Art Works Blog

The Art of Empathy

"By the end of a book, I am bigger than I was when I started." - Johanna Warren [Tweet This]

The translator-author relationship is a kind of psychic partnership, a mind-meld, a collaboration so intimate it requires one person to get inside another’s brain. Sometimes when I’m translating, I get this amazing wobbly feeling that the boundaries of my identity have dissolved and expanded to encompass the author’s experiences, which are often vastly different from my own. By the end of a book, I am bigger than I was when I started. 

By far the most transformative instance of this was while translating the work of Claudia Hernández, whose short stories deal with growing up in the midst of El Salvador’s civil war. Although I didn’t realize it at the time, when I first read her work in college it was from across a wide canyon of cultural disconnect--I really liked it, but in retrospect my reasons were embarrassingly simplistic. The level of violence in her stories, and the desensitization to it that the narrative voice demonstrates, was at first so unrelatable that it struck me as kind of funny. To be sure, Hernández has a sharp wit and a sweet, playful sense of humor that shines through like stars in the blackness of her subject matter, but I’m talking about something else: I was missing the very real cultural context on which this fiction is based. This stuff was way too dark to be real, I assumed, having never seen a dead body in my 21 years of suburban life. It was so incongruous with my own experience that I processed it as entertainment. I’m pretty embarrassed to admit that, but I want to address it because I suspect other American readers may have a similar reaction to her work and this kind of content in general. 

I grew up in a culture in which graphic depictions of torture and death are presented to us as entertainment, while the abundance of very real suffering in the world is kept behind a thick veil of smoke and mirrors. As a young person in that kind of bubble, it can be hard to process the fact that for a great many people, the bloody images we pay to see spattered across movie screens are in the street when you open your front door. Much of what I have learned from inhabiting the world of Claudia Hernández, corresponding with her and learning about her country’s history has involved coming to terms with the fact that her stories are much closer to autobiography than fiction. I may wish I had never been so naïve as to miss the point as entirely as I did at first, but in reflecting on that I have no doubt that my whole being has expanded as a result of my evolving relationship with this work and its author, and for this I am grateful. To come to deeply empathize with a person you have never met, who was born into circumstances so different from your own, is the sweetest possible fruit of communication. That this can be the result of reading a book is a testament to the necessity of translation and the power of literature in general. 

Forgive me if I’m getting too far out, but I believe in a broader sense this connective quality of translation is essential to the spiritual evolution of our species. Our stubborn fixation on the perception that I am separate from you and humans are separate from all other life on Earth has set us up for both individual misery and global catastrophe. Inflated and intoxicated as the ego is by this notion of separateness, it erects walls at every turn to keep “me” safe; even in death, we would rather rot in solitary boxes than return to the dirt. The work of the human soul at this time is to break down those walls, to rediscover the truth that everything in the universe is one and the same. 

The most obvious means we have of accomplishing this work is communication. Inherently limited by our own experiences, we are like the blind men describing an elephant: each of us is right, but no one has the whole picture. By comparing notes, we help each other get closer to the truth--when you tell me what you feel and I tell you what I feel, we both expand our understanding of the unseeable whole. 

But many things can impede communication, including, ironically, language. The verbal toolkit you inherit as a toddler enables you to effectively communicate within the culture you’re born in to, but sets you apart from the rest of the world. Humans have a long and bloody track record of distrusting and devaluing what we do not understand, and conflating the capacity for verbal communication with sentience. Historically, this has been a favorite justification for denying moral standing to people from other cultures, people with disabilities, nonhuman species, and the earth itself—if they can’t tell us they suffer, we don’t believe that they do. In granting us the superpower of transcending the language barrier, at least, for now, among humans (fun fact: technology is currently being developed to facilitate two-way communication between humans and dolphins), translation reminds us that while the signifiers are infinitely variable, the signified is universal—whether you call it dolor or Schmelz or pain, it hurts! In biblical terms, every translated word works to reverse the confusion of tongues, allowing us to temporarily inhabit a long lost state of unity. 

What translation can do for us, and what we so desperately need at this juncture in human history, is to radically increase our empathic capacities; to learn, or perhaps relearn, how to listen—to people of all linguistic traditions and hopefully, some day, to beings who don’t “speak” at all. As our empathy expands, so do the confines of our own egos. As our compassion grows, we become infinite.

Johanna Warren has translated Natalia Carrero and Juan Valera, and received an NEA Translation Fellowship in 2013 to translate the work of Claudia Hernández. This essay originally appeared in The Art of Empathy: Celebrating Literature in Translation, a collection of 19 essays by literary translators and publishers recently published by the NEA. Click the title to read the full anthology. You can also read our Art Talk interview with Johanna Warren here.


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