index.html  Modeling Intersemiotic Translation: Notes Toward a Peircean approach



Daniella Aguiar[i]; João Queiroz[ii]





‘There are various reasons for constructing models. For example, it may be desired to make predictions about the outcome of experiments. Alternatively, models may be used to clarify assumptions and expose the logic behind a situation.’


Houston & McNamara








However important its theoretical relevance, and despite the frequency with which it is practiced, the phenomenon of intersemiotic translation remains virtually unexplored in terms of conceptual model;ing. The main methodological difficulty seems to be related to the comparison between radically different semiotic systems (see Dusi, this issue; Eco, 2007; Plaza, 1987). Here we propose a tentative approach, based on Charles S. Peirce’s model of sign process, to provide a preliminary conceptual framework to the phenomena, emphasizing iconic properties and aspects. We hope this approach presents a heuristically interesting frame to describe translation between different systems and processes.[iii]





Our approach is based on two premisses: (i) intersemiotic translation is fundamentally a semiotic operation process (semiosis); (ii) intersemiotic translation is a deeply iconic-dependent process. There is no novelty regarding these premisses. Many authors have stressed that a translation is fundamentally a semiotic operation (see Hodgson, 2007; Gorlée, 2005, 1994: 10; Petrilli, 2003; Stecconi, 1999; Plaza 1987), as well as an iconic process (see Petrilli & Ponzio, this issue; Gorlée, 2005, 1994: 10; Plaza 1987).


2.1 Semiosis or the ‘action of sign’


According to Peirce,[iv] any description of semiosis (action of sign) involves a relation constituted by three irreducibly connected terms:


My definition of a sign is: A Sign is a Cognizable that, on the one hand, is so determined (i.e., specialized, bestimmt) by something other than itself, called its Object, while, on the other hand, it so determines some actual or potential Mind, the determination whereof I term the Interpretant created by the Sign, that that Interpreting Mind is therein determined immediately by the Object’ (CP 8.177. Emphasized in the original).


The above triadic relation is regarded by Peirce as irreducible in the sense that it is not decomposable into any simpler relation or set of relations. He conceived a Sign as a “First which stands in such a genuine triadic relation to a Second, called its Object, so as to be capable of determining a Third, called its Interpretant, to assume the same triadic relation to its Object in which it stands itself to the same Object” (CP 2.274. See also CP 2.303, 2.92, 1.541). The triadic relation between sign, object, and interpretant is irreducible: it cannot be decomposed into any simpler relation. This is why the sign-object relationship cannot be enough to understand sign-mediated process.

A sign is also pragmatically defined as a medium for the communication to the interpretant of a form embodied in the object, so as to constrain, in general, the interpreter’s behavior –


[…] a Sign may be defined as a Medium for the communication of a Form. [...]. As a medium, the Sign is essentially in a triadic relation, to its Object which determines it, and to its Interpretant which it determines. [...]. That which is communicated from the Object through the Sign to the Interpretant is a Form; that is to say, it is nothing like an existent, but is a power, is the fact that something would happen under certain conditions (Peirce MS 793:1-3. See EP 2.544, n.22, for a slightly different version).


The object of sign transmission is a habit (a regularity, or a ‘pattern of constraints’) embodied as a constraining factor of interpretative behavior – a logically ‘would be’ fact of response. The form is something that is embodied in the object as a “regularity”, a “habit”, a “rule of action”, or a “disposition”. Form is defined as having the “being of predicate” (EP 2.544) and it is also pragmatically formulated as a “conditional proposition”, stating that certain things would happen under specific circumstances (EP 2.388; Queiroz & El-Hani 2006). For Peirce, it is nothing like a “thing” (De Tienne 2003), but something that is embodied in the object (EP 2.544, n. 22) as a habit, a “rule of action” (CP 5.397, CP 2.643), a “disposition” (CP 5.495, CP 2.170), a “real potential” (EP 2.388) or, simply, a “permanence of some relation” (CP 1.415).





Figure 1: Graphic representation of the semiotic process.




There are important consequences from Peirce’s model. Semiosis is described as essentially triadic, dynamic, interpreter-dependent, and materially extended (embodied) processes (see Queiroz & Merrell, 2006). Several authors have stressed that such properties constrain a radical re-evaluation of traditional concepts in Translation Studies as “equivalence” and “fidelity”. But it is not our objective here to develop this topic (see Gorlée 1994, 2005; Damiani 2008).




2.2. The division of signs


In the context of the “most fundamental division of signs” (CP 2.275), the Peircean logical categories correspond to icons (Firstness), indexes (Secondness), and symbols (Thirdness), which, in turn, match relations of similarity, contiguity, and law between S and O (sign-object relation) in the triad S-O-I. Icons are signs that stand for their objects through similarity or resemblance, notwithstanding that they show any spatio-temporal physical correlation with an existent object. In this case, a sign refers to an object in virtue of a certain quality that sign and object share. An icon can refer to an object independently of the spatiotemporal presence of the latter because it denotes the object merely by virtue of characters of its own, and which it possesses, just the same, notwithstanding that the object is present or not, and, in fact, notwithstanding whether the object actually exists or not. Icons play a central role in sensory tasks since they are associated with the qualities of objects. Thus, they are present in the sensorial recognition of external stimuli of any modality, as well as in the cognitive relation of analogy.

In contrast, indexes are signs that refer to an object due to a direct physical connection between them. Since in this case the sign should be determined by the object, for instance, through a causal relationship, both must exist as actual events. This is an important feature distinguishing iconic from indexical sign-mediated processes. Accordingly, spatio-temporal co-variation is the most characteristic property of indexical processes. Symbols are signs that are related to their object through a determinative relation of law, rule or convention. A symbol becomes a sign of some object merely or mainly by the fact that it is used and understood as such, due to some of the kind of relations mentioned above.

We are especially interested in iconic processes. Some authors have emphatically stressed the role of icons in translation phenomena (Merrell, this issue; Petrilli & Ponzio, this issue; Damiani, 2008; Gorlée, 2005).[v] For Stjernfelt (2007), the icon is the only type of sign that involves a direct presentation of qualities that belong to its object. In operational terms, the icon can be defined as a sign that, when manipulated, ‘reveals’ one or many aspects of its object. Icons are signs essentially hypothetical, and deeply dependent on the qualites they are made of (Stjernfelt 2007; Savan 1987-88). In iconic sign process, the form which is communicated from the object to the interpretant through the sign is a general similarity between the object and the sign (Queiroz & El-Hani 2006). Generally speaking, an iconic sign communicates a habit embodied in an object to the interpretant, so as to constrain the interpreter’s behavior, as a result of a certain quality that the sign and the object share.



2.3 The Translation Model


An important consequence related to our premises indicates that an IT is a triadic-dependent iconic relation between systems of diferent natures.[vi]

We propose two competing models:


1.       The sign is the semiotic source (translated work). The object of the translated sign is the object of the semiotic-source, and the interpretant (produced effect) is the translator sign (semiotic target). (Figure 2)



Figure 2: Triadic relation in which the sign is the translated work, the object of the sign is the object of the work, and the interpretant is the translator sign.


2.       The sign is the semiotic-target. The object of the sign is the translated work, and the interpretant is the effect produced on the interpreter (interpretant). (Figure 3)


Figure 3: Triadic relation in which the sign is the target, the object of the sign is the translated work, and the interpretant is the interpreter.



According to the process described above, the ‘form’ communicated from the object to the interpretant, produced by means of the sign, is different in each version. How can these differences help us? We can speculate about how the alternatives provide some insights regarding the phenomenon examined. In another interpretation, the models are not mutually exclusive but describe two distinct modalities of intersemiotic translation. According to the first modality, the object is the object of the source, the object of the translated work. The interpretant (semiotic target) is determined by the object (the object of the semiotic source) by the mediation of the sign (semiotic-source). The semiotic target (interpretant) is the semiotic effect produced by the object (the semiotic-source’s object) of the sign (the semiotic source) in a relation mediated by it. According to the second modality, the object is the semiotic source itself (translated work). The interpretant (the effect on the interpreter) is determined by the object (semiotic source), by the mediation of the sign (semiotic-target).[vii] The second model undoubtedly provides us with another perspective of the phenomenon, with focus on the interpreter of the translation process.

 In an effort to pose a better explanation of the model possibilities, we will exemplify them with the Spider-Man’s comic-film translation. According to the first possibility (Figure 4), we could replace the sign (semiotic source)-object (semiotic source object)-interpretant (semiotic target) triad with the comic book - comic book object - film relation. In this case, the sign is the Spider-Man comic book; the object is the Spider-Man comic book object that, in a simplified explanation, should be the overcoming of a “spider-man hybrid hero”; and the interpretant, the effect, is a Spider-Man film. According to the second model (Figure 5), the sign (semiotic target) – object (semiotic source) - interpretant (effect on the interpreter) triad could be replaced with the film - comic book - effect on the audience. Hence, the sign is a Spider-Man film; the object is the Spider-Man comic book, and the interpretant is the film effect on the audience.


Figure 4: Triadic relation in which the sign is the semiotic source, the object of the sign is the object of the work, and the interpretant is the semiotic target.






Figure 5: Triadic relation in which the sign is the semiotic target, the object of the sign is the semiotic source, and the interpretant is the effect produced on the interpreter.



Let’s assume that IT is fundamentally an iconic-based process. As we saw, an iconic sign communicates a habit embodied in an object to the interpretant as a result of a certain quality that the sign and the object share. According to the first modality, the quality is communicated to the semiotic target as a habit embodied in the object of the semiotic source. This is very different from the case that a form communicated from the object to the interpreter is mediated by the semiotic target. In this case, semiotic target and semiotic source share some quality. In other words, what is communicated by the semiotic target to the interpreter is a quality shared between the semiotic target and the semiotic source, which is the translated work, not the object of the translated work. If we are dealing with icons, it should be clear that, in both cases, the interpretant is the effect of an analogy or a similarity produced by the qualities shared between sign and object. In the second case, the process seems to be more dependent on the intrinsic qualities of sign translation; in the first, it is dependent on the qualities of the objects of the translated sign. In the second case, the process seems more dependent on the intrinsic qualities that make the signs of translation; in the first, it is dependent on the qualities that make the objects of the sign translated.






There are small amounts of theoretical modeling systematically produced as regards IT. Indeed, the phenomenon is difficult to characterize and compare with analogous phenomena (e.g. interlingual translation). As it involves systems of rather distinct nature, its analysis creates additional difficulties in any theoretical approach compromised with semiotic processes. One of the consequences of our approach is the importance ascribed to the materiality and dynamic involved in IT, prioritizing the semiotic properties of relations between the source and the target signs. The partial results exhibited constitute a preliminary attempt towards modeling IT.




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[i]  Comparative Literature Doctorate – State University of Rio de Janeiro , UERJ.  

[ii]Research Group on Cognitive Science and Semiotics – Federal University of Juiz de Fora. UFJF.,

[iii] Importantly, we are not concerned here with the typological problem of defining intersemiotic translation (IT) as a specific class of translation. For a detailed approach of this problem, see Dusi (this issue); Eco (2007).

[iv] We shall follow the practice of citing from the Collected Papers of Charles Sanders Peirce (Peirce, 1931-35, 1958) by volume number and paragraph number, preceded by ‘CP’; the Essential Peirce by volume number and page number, preceded by ‘EP’.  References to the micro¬film edition of Peirce's papers (Harvard University) will be indicated by ‘MS’, followed by the manuscript number.

[v] When we deal with artwork translation this propertie must be even more relevant (Bense 1971; Plaza 1987; Campos 1972).

[vi] It is a problem in its own to define the “nature of the system”.

[vii] In this case the object is the materiality of the source, its qualities, and on its language strategies and procedures.



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