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Translation, Bible Stories, and Empathy: The Contribution of George Steiner (1929 – 2020)

George Steiner passed away in the fullness of time at his home in Cambridge, England, at the age of 90. This blog post acknowledges and honors him for his contribution, largely previously unnoted, to the understanding and practice of empathy.

 Those who are interested in learning more about his many, many books and the

Tower of Babel: Bruegel, The Elder, 1563, under construction

Tower of Babel: Frans Bruegel, The Elder, 1563, under construction

details of his biography can consult the New York Times obituary cited below – he grew up speaking French, German, and English and claimed not to able to remember which came first and he graduated the University of Chicago after a single year in 1948.

 In so far as one of the major breakdowns of empathy is when empathic response gets “lost in translation,” George Steiner’s book After Babel: Aspects of Language and Translation (1975) is devoted to empathy and restoring it in the fact of misunderstanding. This turns out not to require the use of the word “empathy.” What is basically a Bible story and a single paragraph in Genesis turns out to be nuanced enough to sustain a five hundred page plus treatment.

 Thus, the story of the Tower of Babel from the Book of Genesis in the Bible (Genesis 11: 1–9) forms the backdrop for one of Steiner’s major contributions and, at the risk of oversimplifying his diverse and multidimensional contribution, may be the single best presentation of his life’s work.

 As you may recall, in what is basically a Babylonian, not a Hebrew, myth, which gets included in Genesis, there is a Golden Age. It consists in the earth and the peoples of the earth being “of one language and one speech.” I elaborate the point: Disagreements between people about the meaning of truth, beauty, goodness, utility, or freedom simply do not occur because there is only one language, which everyone shares.

 So misunderstandings are impossible on principle in this Golden Age. Not only does this make life very agreeable, it gives the people enormous power. You know the expression “Power to the people!” Well, such is actually the case in this story. The people are one, and the people decide that they are not going to settle for life here on earth, they are going to move into heaven. They start building a tower – the Tower of Babel – because heaven is “up there” and how else would you get there?

 Next scene. The Gods are looking down from above, as the tower is getting taller and taller. And it is not like just a few people are coming. They are all coming. The Gods are even getting a tad worried about this development – but not for long. A stratagem is needed to foil this unacceptable and obvious sin of pride. Pride goeth before the fall. The Gods “confuse the tongues,” mix up the languages, of the people. The people now become the peoples with each separate community having its own identity and manner of speaking incomprehensible to its neighbors. Before there was only one language, now there are many.

The one builder says: “Pass me the slab.” But he is now speaking a different language than his coworker, who thinks he is saying, “Pass me the mud” or even worse, thinks he is saying, “You are an idiot.” General chaos breaks out with significant aspects of paranoia, xenophobia, hostility, and aggression. Fistfights break out (not actually in the story, but “off stage”). The work on the tower is halted. The project fails. History begins. The Golden age ends; the people are scattered and become different communities (nations); history as we know it starts.

 It is a history of misunderstanding between people and peoples, resulting in border disputes, personal disputes, contractual disputes, inheritance disputes, disputes over disputes. Often attempts are made to settle such disputes with aggression, resulting in more disputes. Thus results the current situation of humanity, in which we are not only separated by different languages but misunderstandings occur even within the same language, which becomes other to itself due to ambiguity and vagueness. Not a pretty picture.

 So what has this to do with empathy? In so far as empathy lives within language, this is a story about empathy. The Golden Age was one of perfect understanding – empathic understanding. Much of history consists in human understanding getting lost – lost in translation. The result when misunderstandings occur is the current state of the relations between diverse communities – one of hostility and the risk of aggression.

 Enter George Steiner’s work: After Babel: Aspects of Language and Translations. The word “empathy” does not occur in this work, yet it is one permeated by the empathic project of overcoming breakdowns in understanding as meaning gets “lost in translation.”

 When we practice translation, we are practicing getting in touch with the world of the other person in its nuances and significance. That is top down, cognitive empathy. When we practice translation, we create a clearing for the experiential dimension of a person’s experience to emerge into a clearing in which the feeling can be communicated. That is bottom up, affective empathy.

 After Babel is a work of vast learning in which Steiner makes the case for the study of languages, especially as they occur in Sophocles, Shakespeare, Goethe, Dante, Proust, since that is what humans speak and use and live in, rather than language as such as an ideal abstract system. We quite often succeed in translating, even though our translations are far from perfect, in need of revision, and vulnerable to ambiguities of nuance and significance.

 To make the connection between translation and empathy, something that Steiner never explicitly does, we are cast upon the seas of the interrelations between different texts. Jorge Luis Borges is celebrated for his fictions that expose the deep structure of nonfictional reality. Early in After Babel (p. 70), Steiner turns to Borges’ short piece “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote” (1939).

 The title itself points to what is absurd, even logically alien in Borges’ approach, since everyone knows that Miguel de Cervantes is the author of Don Quixote. Menard’s project was not to compose another Quixote, which would be easy, but the Quixote itself (p. 71). 

 This is the empathic moment: “Far more interesting was ‘to go on being Pierre Menard and reach the Quixote through the experiences of Pierre Menard’, i.e., to put oneself so deeply in tune with Cervantes’s being, with his ontological form as to re-enact, inevitably, the exact sum of his realizations and statements.

 Here empathy is no mere psychological mechanism for the transmission of a contingent feeling, but the foundation of relatedness between persons in time and history.

 At this point Steiner quotes Borges’ quoting Cervantes’ and Menard’s texts. They are of course identical quotations from Don Quixote. The reader of Borges’ text (and of Steiner’s use of it) is left scratching his head. But then the punch line:

 To write of “history as the mother of truth” at the beginning of the 17th Century when Cervantes was authoring the work was eminently sensible. But to write this way three hundred years later, at the beginning of the 20th Century is a work of towering genius (no pun intended!). When Menard was re-enacting Cervantes’ act of authorship – i.e., transforming Cervantes’ being into his own – Menard did this three hundred years later – after William James has stated that history is not what happened but what we judged to have happened. This a work of supreme and prodigious translation: “The arduousness of the game is dizzying [….] When the translator, negator of time and rebuilder at Babel, comes near succeeding, he passes into that state of mirror [….] He does not know ‘which of us two is writing this page’” (pp. 71, 72–73).

 Strictly speaking, this could be seen as a breakdown of empathy, since it implies a merger of the two beings, but the integrity of empathy is restored when the merger turns out to be temporary and transient, preserving the distinction between self and other.

 Though Steiner makes the case for comparative literature as the lever of humanization – even while intermittently deploring the state of the humanities as a discipline – in translating back-and-forth, the idea of a logically perfect, ideal language and radical translation are never far away. Radical translation, in turn, puts us in mind of radical empathy – the progressive liberal trying to empathize with the Evangelical Christian and vice versa. How is that going?

 Translation is indeed a metaphor for the situation of human understanding, community, and the challenge of expanding empathic relatedness. But in so far as translating is also occurring literally and constantly within a given natural language whenever we ask another person what they are trying to say, even as they say something that seems meaningless, translation is virtually identical with historical existence, our way of being in the world after the fall at Babel.

 Granted the matter is devilishly complex, rather than ask what is wrong, point out what is missing – what gets lost in translation? Each of ten thousand distinctions leads to more distinctions and the “fan out” is virtually beyond calculation. Is space available for a space of acceptance and toleration and to resume work, if not on a tower, on a bridge over troubled waters?


 Christopher Lehmann-Haupt and William Grimes, (2020), George Steiner, prodigious literary critic, dies at 90, February 03, 2020, The New York Times: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/02/03/books/george-steiner-dead.html

Lou Agosta, Empathy Lessons, (2018), Chicago: Two Pears Press: https://www.amazon.com/Lou-Agosta/e/B07Q4XX6PF?ref=sr_ntt_srch_lnk_1&qid=1581278312&sr=1-1-spell

George Steiner, (1975), After Babel: Aspects of Language and Translation, London: Oxford University Press (a Galaxy Book). 507pp, $4.95 (original price): https://www.amazon.com/George-Steiner/e/B000AQ1YD6?ref=sr_ntt_srch_lnk_1&qid=1581278399&sr=1-1

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