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Michael Goh (second from left) with some members of the Multicultural Center for Integrated Health.

Michael Goh brainstorming possible ways to solve the challenges of Hmong mental health intrepretation with some members of the Multicultural Center for Integrated Health.

Lost in translation

By Peggy Rader

Published on November 11, 2004

"Just interpret word-for-word."

Hmong interpreters working with mental health counselors dread that command because it just won't work-too many English expressions in the field of counseling do not translate "word-for-word" into Hmong or vice versa.

The best-known example is the attempt to interpret the Hmong term for "mental health." In Hmong, it is "nyuaj siab nyuaj ntsws," which becomes "dirty or difficult liver, dirty or difficult lungs."

"The problem arises because the Hmong language often reflects a holistic view of health-both physical and mental," says Michael Goh, assistant professor of counseling and student personnel psychology. He and graduate student Pahoua Yang, a clinical social worker from Wisconsin, are working with the Minnesota Hmong Mental Health Providers Network to provide better tools and training for both mental health counselors and Hmong interpreters.

The rate of mental health diagnosis is more than twice as high for the Hmong (43 percent) than for Western populations (15-20 percent), according to the October 2004 issue of the Journal of Multicultural Counseling and Development. This considerably higher rate for the Hmong have been attibuted to traumatic, war-related and the current acculturation challenges they continue to face. Some of the more commonly identified mental health diagnoses among the Hmong are posttraumatic stress disorder, chronic acculturation syndrome, and depression.

Goh, along with University faculty from linguistics and cultural anthropology, representatives from Ramsey and Hennepin counties, and Hmong practitioners, is struggling to create a Hmong-English glossary of mental health counseling terms. He calls the project "encyclopedic."

"One of the mistakes people make is that because there are no directly equivalent ways to talk about difficult feelings, they assume that Hmong don't have these feelings," says Yang. "Our work will help to communicate how feelings and emotions are talked about in Hmong."

Goh says the project, which began in 2002, has shown a range of responses among interpreters.

"The less experienced say simply that their job is to interpret," explains Goh. "The more experienced appear more ready to help counselors and clients overcome cultural barriers or, in other words, to be a cultural broker. They understand that word-for-word interpretation doesn't address the cultural semantics and the lack of equivalence in the two languages. This aspect of their work is critical in settings where establishing trust is so important."

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