• Thomas Schramme

Empathy, Understanding, and Translation


"210120-D-WD757-2531" by "Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff". Used under: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/.


Two translators have recently been released from their tasks of translating Amanda Gorman's poems. This fact would hardly bear any news value if it hadn't led to a debate about the fitting identity of translators more generally. A suggested Dutch translator stepped down after a public debate, partly to do with their expertise in spoken word poetry, but also because of their skin colour. A Spanish translator did not have the right "profile", according to a news agency, because he is White. Do translators have to be sufficiently close to the original authors – in terms of salient features such as race, sexual preference or perhaps rather in terms of related experiences of discrimination – to be able to fully understand the specific perspective that needs to be conveyed to a reader? After all, it does seem reasonable to assume that certain experiences, especially of injustices, are required to interpret other people in the right way. In fact, we do make this assumption almost on a daily basis when we say that someone else does not understand our anger or pain, because they have not experienced it.


In a heated and politicised debate, we occasionally lose sight of background assumptions of certain claims. An important backdrop to this specific discussion about translating the poetry of Gorman is the role of empathy in understanding other people. Empathy is indeed important in accessing other people's minds, but it is far from clear what exactly empathy means and what it requires to be successfully employed. What it means to understand another person is also notoriously open for interpretation. For some theorists, understanding simply means to be able to explain other people's behaviour, for instance when we say that we understand that someone is angry about being bullied. For other theorists understanding involves a special form of knowledge – knowing what it's like. This kind of understanding seems to rely on some shared experiences. For instance, someone might claim that only mothers can really understand what it means to give birth to a child. Although I see some intuitive appeal of this stance, it seems to me too exclusive and politically dangerous. To be sure, my own thinking here is still in development. It is a good thing, then, that I am a member of a research group that is researching the connection of empathy and interpersonal understanding.


Although the release of the translators of Gorman's poem was based on their alleged incapacity for sufficient understanding, in the end their capacity for empathy was not even discussed, but only their identity.

Empathy allows us to feel what the other feels. This can mean that we really share a feeling of the other – though some philosophers are sceptical whether this is actually possible – or that we take their perspective – step into their shoes, according to the usual metaphor. Empathy is a skill that might be naturally installed in human beings and other animals, but it can certainly be honed and improved, like other human skills. It is hence important to discuss what successful empathising means. According to one important interpretation of empathy's function it is understanding in the strong sense of knowing what it's like.


Translators obviously need to have knowledge about the foreign language. They have to know the meaning of words. But this will not do for a good job. They also need to know about certain social aspects of words, which might include some historical knowledge as well. Translating poetry requires even more knowledge, specifically about the use of metaphors and similar elements of poetic language. A poet, arguably more so than authors of more descriptive texts, conveys more personal perspectives as well. For instance, when Gorman, in her recitation at President Biden's inauguration, referred to herself as "a skinny Black girl", she probably did not mean (only) her body shape.


To fully grasp what a poet meant by using certain words a translator needs to "feel into" the author. This is exactly the origin of the technical term empathy. In fact, the concept of empathy was itself introduced at the beginning of the 20th Century to translate the German word Einfühlung, which roughly translates to the mentioned "feeling into". Accordingly, translators need empathy and this capacity putatively enables them to understand authors and eventually to successfully convey their perspective to readers. Here we have reached the origin of the idea that translators need to be sufficiently "close" to the target author. Apparently, to be able to feel into an author, we need to be similar to them in certain respects. But how similar and in what respects? Obviously, translators can never fully be the author. Only Gorman herself knows how she feels and what it means to be her.


Understanding is a success term; it is the result of an interaction of agents.

The limits of empathy are not fixed, and they are not restricted by someone's personal or social identity. It might be correct to assume, as many theorists of empathy have done, that the ease of empathic understanding is modulated by a shared social identity. In other words, a translator might find it hard to understand, for instance, a humorous approach to the atrocities of the Holocaust. But empathy is a trait that enables a process of interaction with another. Understanding is a success term; it is the result of an interaction of agents. Empathy as a trait is just the natural talent, so to speak. Successfully using your talent requires practice and other skills, for instance emotion regulation. Fully understanding another cannot simply rely on empathic skill; and yet, it is an important component of the process.


To believe that only translators who share similar experiential backgrounds due to their specific identity limits the individual capacity to understand others to the presence or absence of arbitrary and passive characteristics. Although the release of the translators of Gorman's poem was based on their alleged incapacity for sufficient understanding, in the end their capacity for empathy was not even discussed, but only their identity. Such a view denies persons a specific kind of agency – empathic understanding. But this is surely false and can even lead to an ironic reproduction of repressive structures.


To merely base a denial of understanding on personal or social identity would be false. In an extreme version of this idea nobody else than ourselves is able to fully understand ourselves. But then empathy would lose its meaning as a skill that enables us to better understand others. In such a picture we are and remain strangers to each other. This cannot be right. To begin with, we usually don't understand ourselves fully. Very often, we understand ourselves better when someone else has "mirrored" our perspective. In other words, it is very likely that Gorman will learn something about herself and her poem once she discusses her ideas with translators.


[W]hatever understanding means, exactly, to restrict its possible success to those people who are similar to each other in certain ascribed characteristics undermines the very political aims of understanding.

Such a view, which grounds understanding on shared identity and even on shared experience, is also potentially undermining its very own aim. Understanding is not a form of mirroring of an authentic perspective, which is then transformed into another language by translation. It is not a form of mimesis. Understanding rather is itself communicative; it is a result of an interpersonal process. This requires numerous skills, not just empathy, for instance imagination and a certain level of care for other people. To be sure, there might be requirements of shared background and a certain level of shared identity for a full level of understanding, but this would need to be worked out. The extreme view, denying the capacity to understand without any further consideration of individual skills is not plausible. It is certainly wrong to see the other – an author or indeed any other human being – as a kind of alien that needs to be decoded by sufficiently similar minds.


It is also wrong to entertain the related idea that one needs to be as proximate as possible to the other in terms of certain features in order to be perfectly able to be true to the others "essence". Similar social identity and shared experience do not make an expert in understanding specific people. It is true, of course, that human beings don't really have a good grasp of what understanding really means and hence what the successful product of empathy looks like. But whatever understanding means, exactly, to restrict its possible success to those people who are similar to each other in certain ascribed characteristics undermines the very political aims of understanding. Understanding, in its political dimension, means (at least partly) to recognise and – in case of persistent, reasonable conflict – to tolerate different viewpoints. Yet by isolating the success of understanding in silos of identity or experience, citizens are being denied the capacity to leave behind their assigned and contingent characteristics in their pursuit of getting to grips with other people's perspectives.


Disclaimer: Any views or opinions expressed on The Public Ethics Blog are solely those of the post author(s) and not The Stockholm Centre for the Ethics of War and Peace, Stockholm University, the Wallenberg Foundation, or the staff of those organisations.

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The views expressed in these posts are those of the author(s), and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Public Ethics blog or associated organisations.