Disaster Outreach in Mexico
This summer I had the opportunity to travel to Villahermosa, Mexico to do disaster relief outreach work with my mentor Gargi Roysircar and two other Antioch students. Villahermosa, the capital of the state of Tabasco, was affected by significant flooding in late October and early November of 2007. The purpose of our trip was to reach out to the affected community in order to offer support and empowerment. Dr. Roysircar was gracious enough to conduct a self-care workshop for disaster responders and volunteers as well as lectures on culturally sensitive treatments versus empirically supported ones for the psychology department faculty and students at the University of Juarez in Tabasco.
I had never before traveled to Mexico in this capacity. I was born in Mexico but have lived in the United States since the age of three. My family has always traveled to Mexico at least once a year to celebrate Christmas with the rest of the family. We have also done much traveling and vacationing around different parts of the country, but I had never been to Tabasco before.
When preparing for this trip, I was well aware that I was the only member of our group who was fluent in Spanish. I never imagined, however, the incredible responsibility and leadership position this created for me during our outreach work.
For much of the trip, I had to translate information back-and-forth between our team and the people we were working with. I never truly realized how much skill is required in order to switch back-and-forth between languages for extended periods of time. I have always had great admiration for bilinguals but had never experienced the role of a translator.
Taking on this role for our team resulted in my becoming incredibly mentally exhausted. I believe it took a different type of thinking to do this work. Although I thoroughly enjoyed translating, and felt in fact, privileged to do so, most days I ended up feeling drained. The best way I can think of describing this feeling to someone who has not experienced it before would be: it feels as if you have been working on a very difficult crossword puzzle for hours on end. It was not until conversing with my team members, during our end of the day process groups, that I realized the toll this was taking on me.
Dr. Roysircar reminded me that we had to practice what we came to share with others; that is, we must not forget the self-care we should be practicing ourselves. After this discussion, I made it a point to try to take small breaks when possible, and when other people who were capable of translating were available, I tried to turn my ‘translation mode’ to off.
This trip really left me curious and fascinated with translation. There was a funny instance where I felt my brain kind of ‘short-circuited’ on me. We were in a meeting with the secretary of health, and I was translating between Dr. Roysircar and this government official. There was a point where I began to translate Dr. Roysircar’s words to this man from English, to English! It was very comical because I did not even notice I was speaking English until everyone started giggling. In my head, I was confident I was speaking Spanish to the man, but the words coming out of my mouth were English!
For Dr. Roysircar’s lectures, we hired a professional translator. I consider that she did a wonderful job. I believe the skill a translator possesses must encompass many different abilities. First, one must be capable of retaining a good amount of information in one’s memory when translating in order to not interrupt the person speaking so frequently. Second, the translator must have a tremendously sharp recall memory. When translating, one is not typically using words or phrasing ideas in a manner that is natural or familiar to one’s day-to-day language. One must be able to pick up the speaker’s vocabulary and instantly pull those words out of one’s archived memory. I believe that to be one of the most mentally exercising activities that I have ever experienced. Finally, one must not only have a vast understanding and control of vocabulary in both languages, but many times, the order of words or way ideas are phrased is very different between languages. The translator must not only have the ability to rapidly recall the correct words, but also order them in a way that flows naturally in the language to which they are translating.
I am sure there are many other skills a translator must possess that I have not mentioned above, but these are some of the thoughts I have had after reflecting on my personal translating experience upon my return from the trip.
I consider participating in this trip and doing this type of work invaluable experiences in my training as a psychologist. As one may notice, I was absolutely fascinated by the language/translation component, but more importantly, I am thrilled by the fact that our team was able to absorb and embrace this culture so sensitively. Immersing ourselves into a place where we were able to practice the multicultural counseling competencies we learned about at school was truly rewarding, and I believe also accounts for how successful our work in Mexico was.