After being asked to translate for a Brazilian Shamanic healing consultation in Austria, Margret Jaeger reflects on medical pluralism and the ethics of cross-cultural health practices.
This is one of those stories about how anthropologists get involved in issues due to their competencies, with some critical reflection. It is not a piece of theoretical work or a deep analysis of an encounter. Rather, it is the story of two women of different origins who met once for a specific purpose – and what it meant for one of them.
I am an Austrian medical anthropologist who speaks Portuguese. Besides the academic work, I help to organize a Brazilian Arts and Culture festival in a beautiful Austrian rural town dedicated to the arts. This is important, because the links between those two jobs, both of which I like a lot, were not initially clear for me.
In April 2019, a Brazilian female Shaman (let´s call her Iara) and her son Miguel, who works as her assistant, were invited to the festival to represent indigenous cultures. One of the co-organizers, an indigenous woman herself, had organized a visit to the UN in Geneva for a group of Amazonian indigenous representatives. While I was originally asked to help with organizational issues and to be the interpreter of the guests’ talks at the festival, I ended up interpreting Shamanic consultations in a private house the day before the festival.
I limit my (voluntary) German-Portuguese translation work to within the contexts of Arts&Culture, the development of cooperation between the two countries, and healthcare. My approach follows Mary Snell-Hornby´s definition of ‘cultural translation’, “A term used formally to refer to types of translation which function as a tool for crosscultural or anthropological research, or indeed to any translation which is sensitive to cultural as well as linguistic factors… Thus a translator who uses a cultural approach is simply recognizing that each language contains elements which are derived from its culture (such as greetings, fixed expressions and REALIA [i]), that every text is anchored in a specific culture, and that conventions of the text production and reception vary from culture to culture” (Shuttleworth, 1997: 35).
Thursday early afternoon, after a three-hour drive to the festival town, I entered a private house with a huge garden. At the kitchen table on the first floor sat five Brazilian indigenous people waiting for lunch. They looked lost and tired. They had never left Brazil before. After an overnight flight to Geneva, they had spent 10 hours driving from Switzerland to Austria, and were about to receive their very first, totally strange, European food.
Was I in the right film? I had never worked with Brazilian indigenous people and had only talked once to an indigenous man at a cultural event. I had never studied the issues related to indigenous people in Brazil but knew about the problems they face with the government and society – from land robbery and workforce exploitation, to dying of ‘White man’s diseases’.
The festival organizer asked me to help interpret some health consultations with Iara, the Shaman who was invited to the festival, requested by local people. As an anthropologist, I did not feel comfortable with this request, thinking about the cultural appropriation of healing knowledge (Young: 2012). The organizers themselves had never heard this term, nor thought about its implications as far as I could tell. They wanted to fulfil people´s wishes; a demand possibly created by the organizers, to earn some money for the indigenous representatives.
The housewife was a alternative healing therapist and had arranged her therapy room on the ground floor for Iara to carry out the consultations. I introduced myself to Iara by explaining to her my experience in Brazil and with interpretation, to build trust for our co-work. Iara kindly told me some information about her ethnic group and her work as a Shaman. I was honored to help and expressed this. The room contained two chairs and a type of bed physiotherapists often use for their work. Before opening the door for the first person, she took off her shoes, stood by the window and did some prayer to her spirits. Taking off her shoes would connect her more to mother earth, she explained. I was happy that this therapy room had a warm wooden floor instead of cold ceramics. It was cold spring weather outside and I am always worried about the health of Brazilian guests who are not used to Austria’s cooler temperatures.
The five consultations all took the same form: the person sat on one chair; Iara always stood behind the person, touching their shoulders while she/he reported her/his health problems. She would then touch the mentioned body parts and ask some questions. After some minutes of silence, she would tell me what she thought and ask me to write down some herbal mixtures or other recommendations to the person. While Iara did the consultations, her son Miguel was upstairs in the kitchen, and whenever a client got a recipe from Iara, he would prepare that from the goods they brought with them.
I sat in front of the client (there was no other space in the tiny room). Calmly, I interpreted what each said to the other. It was a very calm atmosphere. I felt that a safe space was created, and I could see and hear from people´s body language and words that they also felt this. Yes, these were my feelings, but in such an intimate moment, everybody feels each other’s emotions (both positive and negative). Some people talked about long-lasting suffering; Iara commented on this when the person had left the room.
The first person, an elderly White lady, reported being diagnosed with osteoporosis. Others had a similar diagnosis. After an elderly man, who was visibly in pain, left the room, Iara looked at me and said (I will never forget this and took a note in my diary that evening), “They have White man´s diseases. Indigenous people do not have these problems. It is hard for me to give them advice.”
After three hours of consultations, we were both exhausted. While interpreting, I immediately forget most of the content because I interpret simultaneously, which requires a great deal of attention and energy. Iara seemed tired as well. She washed her hands and wanted some water.
My bad feelings about cultural appropriation returned later, when I debriefed the afternoon with my partner, who is a paramedic. I was more than exhausted; I was angry that the co-organizer did this to Iara, working for hours after having just arrived in a totally strange country and culture, without a chance to rest or even to chat and develop a relationship with the interpreter. Did we help the local people, bringing a healer from abroad who was willing to share her traditional approaches? Medical/healing practices are originally rooted in place and time – but the internet, money and modern travel make it easy to bring a tradition from afar to a totally different place. Whether I wanted to or not, accepting to interpret meant being part of this practice. Or, was this ‘simply’ exercising medical pluralism, that people requested and are part of their healthcare choices (Leslie, 1980)? I do not know. Globalization and its consequences, like fast and cheap mobility, make it possible to bring healers from one ‘knowledge world’ into another. The anthropologist inside me screams for discourse about this – but not here and now.
The experience was unique; it was a pleasure to be Iara’s voice to communicate with help-seeking people – but it was also a moment in which our educational background brings us to question what we did or were asked to do.
At the end of the festival, Iara and I had a final chat. She blessed me in her mother tongue and gave me the necklace she had used during the entire event. She advised me that nobody else is allowed to touch it and it should be my source of strength for the future. What does this gift mean to me? It reminds me of the importance of the gift that Marcel Mauss (2002) talked about (originally in 1923). In his work, Mauss stressed out how important the process of giving and receiving a gift, and reactions to it are, besides the monetary or sentimental value of something. It also reminds me of a very special moment being emerged in the practice of medical pluralism, in an unknown world, in a moment of trust and caring for others.
About the author
Margret Jaeger is an Austrian medical anthropologist who teaches healthcare students and professionals around the world. Her current research focuses on younger women’s experiences with osteoporosis and care, as well as health promotion, and nursing staff.
Festival: Brazil meets Gmünd. https://www.facebook.com/brazilmeetsgmund
Leslie, C. (1980). Medical pluralism in world perspective . Social Science & Medicine. Part B: Medical Anthropology, 14(4), 191-195.
Mauss, M. (2002). The gift: The form and reason for exchange in archaic societies. Routledge.
Shuttleworth, M., & Cowie, M. (1997). Dictionary of translation studies. Manchester: St. Jerome Publishing, 192, 193.
Young, J. O., & Brunk, C. G. (Eds.). (2012). The ethics of cultural appropriation. John Wiley & Sons.
[i] REALIA: things, items that are unique to a culture.