Edinburgh Fieldwork Prize Runner Up: Abortion in Translation

By Cassandra Morris (Fieldwork Prize Runner Up) 

For my dissertation research I spent a month in Nepal, a country with breathtaking scenery and an entrancing and diverse cultural landscape. Nepal is the land of Mount Everest and the Himalayas, it is also a country affected by widespread poverty and social issues, including gender inequality. My research involved interviewing local female community health volunteers who work to help improve access to safe abortion services for the women within their communities. Abortion was only legalised in Nepal in 2002. Since then Nepal’s network of female health workers has been trained and mobilised to provide women with information and referrals for safe abortion services, and I wanted to learn first-hand about their experiences.

In conducting this primary research, one of the key challenges I faced was the language barrier. This meant that my research would not have been possible without the assistance of an interpreter. My host organisation arranged for a kind and personable young woman named Shirisha (not her real name) to fulfill this role.

Using an interpreter in this context was a new experience for me. And while I had been thoroughly instructed on the importance of preparation and emphasising to Shirisha that responses needed to be translated verbatim, I also found there are some things you simply cannot prepare for! Having been raised in rural Nova Scotia (where people are known for speaking like pirates) I have often found deciphering foreign accents challenging...even while studying in Scotland.

While Shirisha's English was good, her accent was sometimes impenetrable. In interviews, this tended to create confusion. For example, given the subject matter of my research, it took me an embarrassingly long time to realise that when I thought she was saying 'separate' she was actually saying 'secret'. For the first couple of interviews I wondered why – unless there was some national obsession with compartmentalising one's life – Nepali women would be trying to keep their abortions “separate”.

Perhaps nothing could have prepared me for an exchange that occurred during an interview with a highly experienced and active volunteer who, in discussing methods of family planning, briefly referred to the mechanics of conception. This produced a look of total confusion on my interpreter’s face who was not only unfamiliar with the English word for semen but also the fact that the substance existed at all. She translated the description of semen that had been offered by the participant as “something that comes out from the male”. Needless to say, the taxi ride that followed during which Shirisha inquired about this mysterious substance and whether I had any prior knowledge of its existence was a fairly awkward experience.

While conducting interviews assisted by an interpreter presented challenges and humorous or awkward moments such as these, I also found that communicating through a third party sometimes created a barrier or shield between myself and the women I was interviewing. While I often resented the impediment this presented for the flow of communication, there were times when I was grateful for this shield. In discussing abortion with female community health volunteers in rural Nepal, terrible stories emerged of rape, incest, violence, injury and even death. When the subject matter of our conversations became dark, a pained expression would appear on Shirisha’s face and the natural delay provided by interpretation allowed me the time to prepare myself for the unsettling details which were to emerge.


The kindness and warmth exhibited by the local women I met and interviewed was striking. Often, the women I interviewed would insist on walking out to the nearest road junction and lead us back to their homes so we would not get lost along the way (although we often got lost several times before ever reaching the junction). Interviews seemed to become a family affair, they took place in the presence of infants nursing, of teenage girls studying, and adolescent boys eager to show off while riding their bicycles in the yard (grinning from ear to ear). However, the children would always scatter when the interviews wrapped up and their mother’s sent them off to prepare snacks and tea.

Each interview was met with a cup of tea and an assortment of biscuits. Although a hot drink may not have been the ideal choice given that the temperature was usually well above 30°C, the caffeine and sugar was always welcomed as it was vital fuel for the day. The time shared with participants and their families over a cup of tea was truly memorable. Women would ask about my life in Canada and the UK and grill me with personal questions (how old was I and when was I getting married?). They would also swell with pride as they told me about the various accomplishments of their own family members and adult children.

The only downside to all of the tea that was offered to us was that it meant that Shirisha sometimes excused herself to use the toilet, leaving me alone with participants unable to communicate anything beyond Namaste and a horrible pronunciation of the Nepali word for thank you. Despite the long silences that ensued, I learned the value of a shared smile, that fanning gestures in complaint of the heat are universal and that even without the assistance of an interpreter two strangers can share a laugh and relate to each other over the agonising heat that immediately precedes the monsoon season in Nepal.

Cassandra is currently studying Global Health and Public Policy at the University of Edinburgh’s School of Social and Political Science. She is especially interested in maternal and reproductive health. In the spring of 2014 she travelled to Nepal to interview female community health volunteers about their experiences implementing a program designed to improve awareness of safe abortion services within their communities.