index.html  Translating, Adapting, Transposing

Nicola Dusi 1


1. Semiotics

1.1. Semiotics of Texts, Semiotics of Cultures

In contemporary semiotics, much debate revolves around translation. It appears to be a natural development of the constant focus on texts, whether examined singularly or in relationship to one another. If semiotics is the study of signs, or rather, of systems of signification, then we can immediately declare that a sign is first of all a reference to something else, and that no system of signs or signification, and therefore no text, can ever stand on its own. In other words, as one can easily observe in the production of culture, all texts are supported by something else; they are produced, distributed, and absorbed, circulating in a culture always alongside other products, other texts that receive them, associate with them, use them, cite them, and contaminate them. We agree with the anthropologist James Clifford, who claims that “the pure products go crazy” (Clifford, 1998). A swarm of texts, or rather, a web of references in endless translation with one another. As Yuri Lotman (1984) would argue, translation constructs and at the same time dynamizes cultural universes.

Studying texts, therefore, does not mean forgetting the contexts in which they produce meanings that are socially shared. There is no contradiction: it is a question of thinking, for example, of a film or a TV show drawn from literature not as a separate object, but as the point of arrival in a process. On the one hand, this process has strong connections with the sources, that is, with the texts from which the cinematographic (or television) product draws themes, images, structures, and methods of storytelling. On the other hand, what is set in motion is a negotiation and a comparison with the target culture, which is often radically different from the source text it receives and decodes. It is thus important to examine not only how the source text was adapted, but also the choices determined by the means utilized, as well as the choices linked to the logistics of production and audience captivation, which directly depend on the producers and the receivers in the target cultural system.

This kind of translation always entails ties and limitations, but it also allows for new interpretative challenges.

If we explore the way in which the key moments of a novel are illustrated, or how a novel becomes a film for the cinema or television, the main issue for semioticians is to try and account not only for the way in which every text produces meaning individually, but also for the way in which it triggers a process of reciprocal translation that opens up interpretative problems, and how all of this interacts with the addressees of the message.



1.2. Translation, Adaptation, Transposition: a Semiotic Challenge

We are especially concerned with a specific issue, the discussion of which requires a brief summary of the current debate among Italian semioticians. In his recent book, Dire quasi la stessa cosa (Saying Almost the Same Thing), Endnote Umberto Eco argues that every translation is first of all a form of interpretation. According to Eco, when the expressive substance of a text is transformed, as when turning a novel into a film, it is incorrect to call that a “translation” as if it were an English poem being presented in Italian. In fact, the source text is being bent to the demands of the target text, to its limitations or to its new expressive potential. Furthermore, a film makes it necessary to “show things left unsaid,” that is, to make audiovisually explicit that which the literary text could afford to merely hint at by making it implicit or partially omitting it.

One of the examples used by Eco is drawn from Alessandro Manzoni’s The Betrothed. In Chapter 10, when telling the story of the Nun of Monza, at a certain point Manzoni appears reticent: it is up to the reader to imagine how the nun falls into perdition the moment in which she begins her affair with Egidio, because the narration remains suspended at the famous sentence: “The poor wretch answered.” It is the reader’s task to cooperate with the text, Eco explains, it is he or she who must give a “voice” to that reticence, make hypotheses, and draw proper (or improper) conclusions.


If in writing this is allowed, or rather, strategically constructed, what happens in a cinematographic or television version of the written text? According to Eco, “that ‘answer’ must manifest itself through some actions, whether they are suggested by a gesture, a smile, a gleam in the eye, a tremor.” Endnote The director and the screenwriter must therefore make certain choices, decide what to reveal and how to reveal it, open up the implications of a story told through physically different means. A film “based on” will then be, in each of its manifestations (from the actors’ faces to their clothes, from the light on the set to the framing of each picture), a question of challenges and decisions, that is, a series of interpretations, at every level, of the literary text.

It is not, then, a mere “translation,” but more precisely, an “adaptation,” argues Eco, because in moving from the literary to its representation, “the interpretation is mediated by the adapter, and is not left at the mercy of the addressee.” Endnote While in literary translation the translator’s point of view tends to remain hidden (except in footnotes), in adaptions, according to Eco, the critical perspective becomes predominant.

Eco is certainly correct in insisting on the interpretative stage of every transposition, but it is possible to explore other aspects as well and, as some scholars have done, propose a reflection that still refers to the relationship between a novel and a film in terms of “translation.” Following Lotman, Paolo Fabbri Endnote argues that every system of signs can be translated into another system of signs. For example, novelistic writing can be translated into a film for the television or cinema, and when instances of untranslatability occur, it is a question of changing strategy, in order to allow every fundamental element of the source text to come through. A translation from a novel, Fabbri explains, is always an intersensitive process, and therefore one must take into account all the meanings of the work in order to understand and appreciate the film. For example, an emotion (which constitutes a central problem in the relationship between literature and audiovisual fiction) can be translated by using music, color, a soft or blinding light, or a combination of these various languages.


Mid-way between Eco and Fabbri is Omar Calabrese, Endnote who defines translation as a textual and “individual” phenomenon, tied each time to the choices and goals of a single product. According to Calabrese, translating means not only interpreting, but above all transferring the meaning of a text into another, with inevitable transformations. This means regarding translation not as something closed and permanent, but as a process that operates on the style of the target text to reformulate some levels of equivalence or similarity with the source text. Such process always takes into account the meaning effects (communication objectives) that the novel wanted to create in relation to those which the new text (film or other) intends to maintain, eliminate, transform, or reformulate.

Accordingly, Calabrese suggests an “innovative” translation of the source text: a method of translating that looks for unique traits in the original text; for example, in a novel, it will seek those characteristics that constitute its aesthetic and peculiar nature, its originality. A translation of this kind challenges the text from which it proceeds, it reopens it and wagers that “even the target text can take on the dignity of the source text, and add to it its own uniqueness, as well.” For this reason, Calabrese explains, “we love certain translations that are not at all accurate, but infinitely better than others that slavishly follow the model but fail to grasp its essence. And for the same reason, the cinematographic translation of a literary work (ex. Werner Herzog’s Nosferatu, based on Bram Stoker’s Dracula) may enthral us more than a literary translation.” Endnote Instead of adaptation, then, we shall refer to it more properly as transposition.

In the etymology of the word, the use of the prefix /tras/ (which is analogous to /trans/) entails both trespassing (as in “transgressing”) and “transferring” (as in “transfusing”), drawing attention on the act of going beyond the source text by passing through it or by multiplying its potential. Already in the dictionary, transposition is “a modification in the position of specific elements within a precise order that had been previously constituted” (Devoto-Oli, ad vocem). Endnote While the term adaptation calls to mind an inevitable form of reduction, speaking of transposition carries with it the idea of something that survives the passage from one text to the other respecting differences and elements of continuity. However, in order to make this textual transformation successful, it is still necessary to keep in mind its objectives, among which that of addressing a specific target culture. Endnote




1.3. Spirit of the Novel or Literal Meaning? A Moot Issue

Most recent translation theories distinguish between a “strict” (almost mathematical) equivalence and a “loose,” more flexible equivalence between texts. It is the latter we have in mind when we speak of degree equivalence, one where different degrees of equivalence are applied to the various translations. Semiotics proposes to think of texts as layered objects, formed by mutually dependent levels: the textual layers one chooses to consider will determine whether or not it is worth discussing fidelity in the case of a transposition of a novel into a film.

Transposing means taking into account, for example, the main motifs and figures of the novel, the plot, the narrators who lead us or mislead us, and the literary forms with which all of this is communicated. In short, it means considering the whole style of the source text. The challenge, then, becomes translating the style of the novel into a film, if by “style” we mean the combination of the text’s expression form and content form, logically “molded” by the enunciative strategies (as Christian Metz would argue). Endnote

Furthermore, when we speak of equivalence, we consider it not only in relation to the source text, but always as a dynamic, flexible and contractual equivalence, aimed at retracing the forms of communication that the novel had constructed for its readers, and rethinking them for its new addressee, the audience.

In a translation or a transposition, a true communicative act is performed between different cultures and semiotics. If a comparison or a conflictual relationship can and must be set in motion between the source novel and the target film, it is the work of the translators, from the screenwriter to the director, that becomes necessary to adjust the text to be translated to one’s own objectives and at the same time build a comparison among values, conventions, and norms dictated by the respective cultural systems to which the texts belong.


A transposition (or “transmutation,” according to Jakobson, 1959: 261) Endnote clearly aims at emphasizing the implicit features. It suffices to think of the inevitable imposition of choices and semantic variations, of the connotative spheres that are culturally marked, and the unavoidable variations in discursive strategies. In analyzing a transposition, one is faced with textual choices that gradually enhance potential or actual techniques of similarity, strategies that privilege certain levels of relevance in the translational relation between the two texts.

Indeed, translating an enunciation is not merely a question of seeking ways to transpose the “same” points of view on the story by means of focalization or “ocularization.” Endnote It means instead keeping in mind a global relation that connects the dynamics of expression to the enunciative and enunciational processes, informing all levels of the text.

In this sense we can refer to it as a textual strategy of transposition that can choose (or reject) equivalence or similarity in relation to the source text, a global enunciative strategy that activates the interpretative phase. A strategy that organizes the syncretization methods of the various languages of audiovisual semiotics, for example, is also a constantly new interpretative choice as to which plastic contrasts to trigger or defuse within the text, and which connections or fractures among the various languages to actualize or virtualize. In fact, even on a plastic level, a film, just like any other visual medium, already carries a communicative intention that can be identified through textual analysis.



2. Aesthetic Text, Syncretic Text: Levels of Relevance in the Analysis

A syncretic text such as film contains multiple languages, and a transposition entails changes in matter, substance, and form of the level of expression in contrast to a literary text. For these reasons it is necessary to remember that every film must always be considered an aesthetic text, in which the level of expression and the level of content both determine the overall construction of meaning.

The translations-interpretations that the new text proposes by staging them explicitly or constructing them implicitly will therefore include all levels of the text.

For this reason, when analyzing an adaptation, or rather, a transposition, it is necessary first of all to clarify which level of relevance will be followed. One might choose to limit the analysis to a comparison of narrative structures and, along that line, retrace the elements that were deleted, added, expanded, or condensed in the film. Alternatively, one might opt to consider the series of enunciative strategies and the overall construction of the story. Such construction can be regarded as a mediation toward the production of discourse (whether actorial, spatial, or temporal) activated by the enunciation inscribed in the texts. Thanks to this mediation, the themes and abstract values which make up the universe of meaning in the literary work are converted into concrete and recognizable values, themes, and icons, that is, into discoursive configurations that, in a literary or audiovisual text, are always presented through specific points of view.

The target text is thus transformed according to the strategies and translation techniques one chooses to adopt, and more so when translating from single-medium texts to syncretic texts, which are inevitably different from the source text even in the construction of meaning effects. However, what I would like to emphasize is how the source text, a novel or short story, or even a comic book, a painting, or another film (in the case of a remake) occasionally offers interpretative paths that can become, as I argued earlier, actual re-semantizations (Lotman, 1993). Endnote


If in our analysis we accept the notion that a translation is always an interpretation, founded on polemical and contractual relations between an Addresser (who enunciates or stages a narration) and an Addressee (who is expected to listen, read, or watch), then the process of translation/transposition can follow at least two possible directions: it can lead the audience to comprehend the universe of meaning of the source text (source-oriented approach); or it can serve the need to transform the target text in view of the target cultural system (target oriented approach).

In my opinion, a hypothesis of equivalence between texts related by translation can be found in a coherent reformulation of meaning effects that are analogous, though not necessarily identical, to those in the source text, but only if the film aims at maintaining this type of connection with the novel. Such a method may be less refined than others which play with subtle references and intertextual (and deconstructive) allusions, but it is perhaps more respectful of the intentions expressed by the source text.

As I argued earlier, the challenge of a comparative analysis that takes into account the phenomena of intersemiotic translation applies not only to the strategies deployed by the target text (i.e. the movie) on the level of content, but also to the necessity to confront its choices on the level of expression. It is precisely by pursuing an esthesis of the level of expression that a cinematographic transposition constructs internal systems of resonance and signification that can be regarded as answers to the lyricism of the literary text. This is particularly true for semiotic relations occurring “under the explicit level of signs”(Greimas, ANO: 36), Endnote that is, in semiotic terms, on the plastic and iconic levels, since the iconic succumbs as an invariable to the figurative level in the relationship between the expression form and the content form. Endnote This is achieved through enunciative strategies that can be made explicit thanks to textual analysis. Such strategies aim at promoting a sort of intersubstantial equivalence of expression through the plastic codes of the target text.



3. Levels of Equivalence and Local Tactics

It is therefore possible to highlight some active levels of equivalence even between source texts and target texts which, at first sight, appear to be very different, as for example a novel and a film. The latter may in fact represent a coherent reformulation of the former, and share with it the construction of space or the emotional transformations of the subjects of the narrative.

A semiotic analysis can retrace the itinerary of translation starting from the target text and working its way back from the film to the novel, in the belief that, as André Bazin (ANO) argued, Endnote a good translation opens up and multiplies the source text, and as we argued, it can “re-semanticize” it, making us rediscover it through its new interpretation. One can examine, for example, the value, narrative, and discourse not only of the two texts in translation, but also of the pragmatic and cooperative strategies inherent in proposing a privileged way of reading, and therefore a model reader and viewer. Endnote

Thus, a transposition can also adopt a global strategy of “differentiation” with regards to the literary text from which it originates, while maintaining at the same time some textual levels of equivalence, some areas of actual “intersemiotic translation.”

These are the local tactics (to be distinguished from a broader textual strategy) that make it possible to speak of translatability among different semiotic systems such as a book or a film.




Translated from the Italian by Dr. Marella Feltrin-Morris



James Clifford, The Predicament of Culture. Twentieth-Century Ethnography, Literature and Art. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1988.

Yuri M. Lotman. “O semiosfere.” Trudy po znakovym sistemam 17: 5-23. 1984.

Yuri Lotman. Kul’tura i Vzryv. Moskow: Gnosis, 1993, 113-14.

Christian Metz, L’enunciazione impersonale o il luogo del film. Naples: Ed. Scientifiche Italiane, 1995. (First edition: 1991), 115 n.10.

Umberto Eco, Dire quasi la stessa cosa. Esperienze di traduzione. Milan: Bompiani, 2003.

Umberto Eco, Experiences in Translation. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2001.

Paolo Fabbri, “Due parole sul trasporre.” Versus 85-86-87 (2000) 271-84. The monograph title is “Sulla traduzione intersemiotica.” Eds. Nicola Dusi and Siri Nergaard.

Omar Calabrese, “Lo strano caso dell’equivalenza imperfetta (modeste osservazioni sulla traduzione intersemiotica).” Versus 85-86-87 (2000) 101-20. The monograph title is “ Sulla traduzione intersemiotica.”

Giacomo Devoto and Giancarlo Oli, Dizionario della lingua italiana. Florence: Le Monnier, 1990.

Roman Jakobson. “On Linguistic Aspects of Translation.” On Translation. Ed. Reuben A. Brower. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1959.

François Jost, L’œil-caméra. Entre film et roman. Lyon: PUL, 1987. 77-78.

Algirdas J. Greimas, “Sémiotique figurative et sémiotique plastique.” Actes sémiotiques, Documents 60: 36.

Algirdas J. Greimas and Joseph Courtés. Sémiotique. Dictionnaire raisonné de la théorie du language. Paris: Hachette, 1979.

André Bazin, “Journal d’un curé de campagne et la stilistique de Robert Bresson.” Cahiers du Cinéma 3: 12.

Umberto Eco. The Role of the Reader: Exploration in the Semiotics of Texts. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1979, 7.


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