Executive summary of first intersemiotic translation seminar
Strategic Analysis and Planning Paper
Intersemiotic Translation Seminar
March 7-11, 2011
Draft 4.0 (May 9, 2011)
Increasingly, mass media, pop culture, and digital technologies, along with modern orality, have challenged traditional and print-based translation strategies developed by Bible societies and churches. In many cases, these Bible societies and churches look back on long and, in some instances, ancient traditions of translating into print their religious discourse, especially their sacred scriptures. The scope of the change includes challenges to the very definition of “translation” and “translator” as well as critical thinking about long-held views of how to measure fidelity, engagement, and impact.
To address the particular case of Bible translation in this new communication and information culture, the Nida Institute convened a seminar on inter-semiotic translation. The Institute chose this topic because it believes that modern semiotics offers Bible societies and their translation staff a valuable tool for developing and assessing translation in a post-print environment. Crucially for Bible translators, semiotics opens new avenues for recognizing, prioritizing, and selecting meaningful structures based on an analysis of a text as a dynamic network of signs, rather than (only) as a static linguistic entity.
The Institute also looks to semiotics because this field is thought by many to be “democratic,” that is, a field that treats all forms of translation as instances of a single cognitive act: the making of meaning using signs of many kinds. As it looks at translating from the angle of meaning-making, semiotics shows resemblances and similarities but also differences and distinctions between individual expressions of the translation task, for instance, between print, performance, and media-based presentations of the Bible. Semiotics also updates and expands the tools available to develop translations; to measure the success of translation; to deliver engaging translations to audiences; and to provide fresh course elements for the training and capacity building of future generations of translation consultants.
The Institute plans to establish a regular cycle of inter-semiotic seminars for such constituents as the United Bible Societies (UBS), the SIL-International, and the Society of Biblical Literature’s Seminar on the Bible in Ancient and Modern Media, as well as for other interested professional, denominational, and academic groups.
Backdrop to the Seminar
In a world of communication strategies increasingly dependent on orality, pop culture, mass media, and digital technologies, Bible societies and their supporting churches face sharp challenges to a long-established and much-venerated tradition of print translation. Bible societies have invested heavily in print translation and all its tools: scholarship, training, resources, and consultants along with publication, engagement, and distribution programs. Understandably, they wish to protect and defend this investment, for instance, by funding programs of traditional translation as a first tier of work, but then “supplementing” this work with digital media such as CDs, websites or IPhones to deliver the printed text in a digital format. Some Bible societies even distribute biblical texts in electronic formats limited to the 140 characters of an SMS text.
In other cases, Bible societies do create a wide range of media products, for instance, Scripture comics, animated Bible films, reproductions of biblically-inspired art, and Bible-themed popular music. However, explicitly or implicitly, Bible societies set off these media products as different from traditional translation. They are “artistic,” “engagement-oriented,” or “Scripture resources.” But they are not translation. Ironically these same societies in many cases do actually have non print programs of translation for sign language Bibles. Still, sign language translation represents an exception to a norm which looks to digital or hardcopy texts as the preferred delivery platform for Scripture.
But it is debatable whether Bible societies, faced with audience and market demands for relevant Scripture products and experiences, should maintain this distinction between traditional translation and other media products. After all, this distinction has little support historically and theologically as well as theoretically. It has little support historically because the church (and synagogue) has a tradition of oral performance and visual representation of the biblical text that is as ancient as the manuscript and printed text traditions. It breaks down theologically because it is the conviction of the church that the ultimate ground and meaning of the Scriptures lie in the personal and unifying Word of God, which inspires the Scriptures, not in the diverse literary forms and Greek, Hebrew, Syriac, and Latin words of the Scriptures.
Related to this theological point is another: To what extent is the “de-authorization” of non-print models of translation the result of confessional commitments to the written word, for example a KJV-only position; a centralized teaching authority, or a commitment to a foundational faith position such as sola scriptura? In short, should Bible societies embrace a translation strategy that affirms the life-changing presence of the Word of God in non-print formats?
On a theoretical plane, the distinction breaks down because every form of communication, including translation, depends on signs and the capacity of signs and groups of signs to make meaning. Whether we present the biblical text and message in print or in film or in dance or in music or in oral performance we are dealing with the presentation and interpretation of signs—lexical, filmic, gestural, sonic, performative—to communicate the meaning of the biblical text. In the terms of Peircean semiotics, every act of communication, including acts of translation follows an inner logic of meaning making, also called semiosis. Sign vehicles (words, images, sounds, gestures) point to their objects (physical, cognitive) and then through the intervention of an interpretant (a person, a cultural value, a habit) find their meaning.
But it is not just the power of orality, pop culture, mass media, and digital technologies that Bible societies must reckon with as they evaluate their programs of translation. The market—to use the language of commerce—to which societies distribute their translation products is evolving. There is a tectonic shift of the global church population toward the southern hemisphere. There is, especially among youth and young adults, an enthusiasm for experienced Scripture rather than discursive Scripture. There is impact of ideologies such as post-colonialism and feminism that challenge established colonial and male-dominated translation strategies. And there is finally a global call for localization of training and capacity building in the areas of theological studies, biblical expertise, and translation proficiency.
Against the background of a global church so set in motion, and looking to address the specific and sensitive issue of traditional Bible translation versus media products, the Nida Institute at the American Bible Society (ABS) planned and carried out an Inter-semiotic Translation Seminar at its Misano Adriatico campus, from March 7-11, 2011.
In the short term, the seminar aimed at identifying, describing, and shaping a model of translating, communicating, and implementing the Scriptures that would:
- Recognize and assert the historic role and contemporary value of the many strategies and channels across which the church has translated, communicated, performed and implemented its Scriptures;
- offer fresh insights and options for reading sacred texts and selecting features to be emphasized in a translation, whether traditionally or broadly conceived, and however delivered;
- respect local preferences for defining needs and purposes as well as for assessing adequacy and acceptability;
- and contribute materially to the new demands of training, professional development, and capacity building.
In the long term, the seminar will seek ways to distribute these and other findings to the participants, especially those from the United Bible Societies (UBS) whose leadership has charged them with the planning and preparation of a report on non-print Scriptures for the upcoming 2013 Triennial Translation Workshop.
The Institute chose an inter-semiotic approach to its program. The reason lay in a threefold hypothesis about translation: 1) historically the church has always communicated the Scriptures in many media; 2) theologically the ultimate ground and meaning of the Scriptures lies in the Word of God, which inspires the Scriptures, not in the words of texts; 3) and in theory and practice translation entails a manipulation of signs within their organizational forms and structures along with a transformation of the meaning of these signs from one organizational form and structure to another. Our hypothesis or wager asserted that an inter-semiotic model would account for the historical diversity of translation strategies and channels; find its theological justification in the effort to translate the Word of God and not simply the words of texts; equip the translator with new interpretive tools for reading sacred texts and translating them; show the culturally-sensitive nature of the organizational forms and levels of meaning we translate; and encourage new directions in training, professional development, and capacity building.
The Work of the March Seminar
There were two major threads that held the seminar together. The first consisted of daily presentations by semioticians from the “Schools” of Umberto Eco and Paolo Fabbri. They explained elements of semiotic theory and then demonstrated a semiotic approach for reading and interpreting the organizational forms and levels of meaning within texts of all kinds (printed, media, performed, artistic). The second comprised presentations by experts in Bible translation, biblical scholarship, and cognate fields such as performance, linguistics, ethnomusicology, and communication. These colleagues represented several interest groups: the above-mentioned UBS, the SIL-International, the Society of Biblical Literature’s Seminar on the Bible in Ancient and Modern Media, the American Bible Society’s 1989-2001 Program on Multimedia Translation, the San Pellegrino University Foundation, and the University of Urbino.
The work of two renowned Italian semioticians (Umberto Eco and Paolo Fabbri) as well as recent work in cultural studies helped shape the semiotic presentations. Of special importance was a principled and fundamental shift in how we approach and interpret texts, a shift away from an older semiotics and hermeneutics to a newer one: “Old semiotics divided the different languages according to the different channels, the different substances of the expression: in this way you had the visual sign, the acoustic sign, the film sign, the television sign, the gestural sign etc. The problem of today’s semiotics is rather to substitute these divisions by substance with divisions of forms of organisation, common diagrams.” (Paolo Fabbri, La svolta semiotica, 1998: 115-116; translation by Nicola Dusi).
As the semioticians explained how and where to find these “forms of organization” and the “common diagrams” they opened up a toolbox of concepts and notions that began to show the potential of these instruments to facilitate new approaches to translation. In this toolbox we found:
- cultural encyclopaedias or cultural repertoires of knowledge;
- isotopies or guidelines within a text that announce repetition and coherence;
- heterogeneity or the layering of texts with invariant structures and dependent levels of meaning;
- and enunciation or traces of the voice of an implied author as well as of the expectations of the implied reader and viewer.
A second organizational principle bearing on translation reflected work within modern cultural studies by Emily Apter, Homi Bhabha, James Clifford, and others. This principle asserts a new urgency and primacy of translation: translation is a natural process within cultural change, so natural in fact that translation is constitutive for cultures as such and stands for an epistemological instrument or way of knowing and understanding our contemporary world. The implications of this principle reach far, suggesting that every act of translation is not only an exchange of meaning between signs and sign systems (intersemiotic aspect of translation) but that also every act of cultural formation is itself a moment of translation (intercultural aspect of translation).
Lectures by the other subject matter experts looked at translation in a wide variety of contexts, disciplines, and media: communications, linguistics, text criticism, and skopos theory as well as ethnomusicology, performance studies, sign language, and recent UBS research on orality and media.
Recent research in communications offers a model of media ecology to explain the dynamic environment created when humans interact with each other. Within this eco-system there are a multitude of contexts (interpersonal, group, organizational, mass media/social, and non-mediated) each of which affects translation because each has what the semioticians have called forms of organization and common diagrams. As linguistics research showed, even as narrow a topic as the translation history of a single word, in this case the term logos from the prologue to John’s Gospel shows how forms of organized meaning such as a theological interpretive tradition determine the options available for translation. Another factor that determines the options available for translation (a factor also falling into these semiotic categories) includes the skopos or purpose of a translation brief which, once defined, sets the parameters for a particular approach to translating a text.
With its decades-long history of Bible translation, the UBS translation area has a record of research and publication in the field of orality and media that has shown great awareness and sensitivity to options other than print for translating the Bible, in short, to inter-semiotic translation. Of special relevance to the seminar was recent research in ethnomusicology and performance studies as well as the performance of biblical texts in song, ballet, and music video. These presentations lifted up the oral and inter-semiotic features of biblical texts, pointed to the performance cues in manuscripts and oral traditions (redundancy, repetition, memory devices, episodic), and showcased the enduring power of performed texts. In an introduction to a form of inter-semiotic translation known as sign language, the seminar discovered the semiotic complexity but also the precision of the natural language of deaf communities. Sign language, which is not a universal sign system or language but a compendium of languages and dialects, belongs as a natural language to deaf communities who live with and draw meaning from their own cultural encyclopaedias that differ in significant ways from those of hearing communities.
Points to Ponder
Over the course of the seminar personal and group reflection took place at both scheduled and unscheduled times and identified points that deserved further pondering. An evaluation tool and post-seminar email correspondence contributed their own points. Together this body of questions and concerns gives the seminar a forward-looking thrust since the Nida Institute looks to establish a tradition of such seminars while the UBS plans to reestablish a working group on media and orality. Some of these points lie more on a theoretical plane, while others get at the practicalities of working within translation projects as a trainer, consultant, and capacity builder.
Of a more theoretical nature were points such as:
- What are the implications for the authority of the biblical text if we assert, with a semiotician such as Paolo Fabbri, that a semiotic approach to translation gives itself permission to translate only selected levels of meaning within a text’s semiosphere or cultural encyclopedia? At the same time, if we take the notion of authority of the biblical text seriously, any selection of levels of meaning should be done while we try to define what “Word of God” means in the text in question. What levels of meaning should we be discussing?
- Is it of any value to think of inter-semiotic translation as a form of information management, that is, of identifying and capturing some levels of information for a translation but back-grounding or ignoring others?
- How much emphasis should we put on the skopos or function of a translation, as part of a semiotic approach that treats genre instructions, audience expectations, and the brief by an authoritative and commissioning entity as themselves signs?
- To what extent does an inter-semiotic approach to translation bring a new epistemology with it, that is, a new appreciation of what we can know about the meaning(s) of a text and what is available or not available to present within a translation?
Are we prepared to expand our view of translation and make the cultural leap, that is, to see work on biblical texts as an activity that cultures ancient and modern shape and that in turn shape and exist within those cultures?
- In an inter-semiotic model of translation how do we facilitate, achieve, monitor, and measure quality and success if not with the older litmus tests of faithfulness and fidelity to an original?
- What are the implications for the authority of the biblical text if we think critically about long-held assumptions surrounding “original texts”, that is, if we follow semioticians such as Paolo Fabbri who urge not an autographic approach to texts but an allographic one which asserts the heterogeneity of all texts and the presence of multiple semiospheres within a text?
- How do Bible translators bring together the demands of an inter-semiotic approach to translation with the demands of a corpus-based and canonically-established set of texts traditionally associated with Bible society work.
- How would Bible translators build understanding and capacity for a semiotic approach among churches that do not yet have semiotics in their field of vision? What lines of communication, capacity building, and dialogue are needed?
- What ethical issues surface in an inter-semiotic approach to translation?
On the practical plane lie such points as:
- How to integrate semiotic theory and practice into the training and education of a trainer, consultant, and capacity builder, particularly one who is initially schooled in historical critical and philological fields?
- How will the role of the translation consultant need to be adjusted, not just in view of an inter-semiotic approach to translation but in view of the changes rippling through the global church?
- How will this new role serve or even change the four translation activities of production, quality control, research, and training (both in the sense of training as monitoring the translation decision process already during the lifetime of a project as well as training which the translation consultant should receive)?
- A related question that could be added: How will this new task affect the place and role of the translation consultant as she or he relates to other team members?
- What are the practical and operational implications of any new theory of quality control or measuring success? Who measures success? By what standards? Are we prepared to think of success in terms of fairness and unfairness, or of comprehension replacing truth, or more knowledge of a text replacing less knowledge?
- If an inter-semiotic approach to translation is endorsed, where do consultants receive their training and professional development, that is, their credentials for this field?
- How do individual Bible translators educate and involve their supporting churches and Bible societies so that the churches and societies become partners in this enterprise? For example, how do they create understanding for the position that all translation is partial?
Apart from the preparation and review/revision of this draft paper, the Nida Institute envisions at least three next steps:
1) The planning of a second inter-semiotic seminar for early April 2012 which will again bring together another cohort of semioticians, Bible translators and scholars, along with experts in cognate fields such as performance, communication, sign language, ethnomusicology, and linguistics. One possible program design would allow a full day to explore at both theoretical and practical levels a single channel of Bible translation, for example, sign language, music, performance, and film, possibly all centered on one biblical passage. The goal of such a program would be:
a. to help consultants to move beyond a purely linguistic assessment of texts into semiotic treatments of texts. This move would happen on two levels: Theoretically for a consultant to learn to work with a semiotician; practically for a consultant to work with, say, a filmmaker.
- The development of a toolbox, even a checklist of what to look for in a text when you know that the text is going to be transformed/translated into another channel.
- to better define the difference between two interpretive “engines”: the semantics of a biblical text and the semiotics of a biblical text;
- To define the place of other approaches such as cultural studies and skopos theory within a semiotic approach;
- To clarify the many problems of terminology that semiotics brings to non-semioticians. For example, even the term “intersemiotic,” which is supposed to indicate the unity of various approaches to translation but is far from self-explanatory, may need explication in terms such as “transformative translation” or “multidimensional translation.”
- To prepare in time for the next IST seminar a reading list of basic semiotic titles for use at the next seminar and for distribution to the larger UBS and national Bible societies
- Providing assistance as needed to the UBS colleagues as they prepare a report on translation and media for the 2013 TTW. Part of the assistance may lie in open lines of communication with those involved in this report; part may lie in material contributions to the report from non-UBS seminar participants.