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Shamanism: lost in translation, part 2

South African indigenous spiritual practitioner prays outside the hospital where Nelson Mandela is dying.
South African indigenous spiritual practitioner prays outside the hospital where Nelson Mandela is dying.
Photo by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

In Part 1 of this series I wrote about how the popularization of the terms shaman and shamanism in mainstream modern culture caused them to become almost meaningless in common usage. There is another side effect, though.

The careless usage of those terms in turn affects the translation of terms that denote indigenous spiritual practitioners in the media, including books, magazines, radio and TV, as well.

Just as, in the past, terms like witch doctor and later medicine man were carelessly used instead of describing the actual functions of indigenous healers and spiritual practitioners, now shaman is misused even, sometimes, in magazines like Shaman’s Drum that one would expect to use the term accurately.

Part of the problem is that English, vast as it is, still has very few terms for the huge variety of spiritual practitioners that exist in this big wide world. And since most Americans are monolingual, most of us do not understand the problems of translation. It is an inexact art, not a science.

People who are fluent in only one language usually cannot grasp the fact that languages cannot be translated word for word---even where there appear to be equivalent words in both languages. The grammar, usage and cultural mindset of the two languages make word-for-word translation either impossible or grossly inadequate.

Even more important and difficult for those who speak only one language to grasp is the fact that some thoughts are literally impossible to think in some languages. It is not just that the words do not exist. The deeper problem is that the concept does not exist and cannot be expressed in the language being translated to (or as we might say, the destination language).

The world views (or realities) from which two languages have developed can be so different that even if words existed, the concepts, ideas, and realities of the two languages could not be conveyed.

Add that to the (usually) unconscious assumption of superiority that plagues Western minds and you have a recipe for oblivious miscommunication. That is, it never occurs to most Americans that there are other world views, other realities---especially not valid ones, realities as "real" as their own.

So when you read a book or magazine, or hear a news report, that uses the term shaman or shamanism, do not take it at face value. The term may or may not be accurate. Most of the time it will not.

Next time, we’ll talk about how to evaluate whether the terms are being used accurately---and maybe how to find out.

This article is Part 2 of a four-week series, “Shamanism: lost in translation," that discusses some of the ways in which the terms shaman and shamanism are misused in publishing, broadcasting, and normal conversation, and the problems that misuse causes in trying to understand what shamanism is.
The topics of the four parts are as follows:
Part 1: Appropriation of a Technical Term for Popular Use
Part 2, Careless or Sloppy Translation
Part 3, How to Tell When the Terms Are Misused
Parr 4, How TV, Books, and Movies Often Misrepresent Shamans and Spiritual Practices

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