The summary document completed by participants after the 2nd intersemiotic translation seminar.
Elements of Media Translation
August 7, 2012
It’s no surprise to Bible societies that Scripture products, print and non-print, involve consideration of text, audience, production, and assessment, though not necessarily in that order. Bible Societies reach out to members of Deaf Culture communities with Bible material in sign languages, and to people in Blind Culture communities with Braille Bibles. Scripture comics target early readers among youth and adult populations, while YouVersionBibles aim at a savvy generation of social media and I-Phone users. Each of these examples indicates how vigilant, well-informed, and intentional Bible societies both are and must be if their Scripture products and services are to engage real audiences in any lasting way. But because there are ever more escalating needs, opportunities and capacities for producing Scriptures with emerging technology and formats, Bible societies still face a steep learning curve. It is a curve they must negotiate as they try to better understand the texts they translate, the audiences they serve, the production disciplines they face, and the new measurements of success required in non-print translation.
“Elements of Media Translation” records two years of research devoted to identifying key elements in what we call media translation but which is also called audio-visual translation, non-print translation or intersemiotic translation. The four parts of this report--Audience, Assessment, Text and Production--provide an outline of a longer document that hopefully will contribute to larger projects, including a translation “manual” and a curriculum for Bible translators.
What do we translate when we translate a “text”?
When we talk about “text”, we usually think of a written or printed text, set out in letters and words, sentences and paragraphs. The field of semiotics, however, takes the term “text” in a much broader sense, referring to “text” not only as a linguistic entity, but as any meaningful expression in any kind of sign system, for instance, a film, a dance, a pantomime, or a song. In short, “text” refers to human communication in all its socio-cultural variety and forms. If we apply the semiotic notion of “text” to the Bible, then the “text” of the Bible includes a set of formats, and stimulates a set of engagement experiences, that go beyond reading a text or listening to a read text. This new set of formats and experiences will comprise, for example, visual expressions of the Bible in film or video; performed expressions in dance, drama, music, or ritual; artistic expressions in drawing, painting, and statuary; and pop culture expressions in graphic novels and comics. This variety of “experienced and engaged text” creates meaning in fresh, new ways, at the same time that it invites an audience to construct meaning in fresh, new ways. “Text” so understood creates and invites meaning in these ways because it appeals to different cognitive and sensory faculties and is intimately bound up with a multitude of strikingly different cultures and social worlds. Still, whatever the nature and purpose of such “texts,” they all unite in a common purpose and intention: conveying the biblical message in life-changing ways.
In our traditional world of print and print-oriented literacy, certain Bible formats (the book, the selection, the portion) have over time acquired a particular authority such that the printed page and a canonical list of books dominate our ways of imagining what constitutes “the Bible” and “the biblical message”. Semiotics, however, refreshes our historical memory and broadens our interpretive horizons by calling us to remember the parliament of formats and experiences that has carried the biblical messages to different times, places and cultures and offered its life-giving power in ways that match many different forms of literacy and learning styles. None of these assertions mean that “print” or “canon” has become obsolete, but only that the broad human condition requires biblical texts and experiences as diverse as the human condition itself.
At the same time that semiotics broadens our understanding of “text” and the ways we encounter “text,” it also penetrates deep inside any given “text” to reveal multiple layers of meaning. Bible translation has traditionally focused on the first accessible surface layers of a text—its philological and linguistic elements, even when it reorganized a text and dug for “kernels of meaning.” Semiotics, on the other hand, redirects our attention away from an overly cautious linguistic and philological solution to meaning, inviting us to “scrub” our texts for less apparent but equally important layers of meaning. It asserts that these deeper levels reveal rhetorical and cognitive structures as well as cultural and social encyclopedias and presuppositions that belong as much to the message of a text as do its philological and linguistic forms.
A semiotic approach to text and meaning invites us to rework our assumptions about what constitutes translation. If a text is not just a linguistic entity then translation is not just a linguistic enterprise or product. Translation, instead, become expansive and covers not only traditional inter-linguistic work, but also, in principle, the transfer of meaning between any two sign systems under conditions that allow for an adequate representation of a source text (adequacy norm) and an acceptable presentation of a target text (acceptability norm).
Semiotics also challenges us to rethink a widely held belief that there is only one way to measure the success of translation, however defined, namely with measurements such as faithfulness, completeness or fidelity. It challenges this belief by pointing out that any kind of translation, including translation between languages, is selective and partial, and thus always in some ways incomplete. Translators have been called traitors for just the reason! So, whether we transfer signs from one language to another or from a text to film or dance or ritual, we always select, marginalize, background and foreground information. Selectivity and partiality are not flaws in certain forms of translation, but qualities of translation that inhere in every translation. Because semiotics does not accept the authority of the traditional measurements, it offers its own tests for success. It invites us to measure success on the grounds of adequacy to a source text and acceptability to a target audience, dynamic measurements which will lie on a different and sliding cline for different formats and media.
For whom do we translate when we translate a “text? Why is understanding audience understanding crucial to the translation process?
The Bible originated in a Mediterranean oral culture which eventually gave the Bible a dominant written and narrative form. Over the centuries the Bible took on an astonishingly wide variety of “texts”—early Christian art and iconography, manuscripts, codices, music, liturgy, painting, ritual, architecture, plays and dramatic performances, and of course, thanks to the printing press, the book. Understanding an audience is at heart an effort to understand what “text” (in the semiotic sense) should embody the Bible for a particular audience. This assertion points to an axiom of modern communication studies: audiences are active meaning-making agents in the communication and translation process.
Audiences are always engaged in interpreting the texts we give them; or in rejecting them. Imagine the consequence of delivering a Contemporary English Version to a King James Bible-only church or vice versa; or, a Scripture comic to a sight-impaired reader; or a branded US military Bible to service men and women in an Islamic country. Understanding audience understanding means early and ongoing efforts to dig into the demographics and psychographics of a target audience, that is, to bring to an audience a Bible or biblical material formatted in a way that matches an audience’s own values and expectations of what a sacred text such as the Bible should bring to their world. A 140-character SMS-representation of a biblical text on an I-Phone illustrates how we adapt biblical texts to audience and technology.
Because audiences are active, we need to respect the three planes or dimensions on which they engage with a text whatever its manner of expression: the work itself, the text or medium, and the audience’s own self-understanding and identity. First, we need to acknowledge that many audiences revere the Bible as a sacred source text that reaches them in the form of translations (themselves sometimes revered as “originals”) and that communicates foundational teachings and values. Second, we need to pinpoint the media and technology an audience trusts to bring it the message of the Bible in a format they are familiar with and trust. And finally, we need a clear fix on an audience’s own acquired self-understanding and self-image which they project on the Bible in an effort to make the Bible their own life-changing force. Semiotics calls these self-understandings and self-images “cultural and social encyclopedias and repertoires”.
In any effort to express the message of the Bible for a particular audience Bible Societies can boost their chances for success by collecting information about the audience. First, a survey needs to identify and describe an audience: Who will the audience be and what do we know about their role as consumers and interpretants, that is, as engagers and meaning makers? Do they treat the Bible as an icon? Do they encounter it primarily in ritual and liturgy, or in personal study? Secondly, research needs to document an audience’s “psychographics,” its self-understanding and self images, since audiences rely on these understandings and images to make meaning out of the biblical products we deliver to them. Thirdly, ongoing studies need to provide up-to-date information on what medium is the most appropriate for a particular audience and what affordances it offers. Fourthly, we need tools to determine the scope for audience engagement within a proposed medium. Does a medium encourage activism (for instance social media) or limit it (for instance, television)?
What is the new production discipline or process that Bible Societies face as they enter the world of media translation?
In the world of media translation, production is the step that follows selection of a text to translate and identification of an audience to target. Key assumptions of the production phase recognize that the “Bible beyond Text” can involve translation of biblical narrative into performance, whether alive or electronically mediated; that translation places texts into all media, not just print; and that translation places texts into all media that accompany print. Media production also acknowledges what print translators have long known, namely, that languages are more than words; that texts are more than books; that all translation requires analysis of cultural, ritual, and symbol systems in order to be successful; and that these systems include patterns of hoping and dreaming, patterns of fearing and protecting, patterns of striving and achieving.
Like our assumptions about text and audience, our assumptions for production have multiple implications: multi-dimensional translation (Bible Beyond Text) strengthens even traditional translation; Bible Beyond Text helpfully augments existing page translations; various individuals and organizations have taken up, and will take up the challenge of Bible-Beyond-Text translations and make it a regular feature of their work.
As we approach the production phase of media translation, it is wise to keep three tasks in sight. First, it is crucial to have a clear description of the scope of this approach, a kind of media catalogue. Secondly, there needs to be a preliminary analysis of the disciplinary demands of this promising approach to the task of connecting biblical texts and communities of faith. And third, a preliminary set of guidelines and practical suggestions, both for current work and for future collaboration, should always be on hand.
What would a descriptive media catalogue look like? First, it would entail in principle all forms of media and technology. Examples of Bible Beyond Text would include, but not be limited to, translations into theatrical and video performances, musical settings, sign languages and other gestural languages, dance compositions, graphic novels, and electronic media including, for instance, Twitter and other social media.
Secondly, it would explain the various and intricate forms of engagement between media texts, the biblical source text (variously defined and selected), the source culture(s) that comprise the ancient context, and the colonial culture with its history of contact. Thirdly, it would document the possible modes of engagement between each type of translation and its audience community (see above on audience).
Fourthly, the catalogue would explain the cultural differences that define a medium within a particular social and language group. For example, Shimon Levy, the author of The Bible as Theatre, comments on the traditional rejection of the theatre and of other representative arts in Jewish culture. Similarly, music plays different cultural roles from one culture to another, and different forms of music have different functions within even a single cultural context. Contrast, for instance, the musical translations of the Passion story into classical choral music (Bach’s St. Matthew Passion) with the translation into classic rock music (Jesus Christ Superstar), or with the musical translations incorporating contemporary secular popular music, for instance, the Amsterdam Passion. Even physical movement of bodies in space (gestural languages or dance, for instance) speaks differently in different cultures. Different cultures regulate matters of gender and the movement and visibility of bodies differently. A dancing or singing woman, for instance, would carry different symbolic meanings in cultures that veil women in public.
A preliminary analysis of the disciplinary demands of this approach will yield two findings. First, the production of (non-traditional) non-print Scripture engagement material or events requires an interdisciplinary approach where both biblical scholars and experts in the non-print media should be involved, in addition to the involvement of representatives from the targeted audience who can actively participate and/or function as a sounding board. Secondly, to ensure the success of a product or event in a non-print media genre, we have to discover, develop and apply the specific rules that are inherent to and determinative for that medium (e.g. audio, visual, dance, drama, radio, internet, etc).
Finally, we need complete notes on preliminary guidelines and practical suggestions. With regard to the selection and analysis of texts for translation it will be important to have an adequate selection of the right biblical texts for a particular medium or a combination of media. In other words: Which biblical text fits the medium/genre? Specifically, the production team needs to address the following content questions: Which elements/themes/structures of the chosen text fit the medium/genre? Which plot or meaning of a biblical text engages modern culture? Which medium engages the plot or meaning most effectively? Which combination of text/medium most effectively engages that particular audience? How do we transpose the most important literary themes in a non-verbal genre?
With regard to the meaning of the Bible beyond Text, we must ask the following questions since every act of translation (and interpretation) adds (and subtracts) potential meaning to the base text: Which elements in the production create new meaning? What is gained (enrichment) or what is lost by the addition of new elements to the biblical text? How can the loss be minimized or compensated, while exploiting the gains, given the audience, the goal, and the wider mission/vision of the Bible agency?
To guide producers of media translations we offer these guidelines: 1) Bible (translation) agencies should stay close to their field of expertise. 2) Actual involvement of partners is key, although this might lead a Bible society to yield a measure of control over the process and the results! 3) The focus should lie on big as well as small budget/audience projects. 4) The size of the audience should not determine the process rather productions should support the community identity and promote localisation (in music, images etc.). 5)The nomenclature of non-print productions should be flexible and contextualized in order for the project /product to be acceptable among different stakeholders (e.g. Scripture use, engagement, promotion, adaptation, translation, dramatization, etc).
What are the new measurements of success that need to replace traditional measurements such as fidelity, equivalence, faithfulness?
We address the subject of assessment by grouping questions into four categories: measurable outcomes, quality assurance, fidelity and audience. The first three, in our semiotic approach would fall under the rubric of adequacy; the last one under the rubric of acceptability.
Each of these four categories must be held in tension in order to evaluate the results in a holistic way. The evaluation phase focuses on finished “products” that have been implemented. We are quick to qualify the term product as the result of a complex translation process whereby the result is not printed material. Thus, product includes digital (CD, DVD, MP3, web-based, texts, etc.) and performance (musical, drama, storytelling, sign languages, etc.). To use the word “product” can be misleading as it lends itself to thinking in terms of objects; it is better to think in terms of process that is interactive: experience.
In terms of measurability, the budgetary questions are central: Was the budget realistic for a product in the chosen medium? And, did it stay within budget? Beyond numbers, we turn to the qualitative questions. Given the general aims for such work, we are interested in whether this product overtly references the Bible. This can happen in two ways: products can be based on the narrative structure and plot of biblical passages; or, products can be based on central themes of the Bible. Beyond referencing, does the product promote an open world whereby the audience participates in co-creating and extending the experience in a generative way? Equally important in terms of quality: does the product respect the narrative world of characters, settings, plot, etc. Respecting the biblical narrative presupposes that the aim of all products is not to predetermine a set of rules or dogma, but to invite participants to enter into the biblical narrative whereby people are shaped and at the same time shape the results.
As suggested above, audience is a central part of assessment. That is, the creators and agents of the product are not the sole voices of assessment. A product’s evaluation involves its openness to audience participation that is not predetermined. Related to this category of audience is a move from global to localized. The assertion is that all good products are localized. Another way of saying this is that a particular product might be successful with certain audiences but fail with others. The audience should not only determine the product but also participate in the assessment.
Fidelity (or faithfulness) is an important assessment category. However, its usefulness is limited in the non-print media. From skopostheorie, fidelity has to do with a comparison of the product with the initial “translation brief.” In other words, did they do what they set out to do? A central component of a brief must be an articulation of the audience: for whom are we translating? Is the product faithful to the audience described in the brief? Beyond a print-definition of accuracy, fidelity can be understood as faithful to a genre, or medium. We immediately recognize that most products contain a mix or hybridity of genres/media. Metaphorically, are the producers “fluent” in the media used or have they been restrained by a literal transfer of material from one medium to another? When successful, the assessment declares, “It touched me!”
In the language of ancient rhetoric, media translating in all its aspects (text, audience, production, evaluation) asks of Bible societies an investment in ethos, logos, and pathos. An investment in ethos is a reaffirmation of the character of Bible societies and their commitment to presenting Scriptures in multiple languages and formats; an investment in logos is a reaffirmation of the need to critically study the audience and its requirements with the same diligence as we study the source text; and investment in pathos is a reaffirmation of the need to treat engagement not as a hoped-for consequence of Bible translation but as a feature designed into every project thanks to an appreciation of the complex nature of “text,” a enlarged understanding of audience understanding, an acceptance of production steps far different than those in the print medium, and a willingness to trust assessment tools and processes that measure success in media presentations of the Bible.