In the beginning was the word – and the word was – empathy!

Translation replaces projection as the underlying model for empathy. “Translation” as in translating between languages or between different artistic media or different signaling systems. In short, psychologism – psychology in the negative sense – is replaced by the linguistic speech act of translating the other person’s experience into one’s own and then giving it back (empathically) to the other. This paradigm of empathy as translation is arguably at the same level of generality as empathy as projection, but remained undeveloped until the rise of hermeneutics along a separate trajectory.

The modern innovators of interpersonal empathy such as Carl Rogers (1902–1987) might be read as leap-frogging back to the original sense of entering the other’s world in order to translate it into the first person, subject’s own terms. The translation model of empathy (credited to Johann Herder (1744 – 1803) of whom one rarely hears today) also fits well with what Gordon Allport (1897–1967) and Kenneth Clark (1903–1983) were doing in arraying empathy against racism and prejudice in expanding the boundaries of community by empathically translating between them.  An entire possible alternate history of empathy, as yet unwritten, opens up at this point – empathy as translation between persons.  

Let us take a step back. At the end of the myth, history begins. I love telling fairy tales – and Bible stories! When Adam and Eve are expelled from the Garden, suffering hunger, pain, childbirth, and death, the historical condition of humanity is called forth. Here we being with history and end with a myth. Of course, the myth itself ends with the beginning of history, so the circle is complete. 

Instead of the story of Adam and Eve, which for all its rich detail about suffering, has been unable to shake its patriarchal limitations, a parallel narrative of the fall from paradise and the beginning of history is available. This time, translation is the main theme. In the story, the people of the earth spoke one language and were therefore one people. This harmony was empowering, but ultimately the source of a sin of pride. The people starting building a tower to heaven in order to displace the godhead dwelling there (seemingly plural, since the myth was borrowed from polytheistic neighbors) and presumably become like gods themselves. Radical translation becomes relevant and indeed necessary after the events at the Tower of Babel in the Hebrew Bible (Genesis 11), the Old Testament.

The gods thwarted this prideful project by a stratagem called “the confusion of tongues,” resulting in the beginning of human history as we know it. Instead of a single language, all of a sudden with the equivalent of a divine incantation, people starting speaking different languages, the actual situation of historical humanity. The reader has to imagine they were working on the tower – rather like Wittgenstein’s vignette in which workers make basic requests to one another for “slab” and so on. All of a sudden, they are no longer speaking the same language. This might be easy to overcome for a simple vocabulary (though that is not discussed in the myth). However, for a language adequate for a large construction project and for a coordination of multiple interdependent tasks, the confusion resulted in derailing the project. Work had to be abandoned. The real challenge, not explicitly called out in the story, but directly implied, turned out to be that the sound of strange voices and accents was not merely frustrating, but worrisome. Because understanding was no longer immediate, people became Other to one another. Individuals and groups began imagining that these Others were saying things about them that were devaluing and even hostile. Mistrust started to take hold as people because suspicious of other people who talked differently. Disagreements, altercations, and violence broke out. The confusion of tongues did not just result in frustration; it resulted in actual hostilities. Think of how the classic Greeks came to name barbarians as “barbarians.” The language they spoke sounded to the Greeks like “bar,” “bar,” “bar” – coarse, crude, indelicate, even ignorant. Not a set up for success in construction of towers or harmonious human relations. 

The fall at the Tower of Babel undoes the ideal communication situation within and between native speakers of native languages. Without going further into biblical scholarship, the fiction of the Tower of Babel is a different, but parallel, fall from paradise as that enacted by Adam and Eve (and without the patriarchal burden). The narrative of Babel begins with an ideal speech situation, in which ambiguity and vagueness are unknown. People do not just understand one another – people actually understand one another without effort. The fall into confusion and incomprehensibility from this ideal speech situation includes, but is not reducible to, the kinds of misunderstandings that occur between two people, for example, who share the same English language. Even more radical than the joke that North Americans and the English are two peoples separated by a common language, the confusion of tongues is embedded within each and every natural language. Hence, the utopian attempts to create an ideal language, whether the first order predicate calculus of logic or Esperanto, to eliminate ambiguity and vagueness, thereby reducing misunderstandings and aggression, and reversing the lapse from this linguistic golden age. George Steiner notes “In short, inside or between languages, human communication equals translation” (1975: 47; italics in the original; Steiner’s Chapter One makes the same point regarding understanding). 

The myth represents a golden age at the end of which the struggles and sufferings of human history begin. The fiction of Babel ends, history begins. These struggles include human misunderstandings, and a war of all against all; and the need to translate to ameliorate as far as is humanly possible the damage done by suspicion and the resulting aggression. Of course, translation is defined narrowly as finding a way of expressing one code in another code, a code including signaling systems as well as complex syntactic fields of semantic distinctions. But “translation” is also used in a broader sense of “finding words for experience.” This is not a stipulation, but an actual report on use of the word “translation,” in which its meaning is its use.

Thus, the confusion of tongues that caused the project to build the Tower of Babel to fail did not just cause misunderstandings. It led to a breakdown in empathy. More precisely, prior to what can best be redescribed as an account of the “fall from paradise” due to a confusion of tongues, empathy was not needed. Empathy had not even been distinguished from the background of harmonious cooperation, because effective and transparent communication and understanding were guaranteed by a single language of a single people. The self-other distinction existed, but the point of view of the Other was immediately available to everyone because the single language made communication effective, transparent – perfect. Fast forward to the beginning of history, people need to translate from one unknown language to another, misunderstandings, social awkwardness, unwitting dignity violations, and suspected lack of respect occur and become common. This results in hurt feelings, narcissistic injuries, and “pay back.” Empathy is now needed to try to imagine the Other’s point of view, as a healing salve to sooth wounded feelings and to validate converging and diverging experiences. 

Enough with story telling! Three reasons to bring translation as a practice to the practice of a rigorous and critical empathy – and vice versa –

First, if the shoe fits, wear it. That is, the issues and problems of translation really do apply to empathy. Practice is a fundamental part of the theory in both cases, even if the respective theories have their challenges. To theorize about translation and empathy, respectively, without practicing them is not merely to build castles in the air, but to take up residence. Of course, this must be analyzed in detail, but an indication of the direction of the analysis may usefully be indicated here. For example, taken literally, one is challenged to relate to the Other and make sense out of the Other and the Other’s situation and meaning. The Other presents in a language that is imperfectly understood or, in the case of a foreign language, not understood at all. One is confronted by the incomprehensibility of the Other – if anything, the distance is radicalized in the case of translation – even if translating and empathizing in their own proper contexts go forward without hitch, yet understanding the Other predictably presents challenges both theoretical and practical. Both translation and empathy are like kissing the frog in the fairy tale. It may be off-putting at first, but it shows the way forward to genuine satisfaction and fulfillment. Nor should one get distracted that translation occurs both within language and between different languages. A toddler sees a wolf at the zoo and points and says “bow wow!” The mother replies, “Yes, it is like a dog – it is called a ‘wolf’,” translating the infantese into the language the child is living into learning to speak. 

Second, using translation as a model for empathy provides an alternative to psychologism, the entanglement in problematic psychological mechanisms such as projection and identification, in providing a basic account of the distinction “empathy”. Such mechanisms may indeed be a useful part of the narrative of empathy once it is founded on translation between self and Other, but in the meantime such mechanizing is an obstacle to being fully present with the Other empathically. Empathy as translation opens the way to a non-subject-centered account of empathy, which makes the Other’s contribution to the production of oneself a critical path to the recovery of relatedness. This points to the basic ontological definition of empathy (to be further specified in its four aspects) as being present with the other person without the addition of mechanisms, judgments, assessments, prejudices, and resistances. The concise training in the application of a rigorous and critical empathy consists in shifting one’s practice to drive out aggression, bullying, cynicism, resignation, devaluing language, dignity violations, politics in the negative sense (this list is not complete), and empathy naturally comes forth, expanding in the individual and the community. 

The third aspect of the answer elaborates on the first two. Both translating and empathizing are theoretically hard, but relatively easy in practice, at least in the sense that numerous non controversial, non-skeptical instances of valid, workable translations and instances of empathizing can be cited. 

The use of translation as a model for empathy is to be taken quite literally, though there is also an analogical aspect useful for explanatory and instructional purposes. This model is not a mere figure of speech such as a simile, metaphor, or analogy – that empathizing is like translating in decoding a complex of signs in their context so as to make sense of them. Both undertakings – translating and empathizing – live in language and make use of the same functions of bringing words to underlying experiences, experiences to meanings, meanings to words, and describing and redescribing experiences to bring remote experiences near. As Kenneth Craik (1943: 51) pointed out in his book on explanation, Lord Kelvin modeled the tides in the ocean using a system of pulleys and ropes. Obviously, Kelvin’s model was made of very stuff very divergent from that which was modeled, nor that was an insurmountable obstacle. The model of empathy as translation is a paradigm much closer in underlying stuff – receptivity to language, meanings, meaningful behavior, speech acts – than that one! 

The dance between theory and practice has its oddities. Some things are theoretically easy, but practically hard. One has a recipe for spaghetti sauce – the theory – but who, other than one’s grandma, is able to make a really great one? The bumble bee has a large body relative to its small wings, resulting in engineers saying, theoretically, it should not be able to fly. The hidden variable here is that the creature is able to move the wings inexplicably fast, compensating for the size. So it flies. A similar consideration applies to translation and empathy – separately and together. They theoretically hard, some say impossible, but they happen all the time, each in its own separate context. What this thesis is asserting is that, in empathizing, one is literally translating between self and Other. Empathizing is translating between experiences, generally but not exclusively using language to capture, express, exemplify and understanding what the Other has experienced. 


Kenneth Craik. (1943). The Nature of Explanation. Cambridge UP.

George Steiner. (1975). After Babel: Aspects of Language and Translation. Oxford UP.

(c) Lou Agosta, PhD and the Chicago Empathy Project

Categories: a rigorous and critical empathy, Empathy, empathy trends, historical empathy, Myth of Babel, translation and empathy

Tags: , , , ,

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: