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The eighteenth-century sentimentalist was expected to be a skilled interpreter of nonverbal communication. Sensitive to the nuances of facial expression or physical gesture, the ‘man of feeling’ was an expert reader of physiognomy, a translator of signs who could turn a look into a sentence, the slightest movement into an assertion, a question, or an invitation:
There is not a secret so aiding to the progress of sociality, as to get master of this short hand, and be quick in rendering the several turns of looks and limbs, with all their inflections and delineations, into plain words. For my own part, by long habitude, I do it so mechanically, that when I walk the streets of London, I go translating all the way.
At especially sentimental moments Laurence Sterne's narrators translate a character's eloquent gestures for us, whether it is Yorick exchanging silent courtesies with the old French officer in the box at the Opéra Comique (‘the French officer might as well have said it all aloud’, p. 171), or the concupiscible Widow Wadman waiting for Uncle Toby to reveal where he received his war wound:
—You shall see the very place, Madam; said my uncle Toby.
Mrs Wadman blush'd—look'd towards the door—turn'd pale—blush'd slightly again—recovered her natural colour—blush'd worse than ever; which for the sake of the unlearned reader, I translate thus—
‘L—d! I cannot look at it—
What would the world say if I look'd at it?
I should drop down, if I look'd at it—
I wish I could look at it—
There can be no sin in looking at it.
—I will look at it.’
This kind of sentimental translation has been well analysed by John Mullan, who notes how sentimental narrative ‘has to translate, has to make “plain words” mediate the natural articulacy of feeling’, and in so doing establishes a sociable relationship between narrator and reader (‘those who are to benefit by the habit and art of his translation’).
My concern in this essay is to look behind the difficulties of sentimental translation to what I take to be an underlying problem—one that remains crucial for eighteenth-century notions of Sensibility.