions that were not on any western PTSD symptom list, and a few with no ready translation into English. In Afghanistan, for example, there was asabi, a type of nervous anger, and fishar-e-bala, the sensation of agitation or pressure.
Giathra Fernando, a psychologist at California State University, Los Angeles, also found culturally distinct psychological reactions to trauma in post-tsunami Sri Lanka. By and large, Sri Lankans didn’t report pathological reactions in line with the internal states making up most of the west’s PTSD checklist (hyperarousal, emotional numbing and the like). Rather, they tended to see the negative consequences of tragic events in terms of damage to social relationships. Fernando’s research showed the people who continued to suffer were those who had become isolated from their social network or who were not fulfilling their role in kinship groups. Thus Sri Lankans conceived the tsunami damage as occurring not inside their minds but outside, in the social environment.
It’s probably worth mentioning that this goes both ways and there are many everyday psychological concepts in English and Western society that don’t translate well into other languages.
Some of these become obvious when you read studies that have attempted to translate questionnaires originally in English into other languages.
For example, here’s an excerpt from a study that translated a mental health questionnaire from the World Health Organisation into Urdu:
This item [“Do you have trouble thinking clearly?”] presented considerable problems in translation. It measures the disturbance in concentration and cognition associated with depressive disorders. We could not find an exact substitute for the term, “clear thinking” in colloquial Urdu, and the nearest semantic and technically equivalent term that was acceptable in back translation was “wazay soch bichar”
Unfortunately, it doesn’t say what ‘wazay soch bichar’ is in English, so if you’re an Urdu speaker do get in touch as I’d love to find out.
It’s also often the case that words such as ‘anxiety’ may have a related word in another language but the sensations associated with it are not the same.
The New Scientist piece, taken from a forthcoming book by Watters, argues that Western concepts are now being exported around the world and local people are increasingly describing mental and social distress in terms of Western, and particularly, American, diagnoses.
UPDATE: Many thanks to Mind Hacks reader Matt for getting in touch with the translation:
i have a translation of ‘wazay soch bichar’ for you. my colleague nasir says the literal translation of it is ‘obvious thinking’ and agrees there is no direct translation of ‘thinking clearly’ in urdu and that ‘wasay….’ is the best available.
Link to ‘How the US exports its mental illnesses’.