Hektoen International

A Journal of Medical Humanities

Mind the translation gap

Debi Roberson
United Kingdom


The author is grateful for funding from the ESRC (grant R000238310) and from the Royal Society (grant IE121122)
which made this research and the report possible.


 Image of people of Papua New Guinea navigating the Sepik River
Figure 1: People of Papua New Guinea navigating the Sepik River

Between 1996 and 1998, I made three research trips to the Sepik region of Papua New Guinea to do field studies for my PhD. On my first trip to the Upper Sepik Region I traveled for a week, by plane and motorboat and finally by dugout canoe, to three villages called Kagiru, Bitara, and Sio on a tributary of the Sepik River. It was hot and steamy in the daytime, cool and clammy at night.

In Kagiru and Bitara, where I spent most of my time, you could choose when to get up in the morning. For the real enthusiasts there was first cock-crow (between four and four-thirty in the morning). For those wanting a lie-in there was second cock-crow at around five. By five-thirty the hornbills and a dozen species of parrot and parakeet had joined in the dawn chorus, and all but the sick were busy about their daily routine. People sat around the fire talking or eating, and then set about hunting, gathering, and the endless gossiping that made up imaginatively for the lack of daytime television. Outside the chickens descended from their overnight roosts in the top branches of a mango tree in a series of ungainly squawking jumps, while I inspected the mosquito bites on my arms and legs. The young cassowaries started to peck purposefully through the grey dust under the huts; and exquisitely striped and speckled piglets began to squirm and squeal inside their “billum” string bags on their owners’ backs, calmed by the same sharp series of gentle slaps with the back of the hand that was given by mothers carrying a baby in their billum.

I loved to spend those extra few minutes in the uncomplicated warm nest of my sleeping bag, curtained briefly from the world by the mosquito net tucked under me, in the gently rising temperature, as the receding shadows revealed the dark, springy Limbum wood floor of the hut a little at a time.

By the time I got up the fires were lit in every hut, and one by one everyone went outside to answer the call of nature, accompanied by the calls of morning birds and, out of the gloom, a canoe sliding silently into the river bank as one or other of the hunting families returned from the bush. One morning I came across a giant spider’s web spread between two tree trunks, made visible by the spots of dew that clung to it. In the center sat its sleepy occupant—small-bodied but with legs almost a foot long. Slowly I put a finger on the outer ring, furthest from the spider’s position, and watched the legs draw in and bunch, ready for the spring, but hesitating, because even the lightest touch of my fingers felt too heavy to signal breakfast. When I came past again, on the way back, the spider did not seem to have moved.

Climbing back up the ladder pole of our hut on stilts, I listened for the first competitive insult of the day to be traded between the two widows who were my appointed chaperones during my stay in their village. Fierce rivalry broke out over every detail of our daily housekeeping, from sharing of my breakfast biscuits to the bridal prospects of their daughters, the quality of their sago, and the size of their chickens. There was never a dull moment in our hut. It reminded me so much of my own family that it made me quite homesick.

From those villages I traveled around the surrounding bush camps, interviewing people for my field research. I was particularly interested in their classification of their natural environment.*

On one trip after a couple of days in Wewak, picking up supplies and basic medical stores, I arrived at Ambunti, the hill station, eager to get up river as quickly as possible, to have the maximum amount of time in the field.

 Image of two children from Kagiru village with a Sago palm
Figure 2: Two children from Kagiru village with a Sago palm

The two boys who took me upriver by canoe were very young and inexperienced. On the way upriver we took a wrong turn that led into a backwater from the mainstream and were quickly lost. We exchanged sheepish smiles as we all realized that they had expected me to know the way, while I had expected them to know it. Finally, by asking the way from passing canoes we got to Bitara where, as we approached the bank, a thick cloud of mosquitoes descended, treating the DDT on my arms as a tasty apperitif. The village was virtually deserted, and the children told us that everyone had gone to harvest Pandanus fruits in the forest, so we traveled on upstream again.

That day’s journey up river was the most spectacular I had yet had. That part of the river is narrow and runs fast flowing between high jungle banks. Everywhere I looked there were sulphur-crested cockatoos, parrots, and hornbills. In late afternoon, as the heat went from the day, a great red sunset stain spread across the sky and clouds of tiny birds flocked to roost in the forest canopy. Then came the nightly exodus of groups of flying foxes off to gorge on tree figs and wild mango, while lazy herons gliding back to tree roosts over the river. When we got to the bush camp near Sio, the landscape seemed transformed. The low waterfront of open swampland and most of the riverbank were underwater. Canoeing up through the red and yellow lillies of their gardens and keeping an eye out for snakes and crocodiles, we eventually tied the canoe to the stilts of the nearest hut, while the young men and boys began one of their favorite pastime, yodeling across the river to hear the echo. Their other hobby was breadfruit football, played enthusiastically with bare feet, until the breadfruit finally burst, splattering players and spectators with pithy flesh.

After we had shared my supper I asked the three old ladies who had come to visit about their system for naming children. Their kinship terminology was complex, and differed from the vocabulary of the nearest village downriver.  As the fire burned down, they patiently explained that this depended on the order of birth, as well as on the degree of relatedness. I listed ‘Pourbæ’ for firstborn daughter, ‘Pahio’ for second born daughter, ‘Pourse’ for first born son, ‘Passé’ for second born son. I got as far as ‘Walsia’ for fifth born son and ‘Walok’ for fifth born daughter, and I was struggling to satisfy the elders with my pronunciation, so far off that it made them giggle no matter how often I repeated the words, when a man came to ask me for medical assistance for a new arrival in the village. My medical knowledge was limited to basic first-aid training, but I had some supplies and a book describing common symptoms called “Where there is no doctor.” I gathered up my bag and prepared to get wet—it was still raining hard outside.

“Lukaut long datpella ston!” (“Lookout for the stones”) came the shout from the filled space of blackness behind the swinging lantern. Water-needles pierced my skin through my soaking shirt. As he stood aside and held the lantern high, I wiped back my wet hair and peered at the small torrent I was about to cross and saw the treacherous stones that I thought were waiting to trip me. Holding the medicines above my head I plunged forward, gasping as the water swirled up to my waist.

“I told you to Lukaut long datpella ston!” laughed my guide, turning in an arc of watery yellow light in my direction, before he finished crossing the water with the aid of the stepping-stones. I dragged myself shivering and foolish out onto the bank and we carried on up the slope, stubbing painful toes on the razor-like edges of sago palm leaves. Ten minutes later we arrived, panting and steaming under the shadow of a large hut.

My two guides swung easily up the wooden ladder—a straight pole with notches cut up it for footholds running up to the entrance to the hut above the stilts. Plastered with mud, sandals sliding hopelessly on the wet wood, I scrambled to the top and flung myself, bag first, into the thick dark inside. As my eyes adjusted to the dim light I saw the small fire in one corner, surrounded by the outlines of squatting figures.  On the other side of the firelight, beside a ragged taunam (mosquito net), a shapeless bundle lay moaning gently. “Dispella meri, she planti sik” (this woman is very sick), said my guide, raising the lantern.

The old lady had walked over the hills with her son for two days because she had heard I was there and had medicines. Her left breast and arm were swollen so hard that my fingers made no impression on the hot flesh as I tried to feel around her upper body. When I peeled the cloth away from her other breast the infected flesh was luridly pale against her dark body. I had never seen anything like it, but it was definitely infected. I fished out an ampule of powdered antibiotic and fixed a needle on the syringe. I drew sterile water into the syringe and injected it into the ampule to mix with the powder. But this batch did not mix like the last one. I shook and shook, but the liquid stayed cloudy. I had no more with me, and to go back and fetch another from my hut would have been impossible. I decided to try to use that batch, give her what I could and then come back in the morning. She looked as though she might die in the night anyway, without treatment.  I drew the liquid back into the syringe, but some of the undisolved powder stuck in the thin bore of the needle. I tried to clear it by depressing the plunger—nothing. I had no other needles either, so gripping the syringe tightly I pushed the plunger with both hands, as hard as I could, to clear the blockage. Ping! The needle shot off the end of the syringe, made a graceful arc through the darkness and landed in an outstretched leg on the other side of the hut. The startled yell of the recipient told me where to look. I walked across in front of the fire and plucked the needle from his leg with a cheery – “well, aren’t you lucky – you got some medicine before you even knew you needed it!” Everyone in the hut thought it was hilarious! The blockage was cleared. I put the needle back on the syringe, cleared the air from it, and injected the patient with the remaining antibiotic.

The next day I saw her again, gave her more antibiotics, and decided it was worth using enough of my precious fuel to take her up to the missionaries at Bukapuki. They had no advanced medical training either, but were considerate and concerned. They talked to the mission doctor in Wewak on the radio and arranged for her to travel on the mission plane the next day to the hospital there along with her son, who spoke a little pidgin and could translate for her. I found out on my next trip that she had been treated and sent home again from the hospital, but had died a few weeks later in her home village. The trip she had undertaken to get treatment had involved days of walking through the bush, in what must have been enormous pain, but she never complained.

My “magic” injection with the flying needle that night became a much-embellished story in the village. A young volunteer who visited in 2005 told me he had heard the story of a crazy Western lady doctor who dispensed medicine from a blowpipe at a distance of at least twenty paces to avoid contact with the patient.



* Details of the research that I did can be found in Davidoff, Davies and Roberson (1999) and Roberson et al., (2000; 2002).
  1. Davidoff, J., Davies, I. & Roberson, D. (1999) Colour categories of a stone-age tribe. Nature 398, 203-204 & 402, 604-604.
  2. Roberson, D., Davies I. & Davidoff, J. (2000) Colour categories are not universal: Replications and new evidence from a Stone-age culture. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General , 129, 369-398.
  3. Roberson, D., Davidoff, J. & Shapiro, L. (2002) Squaring the circle: The cultural relativity of good shape. Journal of Cognition and Culture, 2, 29-53.


DEBI ROBERSON, PhD, is Professor of Psychology at the University of Essex where she researches the development of perceptual categories in children and the relationship between language and thought. Her recent projects include cross-cultural investigations in Papua New Guinea, Namibia, Korea, China, and Japan. Her work has been published in leading international journals, and she was awarded the 2001 British Psychological Society Cognitive Research Award.


Highlighted in Frontispiece Fall 2014 – Volume 6, Issue 4

Fall 2014  |  Sections  |  Anthropology

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