Creativity & Cultural Labour, Representation

Intersemiotic Journeys between Practice and Theory

Dr Ricarda Vidal  

Can we translate between poetry and dance, between painting and music, between scent and performance in the same way as we translate between French and English in literary translation? How would such a translation differ from response, adaptation or illustration? And what might we find out about communication if we tried to answer these questions?

A collage of photographs taken during the first Translation Games exhibition in the Old Anatomy Museum at King’s College.

In 2013, I set up the practice-based project Translation Games, together with Jenny Chamarette from Queen Mary University of London and with funding from Culture at King’s. We commissioned a single source text, a flash fiction story by American writer Colleen Becker, and worked with student translators from King’s College and Queen Mary and with five professional artists and three textile designers. Using chain translation, multiple translation and intersemiotic translation, we produced 25 versions of the source text, which were drawn together in an exhibition in the Old Anatomy Museum: it was translated into nine languages, textile and fashion design, dance, installation, performance, film, sound art and silk painting.

Since then, I have worked with a variety of practitioners, with poets, artists and translators, putting on different events in art galleries, schools, libraries and other public venues.

The book cover for Translating across Linguistic and Sensory Borders showing an image by Danish artist Madis Katz

In 2016, I joined Madeleine Campbell as co-leader of the Special Interest Group on Intersemiotic Translation, which she had founded within the framework of the Cultural Literacy in Europe forum. We launched the group with a symposium at King’s in July 2016 and began work on an edited collection for which we pulled together the research and experience of translators, artists and scholars who had employed intersemiotic translation in their practice. Translating across Sensory and Linguistic Borders: Intersemiotic Journeys between Media (Palgrave) was published earlier this year. For me, the book offered a way to analyse and explain what had been happening in Translation Games, to compare my own experience with that of others and to find ways of theorising, abstracting, and thus universalising the insights gained from practice.

In our book we argue that what makes intersemiotic translation translation is not so much the end result but the process. This entails an explicit focus on the translator’s gaze, whereby the translator makes her/himself visible to the reader in the target artefact. Gaze here refers to the intense looking and the full immersion in the text, with eyes, ears, skin, nose, limbs and heart. After all, even in literary translation, the translator must always employ more than just the visual sense: a poem can be read, spoken, heard, performed as well as acted out, smelled (by association) or felt. And, of course, the same goes for a painting, a film or dance, etc.

While in literary translation the translator needs “to convey the sense of the source artefact, intersemiotic translation involves a creative step in which the translator (artist or performer) offers its embodiment in a different medium.” (Campbell & Vidal, 2019, p.xxvi ). Intersemiotic translation is then not so much focused on the translation of sense or meaning, but rather on the experience of the text or artefact. The translator, we propose, then slips into “the role of mediator in an experiential process that allows the recipients (viewer, listener, reader or participant) to re-create the sense of the source artefact for themselves.” (Ibid.)

A film still from The Lost Places (2017), Kate McMillan’s translation of Deryn Rees-Jones’ poem ‘Home’ into an art video.

Hence, intersemiotic translation opens up multiple opportunities for facilitating intercultural communication across language barriers. As such, it became a central element of another project I initiated in 2016: Talking Transformations: Home on the Move, which I co-lead with translation activist Manuela Perteghella, investigates the effect of migration on notions of home in Europe via workshops, exhibitions and events which employ literary and intersemiotic translation.

In 2017, we commissioned British poet Deryn Rees-Jones and Polish poet Rafał Gawin to lead creative writing workshops with communities in Britain and Poland on the theme of home and to subsequently compose a poem. Deryn’s poem “Home” was then translated into French and Spanish and back into English and Rafał’s “Dom. Konstrukcja w procesie sądowym” into Romanian and English and back into Polish. At each stage of their translational journey the poems were also translated into video art (see Fig. 3). In summer 2018, the literary and filmic translations were shown in an Arts-Council-funded travelling exhibition with stops at the Whitstable Biennale, the Ledbury Poetry Festival and the National Poetry Library in London. The exhibition was accompanied by translation workshops during which we invited participants to access the poems through the art videos as well as through voice recordings of the poets and translators and to then produce their own translations. Intersemiotic translation enabled participants not only to access the poems through languages they did not know but it also enriched their reading of the languages they were familiar with, alerting them to layers of meaning and possibilities of interpretation they may not have been aware of previously.

The invitation to become translators themselves encouraged the deeply personal engagement of close reading inherent to translation and, at the same time, allowed participants to discuss the intimate topic of ‘home’ and ‘belonging’ with the distance required by working with an original created by somebody else. A selection of poems composed by workshop participants will be published alongside the original poems and translations in our anthology Home on the Move: Two Poems Go on a Journey (Parthian Books: October 2019).

Together with Madeleine Campbell I am are now preparing a second symposium on intersemiotic translation for 2020. Further research will build on the insights from our edited volume. Here, we are particularly interested in how intersemiotic translation can be employed in formal education as well as in community settings with a view towards learning, conviviality and social cohesion.