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Empathy and translation in cross-cultural consultations

Guillaume Wavelet
Traduction de Emmanuelle Casse-Castric
Cet article est une traduction de :
Empathie et traduction dans les consultations transculturelles [fr]


The notions of empathy and translation shed light on each other and allow us to better understand the emotional and relational dynamics at work within cross-cultural consultations used in a psychotherapeutic context. To approach these issues, we will take a clinical situation as a starting point, as well as the questions it raises about translation choices. We will then analyze our affects as co-therapists, before giving the interpreters’ point of view on their practice.

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1Feeling what the other is experiencing, re-formulating in one’s own words the discourse of the other: empathy and translation both seem to pertain to a common posture of decentering and welcoming otherness. We will study their practice and their implications in the context of cross-cultural psychotherapeutic measures, in order to better conceive the psychic movements supporting mutual understanding. It will then be necessary to understand how translation practices invite us to envisage a certain “selectivity” of empathy, understood as the analysis of a partition between what “comes” from the self and what “comes” from the other. It is the encounter and the inter-translatability of these experiences that are targeted, thanks to the adjustments of the cultural frameworks that give them meaning. With a case vignette embodying these issues, we will adopt a reflexive approach by questioning our own affects as co-therapists, and then we will address more specifically the experience of interpreters in such situations. I will thus mobilize both my personal experience as a clinical psychologist participating in transcultural consultations, and the research we are conducting with interpreters working in various structures in the medical and social fields. We will then try to highlight some avenues for reflection about emotional response and relational modalities in translation situations.

The framework of cross-cultural consultations

2 Before addressing specifically the translational and empathic phenomena, we need to define the therapeutic space in which they take place, namely cross-cultural consultations. This form of group therapy, inherited from Georges Devereux’s ethno-psychoanalysis (1972), was theorized and put into practice by Tobie Nathan and the ethnopsychiatric current (1986), before being reorganized by Marie Rose Moro (1998), one of the main figures in the transcultural field in France today. Cross-cultural consultations usually gather between five and fifteen people, including a main therapist, an interpreter, a patient, preferably accompanied by members of their family, as well as co-therapists, psychologists, nurses, psychiatrists or anthropologists, with diverse cultural backgrounds. Such a group can be described as a system where we can work on interactions instead of individuals. Speaking time is shared and the main therapist is the one person to whom the other members of the group address themselves. Speech becomes an object circulating within the group: it is shaped, built, deconstructed and reconstructed by a multi-focal representation, embodied by plurivocality. The interpreter’s presence is fundamental (Abdelhak & Moro, 2006). It is obviously a necessity when consultees and therapists do not speak a common language, but it also proves meaningful even when the patient speaks French, and can turn out to act as therapeutic leverage. Indeed, by inducing a dialog between the “languages from here” and the “languages from there,” the “languages of today” and the “languages of the ancestors,” translation practices take an active part in connecting spaces, times and representations.

3The aim of the group is to recreate cultural sheaths, both enclosing and flexible, within which patients’ suffering can be elaborated, on the basis of multiple theories, put in relation with one another without one being considered as “more valid” than the others. In this way, a co-construction of cultural and collective meanings takes place, on which personal significance is anchored (Moro, 1998). Such a procedure is suggested in various situations, for example, when the patients’ symptoms are evocative of a traditional etiology, foreign to the Western world, such as a case of possession by a jinn or a witchcraft attack. It is also appropriate when children or teenagers with multiple cultural heritages have a hard time articulating them and instead experience cleavage, or when patients in exile have been confronted to traumatic experiences that make it more difficult for them to adapt to a new cultural context. In each case, the point is to create a welcoming space for care, where cultural otherness is acknowledged without being exoticized. The caregivers do not force on their patients a psychiatric conception that would warrant a supposedly unique truth, but neither do they pretend that understanding their patients’ way of thinking comes easily. The purpose of cross-cultural consultation is to make several—seemingly incompatible—versions of the world cohabit in the same space, so as to build a common reality thanks to cultural interbreeding (Rizzi & Moro, 2017).

4This approach is based on some premises, notably considering culture as a container and not as a set of contents (Nathan, 1986). So there seems to be a homology between psyche and culture: they both provide a representational framework to experience. Every psyche is set within a culture, and each culture is experienced by individual psyches (Devereux, 1972). They emerge simultaneously and support each other, forming a system of embedded sheaths that protect the individual by giving them access to meaning. Hence, the subject apprehends their own experience and makes it comprehensible by referring to cultural landmarks that make up a background integrated into their psyche and on which the events they live are inscribed. This internal cultural framework leans on the external cultural framework of society, shared by a group of people with common affiliations and references. But someone with multiple cultural attachments, for example, because they live in a country different from the one in which they grew up, has been subjected to profound reorganizations of these internal and external cultural frameworks. Such a situation can sometimes result in feelings of vulnerability, but it can also be a source of creativity. When a reorganization of cultural frameworks is at stake, therapeutic support consists in offering the patients a group sheath, a containment of the experiences to be translated, at first collective and then progressively internalized by the patients.

The challenges of translation in cross-cultural situations

5After this theoretical preamble, the presentation of a case study will enable us to address more specifically how the notions of translation and empathy articulate in a cross-cultural context. To this end, we invoke a consultation that took place in a medical and psychological center, where a woman and her 20-year-old son, came to visit. They had both left a country in Central Africa fifteen years ago. They speak Lari and French. Their situation can be summarized as follows: a few months ago, the son began to see people attacking him, first in his nightmares and then also while he was awake. One night, he thought his assailants were chasing him and he jumped out the window to escape them. Taken into psychiatric care, he was diagnosed with a “delusional flash” (“bouffée délirante,” a uniquely French psychiatric diagnostic, Roussillon, 2018, p. 274). The reason the family is offered a cross-cultural consultation is that this version of events is not the only one that makes sense, and, more importantly, it may not be the one that will lead to recovery. The mother explains to the group that she comes from a family who practices kindoki. And this is the reason she left, in order to protect her son. Today, she thinks that some members of her family are after him.

6It is certainly not up to the group to decide whether it is a case of kindoki or of delirium. On the contrary, the aim is to strive for the coexistence of these two versions of the facts within a common reality, in order to negotiate a psychic reorganization that will protect the son from attacks. For this to happen, a linguistic but also cultural translation is needed (Bhabha, 2007), and this work also supports a certain practice of empathy understood as a non-judgmental sharing of affects. Empathy and translation need then to articulate as practices determining the ways we get in touch with others and with the world. Such a translation is not based on a fixed meaning transiting from one language to another, but is indeed a dialog between enunciative actions (Suchet, 2021), taking into account the emotional and relational issues at work. Each member of the group is invited to momentarily suspend their own version of the events in order to acknowledge respectfully the other’s version. This is what transcultural theory refers to as “decentering” (Moro, 2015). Translation therefore appears as a mediation in its own right, allowing to be affected by the situation (Favret-Saada, 2009) and to name these affects according to different cultural frameworks. Empathy, mediated by translation, becomes “selective” in the sense that it can take different elaborative courses in order to move from affect to meaning construction and to theories explaining the situation.

7In this context, how to translate the word “kindoki”? And how can we talk about what it refers to in a psychiatric department of a public facility in the Paris area? Kindoki has no equivalent in French and it would be simplistic to equate it with “witchcraft” (Yengo, 2008, p. 299). The kindoki practice is described as sorcerers traveling at night to “eat” their relatives, who then wither away, go mad, and possibly die. The word “kindoki,” strictly speaking, means nothing in French. It is a series of phonemes that can be easily pronounced, but which has no other meaning than that borrowed from other languages and other cultures. When this term comes out in the consultation, how can the group elaborate a collective description of the situation? It will greatly depend on the choice made by the interpreter, in reaction to what he understands of the consultees’ situation, but also in reaction to the relational dynamics at work within the group, to the perceived expectations weighing on him and to the liberties he feels allowed to take. For example, he could still use the term “witchcraft” (“sorcellerie”), which is the closest concept in the French language, which has the advantage of not hindering the fluidity of communication. In doing so, he moves the sphere of kindoki into the European context, giving the French speakers a sense of familiarity. We encounter here a recurring debate in translation studies: the translator is often between the tendency to “bring the source text towards the reader” and the desire to “bring the reader closer to the source text” (Saint-Joubert, 2021, p. 15). However, the term “witchcraft” is far from adequate in this situation since the representations it carries refer to a very varied set of cultural containers and contents, potentially quite distant from what kindoki stands for this family. The emotional dynamics it activates pertain to a self-centered empathy, not to a decentering.

8To by-pass this problem, the interpreter can try to specify which kind of witchcraft they refer to, by describing it. For example, he could use the expression “cannibal-witchcraft.” Described by anthropologists and still widely used today, it makes explicit the fact that the sorcerers feed on their victims, consuming their vitality (Geschiere, 1995). But the connotations of the term “cannibal” evoke an imaginary horizon of savagery. Thus reformulated, the notion seems to describe practices that risk being quickly labelled as “primitive.” The expression requires to be explained and put into context. However, the expression “cannibal-witchcraft” is also used by people experiencing Kindoki. During the consultation, the mother herself used it several times. We realize then to what extent the connotations of a word are different according to the enunciation context, but also within a same context, according to the various speakers and their relationships.

9Paradoxically, another strategy to translate the term kindoki would be not to translate it, with the interpreter saying: “Madam’s family practices kindoki.” By doing so, it is the untranslatable as such which is brought to the forefront and becomes the focus of the discussion in the group (Stitou & Gori, 2014). Indeed, through this intervention, a group discussion can take place, where family members as well as the interpreter are asked to attempt to define what kindoki is. It is up to the co-therapists to react to these remarks by expressing what kindoki evokes within their own cultural system, or, on the contrary, how it differs from it. Through this process of co-constructing meaning from contrasts and nuances, the translation space becomes the occasion for articulating usages in context, an encounter “from language to language” (Diagne, 2022) where each participant invests themselves personally in an attempt to better understand the other. The question the group faces is no longer “how do we translate the word kindoki?” but “how can we talk about kindoki together?,” “How can we talk about kindoki in French and in France?,” with the interpreter as privileged guide in this approach. The translation process departs from a search for semantic equivalents and moves towards a novel language practice which aims at sharing the speakers’ experiences. The function of translation is then indeed to mediate the empathetic reactions in the group, by resorting to decentering.

10The translation practices in a cross-cultural consultation are located at the margins, where several versions of the world cohabit. The aim is not to produce the most faithful translation, but to enunciation multiple formulations (de Pury, 2005), which are as many levers to rebuild protective cultural sheaths. The interpreter reformulates the discourse in several languages, not only Lari and French, but also the language of psychiatry and the language of witchcraft. He must barter for equivalences, while getting the other speakers to admit that these equivalents are imperfect approximations, and that this negotiation is not neutral. For example, trying to translate “delusional flash” in a context where this concept does not exist, risks imposing a psychiatric setting. Medical terminology, invested with the power of the institution, risks reducing other explanations to mere metaphors, “ways of speaking” detached from reality. In an attempt to avoid this, translation practices in cross-cultural consultation need to pinpoint and dramatize the untranslatable notions encountered during the discussion. In this way, misunderstanding is no longer a source of incomprehension but rather what triggers mutual understanding and the communication process (Courbin, 2008). Reaching mutual understanding directly would be deceitful, as it would resort to domination dynamics where one enunciation situation imposes its own conception of the world on the others. Only indirect mutual understanding is possible, based on misunderstanding, negotiation and mediation, i.e. translation (de Pury, 2005). To empathize with others requires a mediation work, carried out by translation, so that possible interpretations of the situation escape a selectivity prompted by social and occupational status and instead remain perfectly polysemic.

Empathy practices as seen from the co-therapist’s experience

11In order to push further the reflection on how the notion of empathy, which can be defined as people in interaction sharing affects and experiences, resonates with the notion of translation, it seems relevant to now resort to the “I” pronoun to question my role as a co-therapist and to analyze my own affects. Where do I place myself in this margin between several versions of the world? How do translation practices determine my own emotional reactions and my way of empathizing with the consultees? As George Devereux (1967) has indeed showed, it is above all by analyzing their own reactions and emotions that researchers in humanities and social sciences can understand their subject matter.

12In order to move forward with these questions, I need to reflect on how a “culture at work” underlies my own listening capacities, that is to say, for Gananath Obeyesekere (1990), a transformation of psychic contents, notably unconscious and conflicting, into cultural symbols we can share and elaborate upon. For example, I can ask myself what thought processes are triggered in me when I hear the term “witchcraft” as a translation for “kindoki.” When I hear “witchcraft,” I cannot help but think of Harry Potter, and many other popular works, set in similar diegetic worlds. For me, witchcraft belongs to fiction, to a place outside of reality, in which I can indulge my fascination for the supernatural. But this kind of witchcraft has nothing to do with kindoki as described by the family in consultation. If I imagine the potentially lethal attacks evoked in the session as belonging to a fictional and metaphorical witchcraft, how can I pretend to offer an empathetic listening? As a co-therapist, it is very valuable for me to empathize with patients, to be moved by their experiences and to feel how those experiences resonate with mine. The emotions that I feel are not necessarily “positive” in the sense of empathy confused with sympathy, synonymous only of compassion or even pity. Therapeutic listening implies a selective practice of empathy because it is based on a partition between what “comes” from oneself and what “comes” from the other. The curious but reserved fascination that I feel, is it only my own, in relation to what witchcraft is for me, or is it also coming from the positioning of the consultee in relation to her own family? Is the near-horror that the idea of a “cannibal-witchcraft” (distantly related to the Freudian primitive horde (1913/2010) and put into images by Goya), triggers in me really mine, as a Westerner trying, sometimes clumsily, to deconstruct his heritage, or is it also that of the consultee faced with the violence and mortal risk she is confronted with and that she has been able to transmit to me through her choice of words?

13As a co-therapist in a cross-cultural consultation, I can only work from my own cultural frameworks. The discourse I can have during a session consists in saying “in my world, when we talk about witchcraft, we mean this, to describe such a situation,” or “in my background, when there are conflicts within the family, here is what we do and how we talk about it.” In this way, I contribute to the elaboration carried out by the group in the form of images and personal accounts. Yet, at the same time, I continuously strive to de-center from my framework and conceptions. I have to work with candor and amazement, and account for the fact that the version of the world I am confronted with is outside my representational field and generates in me a feeling of eeriness.

14I am therefore faced with two pitfalls, which are at the heart of any empathetic experience in a transcultural context. The first is to consider the other too close to another self. Empathic listening would then be tantamount to “putting myself in the place of the other,” in the sense of “taking their place.” It is a deceptive kind of empathy, where I consider the situation of the other as if it were living it. In an impression of bonding with the other, I unwittingly appropriate their experience, thus depriving them of their story. This phenomenon can arise when the path of the person I am listening to seems very similar to mine. But it can also happen if I absolutely insist that the other’s experience, although very different from mine, be deformed so that it ends up perfectly fitting my ways of thinking. In the clinical situation I mentioned, I could, for example, think of tensions in my own family and consider them comparable to those described by the consultees. Or I could reduce kindoki to an equivalent of witchcraft.

15The second pitfall is somewhat the opposite of the first. It consists in considering the experience of the other as radically alien, inaccessible, and incomprehensible. It is then difficult for me to share a feeling of belonging to the human community with the person I am listening to, since I cannot fathom what they are experiencing. The untranslatable remains something that cannot be translated, without birthing new formulations. The misunderstanding becomes a non-understanding. The word “kindoki remains nothing but a combination of syllables with no meaning. If I cannot relate to the experience of the other, how can I let myself be affected and concerned by what I hear? Empathy here is no longer a matter of “putting myself in the other’s shoes,” but of welcoming the subjectivity of the other in me, of transforming my own subjectivity so that the subjectivity of the other can be accommodated without being distorted (Quintin, 2014, p. 12).

16However commendable the effort is, how can I transform my subjectivity to meet an experience that makes no sense to me? How can I maintain a sufficient distance so as not to transform kindoki into something it is not, while trying to picture it based on what witchcraft is for me? It is indeed a double challenge of translation and emotional fine-tuning. But it is also a political and social-historical reflection, since we are in an asymmetric enunciative context. On the one hand, we have caregivers, with a certain power and knowledge, derived from psychological, anthropological and psychiatric theories. On the other hand, in my example, the consultees come from a former French colony. In order to practice empathy to navigate between different versions of the world and different translations, we need to use a decentering that takes into account the political and historical situations that give different weights to the discourse of different speakers.

Practices of empathy as seen from the interpreter’s experience

17In order to pursue the analysis of the entanglements between translation and empathy, considered as practices of emotional and cognitive tuning, it is essential to also examine how the interpreters themselves experience this. To do so, we move away from the case study that has guided us so far, and rely on interviews conducted with professional interpreters/mediators working in the medical and social field, which we analyzed according to an inductive qualitative methodology (Paillé & Mucchielli, 2021): the interpretative phenomenological analysis (Antoine & Smith, 2016). The aim of the present article is not to give a commented account of the results of this study, which was not specifically focused on empathy, but we will refer to some of its most salient elements, which seemed to inform the issue we explore here. We will refer more specifically to the testimonies of three participants from West Africa, quoting their words between quotation marks.

18In the interviews with the interpreters, empathy for the speakers is mentioned as one of the core values of the profession, along with helpfulness and neutrality, with which it articulates in a way that is not always easy. Being an interpreter consists first in “helping others,” “lending one’s voice to someone who does not have one,” which means giving life to the other’s speech with one’s own body. In the same vein, the interpreter’s purpose is to “reassure” the users and “establish a space of trust” for them. These values of mutual aid lead naturally to a feeling of empathy, since the interpreters “often clearly put themselves in the place of the other,” developing an “ability to project themselves, at least into the mind” of the user. However, interpreters warn that “compassion,” “this form of exaggerated empathy [...] can distort neutrality” and confront them with very intense emotions that are hard to manage. Yet neutrality and impartiality are two pillars of interpreting practice, at least as much as empathy. One of the participants, questioning the “very abstract” nature of the concept of neutrality, wondered if it was attainable at all, given the emotional reactions, always very present in clinical consultations, and seemingly incompatible with neutrality. Empathy and neutrality revolve around the notion of fairness. An interpreter summed up the situation as follows: “You have to be fair not only to yourself, but also towards the administration that needs the information, and towards the user as well.”

19One of the ways to avoid opposing neutrality and empathy in the interpreters’ practice could be to consider these values not only as responsibilities that the interpreter would have to carry, but also and above all as qualities in the relationship between co-speakers. In a configuration that takes the form of a good quality alliance, converging towards a common goal of mutual understanding, the interpreter can be at the same time a neutral translator (for users and professionals), an empathetic and reassuring compatriot (for the users), and a competent collaborator who provides information (for the professionals). In an opposite context, where the alliance in the group of speakers is of lesser quality, contradiction appears in the form of conflicts of loyalty. The interpreter risks being considered as hindering communication (for the professional) as well as a representative of the dominant culture, a traitor to their origins (for the user). It is in the context of a degraded relational modality that empathy and neutrality can no longer coexist.

20This dynamic becomes essential in the interpreting situation between dominant or “central” languages, such as French, and subordinate or “peripheral” languages (Casanova, 2015), such as West African languages like Bambara and its variants or Central African languages like Lari. Due to social assignments, the interpreter is perceived as kindred to the user, or even as a “spokesperson” or “representative” of their culture and identity (Pisani, 2020). When the interpreter empathizes with the user and recognizes themselves in him, when they “enter his mind,” it is no longer only the effect of oriented emotional reactions, it is also the result of social assignment. This process risks crystallizing societal tensions that are not expressed in the consultation. For example, one interpreter recalls a clinical situation where she experienced a very strong empathy for a mother who had lost custody of her children. This situation is shocking for her because she shares a “maternal instinct” with this mother and understands what she is going through, as a woman and as an empathetic human being. But she also feels uneasy because she imagines that this woman is angry with her and thinks “although you are African, you are on the others’ side.” The user reflects to her a part of her self-image, and the reflection turns the sharing of experiences into a dizzying game of mirrors reflecting socially assigned identity likenesses. The other-in-me I welcome at the moment of translation meets a me-in-the-other of sorts, that is sometimes difficult to live with. Another interpreter explains that she gave up using “I” when she translates for consultees, because it is too exacting to retell the experience of others in the first person, by becoming a subject for the other, even grammatically speaking.

21What determines the characteristics of the different relationship modalities, and thus conditions the selective use of empathy, either de-centered or self-centered, as well as the capacity of a translation to produce multiple formulations or, on the contrary, to reduce different versions of events to a single version, is the layout of several interconnected frameworks, ranging from a very broad social and historical scale to the intimate and intra-psychic sphere. The history of the States, nations and languages involved, for example, makes up one framework that influences the relationship between speakers, in the same way cultural settings determine people’s conceptual apparatus and various aspects of their worldview and the ways they express themselves. The physical setting of the meeting also plays a role, such as the size and layout of the room, and so does the institutional setting. We can also mention the internal mindset of each individual, composed of their values, experiences, imaginary world and memories. These entangled frameworks act as containers determining the form of the relationship. It is the way they are assembled that makes possible—or not—a translation serving the empathic movements in the group or, on the contrary, trapped in a fallacious ideal of truth and neutrality.

22The organization of these frameworks and their necessary adjustments during the consultation depends largely on the interpreter and on the way they are accepted in the group, but it also depends on each participant in the consultation and results from collective agreements. This is the reason why the collective nature of cross-cultural consultations and the collaborative reorganization of these frameworks is emphasized. The emotional reactions to which the interpreter is subjected are diffracted among the other members of the group. The search for linguistic equivalences is replaced by an endeavor to produce utterances. The words of each participant become part of a constellation of discourses, they no longer belong to the subjects personally but are part of the group’s psychic apparatus (Anzieu, 1984). The untranslatability which separates the discourses, and the misunderstandings they generate, are made tangible by the circulation of speech within the group and produce gaps which are acknowledged as the basis for construction. It is because the versions differ from one discourse to another, from one language to another, from one speaker to another, that the grasp of the situation evolves and that patients succeed in giving new meanings to their experience. The collective work that weaves a containing and flexible sheath is first done collectively, and then internalized by each participant in the group.

23We have seen that empathy and translation are two vectors of mutual understanding because they allow the voice and affects of the other to exist within oneself. In order for this process, which is transformative by nature, not to result in a negation of the other’s reality by imposing one’s own reality, a certain habit of decentering needs to be implemented. The particular relational setting of exchanges within cross-cultural consultations is precisely conceived to guarantee a decentered practice of empathy, thanks to translation as a mediation technique. The clinical examples we encountered as co-therapists, as well as the comments of the interpreters we met, invite us to consider how the sharing of affects and the relational adjustments in the group mobilize the notion of empathy in its most intimate realization, as well as in a form determined by the social and political field. Its close articulation to the translational phenomenon shows how understanding the other also confronts the self. A self “within oneself,” reached through genuine personal affects, but also a self “in the other,” perceived through identity assignments.

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Guillaume Wavelet, « Empathy and translation in cross-cultural consultations »Hybrid [En ligne], 10 | 2023, mis en ligne le 28 septembre 2023, consulté le 04 décembre 2023. URL : ; DOI :

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Guillaume Wavelet

Guillaume Wavelet is a clinical psychologist working at the Maison de Solenn, a center for teenagers at the Cochin Hospital (APHP), and at the Saint-Denis care access and referral center (Médecins du Monde). He is a doctoral student under contract at the University of Paris-Nanterre, where he is writing a doctoral thesis on the experience of translators-interpreters and cultural mediators from West Africa.

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