Translation and the exegesis of terms in transcultural biographical research
Institute for Religion, Philosophy and Society Southern Norway Hospital Trust / University of Agder Kristiansand, Norway
The paper addresses issues of meaning and translation that have arisen in an on-going PhD project, Trauma and Resilience - a Refugee Perspective. The project directs the salutogenetic question - not, why are these people sick, but why are they healthy? - to three samples of survivors of the Khmer rouge period who seem to be doing "remarkably well" (Antonovsky, 1987:64).
The fact that the interview data came into being as Khmer text brought up the need for a special form of analysis. The biographical accounts of the research participants are recorded in Khmer, together with translations to either Norwegian or English. The translation process raised the issue of the exact meaning of words even more pressingly than usual. The answer to the dilemma was an exegetical analysis of the words: during a back-translation session an interpreter, in double-checking the work of another interpreter, revealed the layer-upon-layer meanings of seemingly simple Khmer concepts. This was a revelation. Later I found the process described as exegesis in the work of Richard Mollica (theologian and psychiatrist) as satisfying the need to make as explicit as possible the precise meaning of a passage. "This uncovering process and seeking of the historical origins and meanings of words and phrases that can bring [us] closer to the world of the actual storyteller" (Mollica, 2006). In Mollica, the focus is on words used to describe traumatic events; here it is on words used to describe events and values - not only in traumatic situations, but also in everyday life - which are analysed to yield up their multiple levels of cultural meaning.
In this process of multiple back-translation it has become clear, not only that a number of central terms have layer upon layer of meanings, but also that these terms are in some way bearers of answers to the salutogenic question. The paper will give empirical examples and trace the argumentation leading to this conclusion.