Logos Multilingual Portal

36 - Intersemiotic translation - part 1

In various parts of the course (starting from unit 8, when we dealt with the subdivision of the different kinds of translation according to JAkobsón), we said that a translation from one system of signs (for example, the verbal system) into another system of signs (for example, a non-verbal system) and vice versa definitely falls into the field of translation studies. In this case, the fact that at one end of the translation process there is not a verbal text does not make it any less important; on the contrary, due to some implications, it becomes of crucial importance to describe the translation process in general.

  Instead of considering an intersemiotic translation as a borderline case that JAkobsón, for some reason, dragged into that classic essay on the linguistic aspects of translation (probably the most quoted traductological essay ever), it would be better, for this reason, to consider it an activity that enables us to redesign the translation process from new (therefore, very interesting) points of view.

  In order to do that, we need to extend the concept of "text". Segre says:

In common usage, text, deriving from the Latin TEXTUS, 'fabric', develops a metaphor in which the words forming a work are seen, in view of the links that join them, as a weaving. This metaphor, anticipating the observations about the cohesion of a text, hints, in particular, at the content of the text, what is written within a work1.

If we interpret this in its broadest sense, without taking into account the fact that Segre is referring to "words" and "written", we can transfer the concept of text to any work, even musical, pictorial, filmic works and so on. In these other cases, too, the work is a consistent and coherent fabric, "a system of structures that are co-implicated at various levels, so that each element takes on a value in relation to the others"2.

  Steiner also agrees with those who involve intersemiotic translation in the broader science of translation:

A "theory" of translation, a "theory" of semantic transfer, must mean one of two things. It is either an intentionally sharpened, hermeneutically oriented way of the totality of semantic communication (including Jakobson's intersemiotic translation or "transmutation"). Or it is a subsection of such a model with specific reference to interlingual exchanges, to the emission and reception of significant messages between different languages. [...] The "totalizing" designation is the more instructive because it argues the fact that all procedures of expressive articulation and interpretative reception are translational, whether intra- or interlingually3.

  Now we will try to prove that it is useful, from a methodological point of view, to include intersemiotic translation in the search for a generic description of the translation process.

  First, we need to stress that there are some differences between verbal languages - that are discrete - and iconic languages (such as painting and figurative arts in general) - that are continuous 4. What does that mean? That in discrete languages we can tell one sign from another, whereas in continuous languages the text is not divisible into discrete signs. If a painting represents a tree, it is not easy to divide that text into single signs.

  Lotman efficiently explained this:

The impossibility of an exact translation of texts from discrete languages into non-discrete languages and vice versa depends on their principally different nature: in discrete linguistic systems, text is secondary in relation to sign, i.e. is divided distinctly into signs. To isolate the sign as an initial elementary unit does not present any difficulty. In continuous languages, text is primary: it is not divided into signs, but it is itself a sign, or it is isomorphic to a sign5.

We said, more than once, that any kind of communicative act, including any kind of translation process, is never complete, we always have a loss: a part of the message that does not reach its destination. In the next unit, we will see what this implies within intersemiotic translation.


Bibliographical references

LOTMAN JU. Izbrannye stat´i v trëh tomah. vol. 1. Stat´i po semiotike i tipologii kul´tury. Tallinn, Aleksandra, 1992. ISBN 5-450-01551-8.

MARCHESE, A. Dizionario di retorica e di stilistica. Milano, Mondadori, 1991. ISBN 88-04-14664-8.

SEGRE C. Avviamento all'analisi del testo letterario. Torino, Einaudi, 1985. ISBN 88-06-58735-8.

STEINER G. After Babel. Aspects of Language and Translation. Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1992.

TOROP P. La traduzione totale. Ed. by B. Osimo. Modena, Guaraldi Logos, 2000. ISBN 88-8049-195-4. Or. ed Total´nyj perevod. Tartu, Tartu Ülikooli Kirjastus [Tartu University Press], 1995. ISBN 9985-56-122-8.

1 Segre 1985, p. 28-29.
2 Marchese 1991, p. 323.
3 Steiner 1992, p. 293-294.
4 Torop 2000, p. 134-135.
5 Lotman 1992, p. 38.