Found in Translation – Notes on meeting and understanding pain

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To meet another person often means to meet someone you do not fully understand. There is a gap between us. A gap to be bridged if we want to relate to each other in a real sense. This takes labour: the art of translation is exactly this labour of understanding. In this sense we are all translators. But to understand pain, translation into words cannot be enough. It takes a labour of lived experience and involvement to meet the other in pain. The following are reflections on what it means to translate the pain of others, either in a concrete sense or in one that transcends words and the familiar.

By Ina SerdareviĆ • Illustration by Misja Thirslund Krenchel


“I was thinking not long ago as I was observing the ugly, odd, insane, dirty, begging, hunchbacked crowds in the streets: how sad it is that my, once, home country, my birthplace, my cradle, has turned into something I find interesting for its mere exotic (read: poor) qualities and developing nature. I find myself feeling ‘better’ in the sense of ‘having the prerequisite and surplus mental and financial supplies in order to observe rather than merely be’.

Is it really possible that beauty on a certain level can be reflected in the money? Haven’t I always noticed how desperation translates to the face, the physical features, not only here but everywhere else? It disgusts me a little bit because I know it’s true and because I detect, within myself, a notion of becoming a guardian of many things which are wrong about the way we perceive and mould reality.

I find myself loathing these people for their unyielding expression of misery, the equine hanging faces and the almost sickly submissiveness and resignation: ‘we are the margins of an already marginalized society and we need not to speak nor comb our hair, for what good would a comb do when everything else is lost?’

I stand on the balcony, what used to be a nice green garden in front is now an unauthorized parking-lot, although the police station is just across the street. The constant howling of the tied up dog reminds me of the hellish scenario it would be, if people too would howl. How grateful am I for the fact that they don’t?

What used to be a green alley with trees pointing towards my beloved school is now a row of betting shops and turbo-folk infirmaries for the retarded”.

The above text is an excerpt from a letter I wrote to a friend while I resided in Sarajevo a few years ago. A feeling of disgust echoes in the letter and today, this makes me sad. But in searching my conscience and memory to contemplate this disgust, it becomes clear to me that it is pain disguised. A pain triggered by observing the pain of others, which I never allowed to settle and therefore remained in its barren defectiveness.

But is there a way of settling pain and through this, making something of it, maybe even alleviating it?


Quite recently I started working as an interpreter for an interpreting agency in Copenhagen. I do translation and interpretation from Serbo-Croat, Danish, English and some French. My origins are Bosnian and I figured that most of the clients must have come to Denmark with the big refugee wave in the 90’s as I did. This wave is actually what originally initiated my boss to establish the company. That is, almost 20 years ago. At that time all Bosnians were blessed with a quick residence permit and thus managed to earn the reputation of exemplary refugees: hard-working, well-integrated, European, educated, secularized. One may wonder why there still would be people from that wave with absolutely no Danish skills? How can there be Bosnians who still need my help?

The pain of others rouses our curiosity as long as it is kept at a safe distance. When genocide recurred during the Bosnian war, we, the people of Europe, were reminded that the Balkans should not be considered part of Europe.

Now, in relation to the Balkans or the Bosnian people among us, for instance here in Denmark, it is claimed that they are very European indeed. European in the way they have managed to integrate, adjust, blend in. And all this thanks to the then Danish asylum policy, which granted them residence permits in no time, and thus enabled them to swallow the sorrow and become good citizens. But how does this rosy picture fit with the hundreds of broken individuals (people on social benefits and without any Danish skills) whom I interpret for on a daily basis? Back when the war was at its height, they were sought to be made invisible because they weren’t part of “us,” now they are invisible exactly because they are.
I am not advocating against quick asylum procedures and the granting of residence permits. I am simply pointing out that the opinion mongers, and the agents of the public who are trying to do good by mentioning the Bosnian case in all its glory as a de luxe edition of the refugee condition, are distracting and taking away attention from other matters. A residence permit is only the first step and we can’t leave people at that. This is a matter of a political nature and very important as well, but something beyond the juridical framework has to be addressed. The people left in the cracks between the expressed and the visible. It is not enough to vote for or endorse a good initiative. One must see that it’s followed through on and remember that there is so much pain around us that we do not see, which will reveal itself if one is willing to take it in. Rather than just giving one’s vote at an election in order to come to the rescue of a fellow citizen, one could reach out, one to one, to this very fellow citizen through organized or not so organized social activism. Social activism can take on many forms, which I am not going to discuss here, but the initiative of this very magazine could be one of them.

I speak of the Bosnians here because this is the type of tragedy that I encounter through my work. But let’s not forget that there are infinitely many layers in our society.


In his principal work, The Voice of the Past: Oral History, from 1978, the English social historian Paul Thomson good-humouredly presents a number of arguments for the equality of the personal voice in relation to documents and other relics. Oral testimonies were formerly an important tool for historians and Thomson stresses the new possibilities that arise when one is willing to evade the documents and turn directly to the ones who are creating and living through history. The barriers to understanding thereby collapse and we can reach the unorganized layers, which are seldom heard. The history of the family and the locality comes within reach.

When I speak to my clients (clients are, of course, another word for regular people), I don’t just receive the story in a more or less rough outline. No, I am invited inside people’s home, to parties, cafés, clinics, nurseries, and employment centers, where I have to relate to an utmost complex reality, which opens up a broader perspective of historical realization. This means a renewal and a democratization of the story and of history. I am talking about the force of the single mouth speaking to the single ear.

But this whole “empathy-exercise” is easier said than done. And would I invite myself into this complex reality, which I am talking about, if I didn’t get paid to do it? I would certainly have less time for firsthand solidarity as I probably would be attending another job. In my case, I was thrown into this pain and therefore forced to relate to it, first as a child in the war and now through my paid work.

We are all, in one way or another, confronted with pain, either through our work in institutions, through illness and death in the circle of family and friends, through mediatized pain and the very tangible pain of our own heart and mind. But it is rather rare that we actively seek it out. We take it when it jumps out at us. We swallow it if we have to. Through our jobs or other roles in society, we turn it into moral duty. But what really should be done is to turn this sense of duty into a kind of real compassion or into what the educator and philosopher Khen Lampert refers to as radical compassion. He describes radical compassion as the human state of mind which has developed from old times’ religious duty that compelled us into doing good deeds to a selfless and voluntary social activism. He describes it as an inner imperative to change reality in order to alleviate the pain of others.


It is as if the conversations with my clients, and their desire to tell and retell their lives, opened some carefully stored away box and brought back the memory of war, which we are taught to ignore, or at least accommodate, so that it doesn’t interfere with our daily functioning in society. The humdrum activities of everyday life distance us from pain, whereas traumatic and shocking experiences seem to be “the touchstone for the elasticity of time – for how things can slow into a deeper experience when the habit of the daily is less firmly in the saddle”, as the writer Chris Agee puts it in his war anthology Scar on the Stone. It is exactly this elasticity of time, this slowing into deep experience, which is needed in order to understand pain. To brush up on pain by means of TV and news journalism is not enough. Responses to other people’s pain are innumerable: some cry, some are startled and some numb, some act, some speak, some don’t give a damn. And way too often are the responses automatized residue that stem from emotional paralysis or cynicism. Both paralysis and cynicism can occur if the pain is too much to bear.

Too little empathy and too much empathy can both lead to a blockage of feelings and foster something as negative as a feeling of disgust, like in my opening letter to a friend.


So, how to approach otherwise indescribable informations and deeply traumatized human beings? Is it necessary with emotional and intellectual distance? How are the limits of empathy and sympathy drawn? By which mechanisms?

The writer Virginia Woolf argues in her reflections on war in Three Guineas, that we (say the privileged, the more or less safe, well-educated) are not monsters for not being pained at the sight of others in pain. Our failure is one of imagination and empathy and stems from the way we’ve been trained to perceive suffering. No one has told us about the obligations of conscience. No one has stressed enough that regarding pain is only the first step. The second step is, of course, to act. Organized or non-organized activism.

Looking at how Europe sat in front of the television for four years on end and received the Balkan conflict, it amazes and surprises that people even had enough energy to show the slightest bit of interest and empathy. And still, there are many Danish, German, English, well-educated, empathetic people who haven’t really understood the motif and the cost of war, or even registered that circumstances similar to the Holocaust existed in the heart of Europe in the 90’s.

In Sarajevo, it all still seems to be of terribly current interest and the memory of war and the need to scrutinize the foregone still takes up a lot in the day-to-day life of Bosnians.


In their short film The Old Place, Jean Luc Godard and his partner Anne-Marie Miéville speak about the past and the siege in Sarajevo among other things. Miéville remarks that: “It’s the future that decides if the past is alive or not. A man with plans for progress defines his old self as the self that no longer exists and loses interest in it. On the other hand, some people’s plan involves the rejection of time and an identification with the past.”

Our generation is enslaved by future, going forward is its sole important imperative and this leaves no room for pain. One day, I was translating for a woman who’s dying of cancer and the doctor seemed to be less concerned with her pain than annoyed by the fact that she hasn’t managed to learn Danish. He kept questioning her, all the time turned towards me as if her presence didn’t matter, as if he and I were the grown-ups there, ready to make her business our own, and belittle her. When asked why she hasn’t learned Danish, she told about how her husband had been flown to Denmark by the Red Cross because half of his face had been blown away and needed instant surgery. She had then spent the following years by his side, trying to share his living hell, frightened by his appearance and heart-broken.

I thought then: is she trying to demoralize us or to make us understand. The doctor merely replied: “But still.” And then he made an attempt to smooth out his indiscretion with a smile and the reassuring words: “Life goes on.” But does it really go on? And has it, for all the thousands of Bosnians, the presumably exemplary refugees, who came in the 90’s?

There are so many things that we don’t see. Don’t understand.


They think their case is unique. The clients, the people. They are not aware that their sentences sound like practiced lines at a pension or social benefits audition. I would like to advise them on how to present their traumas, so that the Danish social worker will feel pity enough as to maybe be willing to bend the rules a bit.

One woman says: “I want to work but I can’t. I am sick and devastated. I’ve gone through torture and war. I am not able.” Another one states: “The only solution to my problem is death. I’ve tried to jump off a building but my husband prevented me. My brothers were killed and I don’t rejoice at the sight of my grandchildren.” They don’t know that I just ended translating a web-call from an employment center which echoed the same words.

But just like I weigh their words by comparison to others, they judge the interpreter according to their own criteria. Empathy is the ability of putting oneself in someone else’s shoes. Empathy is all about recognition, comprehension and reenactment. But does it mean that empathy depends on recognition? In many cases, yes. The more equality there is between the observer and the observed, the more likely we are to achieve an empathetic attitude. And the client is fully aware of this and sees how empathy moves through observation,
memory, knowledge and reasoning.

The client understands this and tells the doctor: “The previous interpreter, a woman who goes by a Serbian name, is a catastrophe. She misleads, misinterprets and fails to name the organs.” The client who is of Muslim origin rejects help from a Serb interpreter. But I am certain that this is less a question of ethnicity than it is of the experiences that she and I might have in common. The fact that I am able to share a few details of war of my own makes me, in her eyes, a better candidate for interpreting her pain. What is suggested here is that understanding of trauma can happen more successfully if it is tied to one’s own historical reality.


Try repeating “The tumor has absorbed half of the stomach” or “I vomit blood in the morning” a couple of times a day and you’ll find yourself fighting against nightmares in the night and a heavy gloom during the day – paralyzed to act on it and lacking the will to proceed with your work. This is what happens for most people when confronted with pain.

So how does the interpreter (of language or simply pain) set about grasping and dealing with such harsh situations, especially the ones engorged with pain?

An interpreter must, just like the artist who deals with trauma, take a stand on ways to take in and process something which is otherwise set outside our intellectual scope and the however advanced gamut of emotions.

To an interpreter, the goal is not mere transmission of information but rather the reading of the story, while being totally conscious of the fact that how is as important as what; to try and create a lasting meaning out of narrated incidents. It is crucial to attach weight to the ideas and the feelings behind the story when we are confronted with other people. As an interpreter, one is both a medium and a recipient. One not only transmits within the communicative context but also to oneself. Only then are we really able to take in the pain.

Unlike this thoughtfulness and slow experience of pain, there is news journalism, which depends on efficiency and speed, and which doesn’t harmonize with human psychology and nature.

The observer of pain must see himself in relation to the fundamental and oppressing mechanism behind the power of the photography or the news journalism. The object is to shake and undermine the stiffness and the reification, which in the end carries the seeds of stupor and indifference. What is at work here is basically a question of ethical watchfulness in relation to the pain of others.

The normal ways, where we simply “let the world inside,” like a vast information flow, don’t allow us to swallow it properly. We have to operate with a breach of the familiar. Pain is not immediately intelligible, especially because it is perceived through a strictly organized reality. Our reactions are given beforehand.
It’s not that we have to invent new reactions, but we have to de-automate the old ones. To understand pain, we have to detach ourselves from everyday life and its mediated intrusiveness and untrustworthiness.

We have to defy general and plain lines of thought, which are kept under surveillance, shaped and adjusted by all kinds of pedagogical as well as ideological pressure. The trick is maybe to isolate the information from reality and their natural context, within which we normally perceive them: TV, shops, books, news, photo reportage, guided discussions in schools and other institutions, even around the dinner table with friends and family, where the expectations are already set. Go to the zoos, the hospitals, the mental institutions, the shelters for the homeless, the orphanages, the refugee camps, the factories, the morgues, the cemeteries (and I could go on, including the offices, the malls, the schools and the gyms, but this is another discussion) and let’s give the (hi)story back to whom it belongs. Let’s have some firsthand solidarity. Evade the mediatized pain and its dislocation of reality.

If TV says it all, then we have to listen to what is unsaid. The Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben speaks of the “lacuna” in his work Remnants of Auschwitz: The Witness and the Archive underlining the significance of “listening to something absent.” The job of the translator (and I think that all people are to be seen as translators) is to locate this lacuna and listen to what is unsaid in order to be able to repeat what is said. Because merely repeating doesn’t make one any more empathetic than a parrot. We have to understand but the truly difficult task here is to facilitate this understanding. Make something of it.


A film by Jean-Luc Godard, called Je vous salue, Sarajevo (Hail Sarajevo), uses an image (the film consists of still-images), that shows a soldier with a cigarette in his hand, about to kick a woman lying on the ground.

The cigarette is a little, infinitely meaningless fragment of culture. The picture clarifies the modern cultural mistake in most societies. In spite of the fact that a crime is being played out right in front of our eyes – whether we participate or not – we tend to force it out of our moral and human conscience and cling to a cigarette. The cigarette becomes a manifestation of a distanced attitude towards seriousness and responsibility. It is concrete evidence of our overprotected, psychological integrity. Two convictions exist side by side in the Europe of today: the common/western and the non-common/nuanced. The common conviction can also be nuanced, but it is never personal, never understood, never felt and most importantly: never lived.