Is translation only about words?

15th Nov 2013

In 1956, famous Russian linguist and literary theorist Roman Jakobson defined three types of translation: interlingual, intralingual and intersemiotic.

The first of the above is the part of every life of our translators: it pertains to translating words from one natural language into another linguistic code.

Intralingual translation, on the other hand, refers to a situation when the speaker adapts a text in the same language for different purposes, e.g. while explaining a difficult term to someone.

However, the most complicated – and therefore most interesting concept – is the idea of intersemiotic translation. It deals with two or more completely different semiotic codes, e.g. a linguistic one vs. a musical and/or dancing, and/or image ones.

Thus, when Tchaikovsky composed the Romeo and Juliet he actually performed an intersemiotic translation: he 'translated' Shakespeare's play from the linguistic code into the the musical one. The expression code was changed entirely from words to musical sounds. Then, as it was meant for ballet, there was a ballet dancer who 'translated' further, from the two previous codes into a 'dancing' one, which expresses itself through body movement.

An interesting example of intersemiotic translation is adaptation of a literary work into film. Seen from the point of view of Jakobson’s theory the film director is a ‘translator’ who conveys the ideas expressed by the writer. Famous Polish translator of Norman Davies’ “Europe. A History”, Prof. Elzbieta Tabakowska, said once that “Juxtaposing literary narration and film narration is a useful exercise: it makes the language researcher discover – whether he is a linguist or ‘merely’ a translator – the whole spectrum of ‘painting techniques’ offered by the grammar of language.”

The intersemiotic translation is also largely used in image design, advertising & publicity. Some ideas expressed verbally are to be translated into images and/or movement. Thus, the product image can be described in words and then 'translated' into an image that will release the same message as the original words.

One could enumerate examples of intersemiotic translation. This abstract perception of the concept of translation makes us realize that we are immersed in an environment which could not function without constantly ‘translating itself’. It broadens our traditional perception of translation that involves ‘only words’.

If you need help with any kind of document translation, please contact our team of linguists on 020 7253 7700 or

Agnes Bodzon, CMFT Co-ordinator


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