Pain is just like animal sounds, linguistically speaking: it doesn’t translate directly. The first time I came across this communication hiccup was when I was in Spain, suffering from an intense pain in my arm. I made a point of looking up the odd words I needed in the dictionary and merrily went on my way, hoping it would all be over soon.
When I was called into the doctor’s office, I complained of sharp pains in my arm, like I was being stabbed by a cold knife. Both the doctor and the intern stared at me, unable to even come up with a response. Then, the doctor veeeeerrrrrry sloooooowwwwwwly asked, “But, have you been stabbed before?” I laughed and said of course not. “Then how do you know the feeling of being stabbed?”
In his defense, he had a valid point. In my defense, this is the way people talk in English.
After much back and forth, I told them that I had a repeated pain in my arm. It was rhythmic, so it was related to my pulse somehow. Also, it was an acute pain, so I determined that it was nerve-related. With these clues and some follow-up poking and prodding, the doctors decided that I had a inflamed nerve, probably aggravated by a repetitive motion, stress and the fact that I hadn’t slept well in months (it was summertime).
This all came back to me recently as I lay in bed, unable to move and wondering how in the hell I was going to explain what was wrong with me in French. I’d woken up and, when I tried to spin my body to the side of the bed to reach my slippers, I’d found that my right leg wasn’t cooperating. A cursory inspection revealed that my knee was swollen to the size of a coconut. (Normally, it’s between a nectarine and a small grapefruit.)
Adding irony to injury, since I couldn’t go anywhere, I was listening to podcasts while breathing through the pain and Radiolab’s episode about rating levels of pain came on. Staring at the ceiling and cursing everything I’ve ever known, I came up with some choice phrases to express my level of pain in French as well as awesome new combinations of multilingual curse words.
It turns out that I needn’t have worried about the linguistic issue so much. The source of my pain is clear (seriously, it’s hugely swollen) and the doctor I went to see started off by saying as much. Then she did a sonogram and diagnosed me with minimal weird attempts at explaining myself.
Truth be told, I was a little disappointed that I wasn’t going to get to use any of the many little phrases I’d come up with (the best being how the muscle around my knee felt like overcooked meat), so I’ll just have to wait until I have some kind of injury that isn’t manifest.