Lost in Translation

A SALT participant in Bangladesh explores differences in communication—and finds herself teaching a nursing class

A large group of students

Language is fascinating. It’s not simply words that mean certain things. It’s not merely a method of communication or a way of conveying ideas. Language is culture. The way things are said and the words chosen convey the values of that culture.

Like saying, “Bhat keyechen?” or “You ate rice?”, in Bangla to ask if you have eaten that day, which, if you have eaten, it was definitely rice. There are no other food options. In Bangla the word for sad is “mon kerap,” or “bad mind.” The word for sickness/disease is “rog” and the word for thin/skinny is “roga.” There is no word for “miss,” as in, “I will miss you.” They simply use the English word and say “Ami ‘miss’ corbo,” or “I will do a miss.” A teacher takes a test and the student gives a test. That one is the complete opposite of English.

Two young women work to pull weeds in a garden
Stephanie and Sister Eti pull weeds in a field of lal shak—a red, leafy vegetable used in many curries. MCC photo/Stephanie Sladbach Brubaker

Language cannot be mastered outside of the culture in which the language was born. Some knowledge of the culture must be known to understand the language. Word-for-word translation doesn’t always convey the meaning of a statement.

So, when I was asked if I would like to visit and take class at the new Nursing Institute that the Salesian Sisters opened this year, I immediately agreed. I was so excited to be able to see how nursing classes are taught in Bangladesh.

“So which classes are you going to take? There’s physiology, anatomy, microbiology, English…”

“I don’t know, which ones do you teach?”

“You could take Fundamentals of Nursing. I teach that one, but I will be busy with finding donors, so you can take it.”

I started getting a slight inkling that I had agreed to something that I did not understand.

“You mean you would like me to teach the class?”

“Well yes, you can do it all in English; all the classes are taught in English. It will be good practice for them to learn from a native English speaker. So you will take fundamentals of nursing?”

I had two seconds to decide if I wanted to back out of this agreement under the pretense that I had misunderstood the initial request, or just go with it, even though I wasn’t qualified to be a nursing professor. I chose the latter. I mean, one class? It would be fun!

Three nurses in white work with a newborn baby
Stephanie, Sister Supina and Sister Eti tie off the umbilical cord of a baby boy born by flashlights and candles after the power went out. MCC photo/Stephanie Sladbach Brubaker

When I arrived at the Nursing Institute I received the schedule of when I would “take” class. Tuesday at 2, Wednesday at 10 and 2 and Thursday at 10, before I would head off to Dhaka for the weekend. Not quite what I expected or wished for, but God gave me an open mind and courage to undertake what I felt was way outside my qualifications.

And, thankfully, I got my hands on the national guide for nursing institutes with a list of what the students needed to learn, and a Fundamentals of Nursing textbook. I was also thankful I had saved so many of my PowerPoints from school that I could reference.

I walked into my first class to 30 smiling, expectant faces. I think both sides of the equation were a bit nervous: them, because I was going to speak to them in English, and me, because I was going to speak to them."

Stephanie Sladbach Brubaker

I walked into my first class to 30 smiling, expectant faces. I think both sides of the equation were a bit nervous: them, because I was going to speak to them in English, and me, because I was going to speak to them.

Though there were quite a few switch-ups during class, I had so much fun teaching them! Not everything I thought would be a great idea turned out to be a great idea. Like one plan to have the students form groups and create skits demonstrating the different roles of a nurse, which I quickly realized (before even proposing the idea) was a bit too extreme a difference from their normal rote learning style.

We learned a lot—though some of it may have just been learning how to understand my U.S. accent! By the end of my time with them, including three additional classes when I returned from the weekend in Dhaka, we had examined the multifaceted nursing profession, the history of nursing and even some methods of therapeutic communication.

Three child play together. One child is pulling another in a makeshift sled
Salgi, Tina and Orpah make use of a fallen tree during play time. MCC photo/Stephanie Sladbach Brubaker

Most importantly, I had the opportunity to meet 30 nursing students that have a passion and desire to learn how to be the best nurses they can be. My favorite part of class was having them do a free-write (also a new concept that took a while to explain) about why they wanted to be nurses. Their answers were inspiring. They will make big changes in the Bangladesh healthcare system.

I am now back in my village and have returned to working in the clinic and teaching English to the boarding school girls. I may go again in the future to teach at the Nursing Institute, but for now I am happy to be back home. I am continuously learning more about the Bangladeshi culture and language and having fun with the things that get lost in translation.

I am learning that I should always be ready to do something or go somewhere on a moment’s notice because, chances are, I missed the information the first time around. But that’s okay, because I am surrounded by a multitude of people who give me the grace to make mistakes and who still love me in spite of them. I am so blessed.


Stephanie Slabach Brubaker is working with MCC’s SALT (Serving and Learning Together) program at the Baromari Catholic Mission Salesian Sisters House in Bangladesh. This article was initially published on her personal blog.