Translation and Empathy

translation-and-empathyWhat makes us aesthetically enjoy a work of art? This is a classic question in the philosophy of art and in aesthetics. Philosophers have tried to explain what kind of relation, between subjects and artistic forms, explains that feeling of rapture and delight that, sometimes, we experience in looking at a church, a painting or a sculpture.

One of the most successful answers was given by late nineteenth century philosophers and psychologists, such as Robert Vischer, Heinrich Wölfflin or Theodor Lipps. In a nutshell, their reflection focused on the concept of empathy (Einfühlung), which is described as a non-conscious ascription of our own organic features into the work of art that stands before us. Those attributions would then be experienced by the observer, who, collecting nothing but his own emotional state and physical properties, would consider them to belong to the work of art, enjoying it as if it would be full of life.

Empathy was then defined as the capacity of “feeling into” (Ein-fühlung) the object, to make it alive by means of entering its domain, to the point the subject/object distinction becomes blurry.

The idea that we can develop empathy with things, other than with other human beings, is perhaps not so strange. We develop special relationships with our favorite everyday objects, be it a book, a piece of garment or a bicycle. We infuse them with a soul, and recognize them as of a much greater value than its market price. They become special and we treat them especially well. Empathy is a matter of transporting our emotions and feelings to other entities and understand them, respect and love them.

How does this relate to the work of the translator? First of all, there is no doubt that the object “text” must be treated analytically, and the translation itself as a technical process. However, if the text is seen purely as an unanimated “thing”, it will, in a certain sense, remain foreign to the translator.

If the object before us is a text, we can look at it as an unanimated “thing”, and proceed to translate it into another “thing”. However, the lack of “feeling into” the text will not allow the translator to understand the text in the deepest ways, nor to enjoy it as an aesthetic object. In many cases, this ability is outright necessary. If, indeed, as Walter Benjamin says, there is a pure language behind every text, then that purity can only be experienced by a motion of empathy. And this relates also to our previous post about communication and translation. True communication implies understanding all the dimensions of the message, which, in turn, includes caring for the text as an active being.

Empathy has been pointed out as the one characteristic that separates us from machines. This is yet another point in which MT is different from human translation. However, this shows everything but an unsurmountable gap within translation services. Rather, it just emphasizes how the development of technology will asymptotically merge with the “human factor”. Both remain necessary to achieve the best possible result.