Introduced into the English language around 1340 and either derived from a similar word in Old French or adapted from the Latin term translationem, meaning “a transporting”, the term translation today has over a dozen definitions in the Oxford English Dictionary. [1] While many of its definitions are particular to certain fields, reflecting specifically ecclesiastical, legal or biological usages, “translation” also has a set of definitions that are applicable and significant to the study of media. The most widely recognized definition of translation may be, “the process of turning one language into another,” but the Oxford English Dictionary also provides the definition, “the expression or rendering of something in another medium or form, e.g. of a painting by an engraving or etching.” [2] One could say that these two definitions offer different orientations of a similar process: the first describing a change of form within a medium, viz. language; while the latter describes a process that is enacted between media. In both of these definitions an alteration is implied, a change in condition which is further emphasized by the connotations of loss that accompany the word translation in conventional usage, as demonstrated by figures of speech such as “lost in translation.” As such, it is worth nothing noting a third definition of translation that seems to broadly encompass these intra-medium and inter-media processes, even though this definition has fallen out of common usage: namely, translation defined as a “transformation, alteration, change; changing or adapting to another use; renovation.” [3]

Marshall McLuhan, in his seminal text Understanding Media, spends an entire chapter detailing the existence of “media as translators.” [4] For McLuhan, media are not merely sites of translation (as in linguistic translations), or, alternately, the paired origin and destination of a trans-formative process (as in the expression of one form in another), but are in fact translators themselves. The definitions of translation in The Oxford English Dictionary presuppose pre-existing content—or an already-present “something”—in a medium, whether that be linguistic content or visual content, as in the example of translating a painting by engraving. In positing media as translators themselves, McLuhan effectively expands the definition to include the basic processes of instilling the content in the media. McLuhan first proceeds to describes how translation is inherent in our employment of technology, stating,

That technologies are ways of translating one kind of knowledge into another mode has been expressed by Lymon Bryson in the phrase, ‘technology is explicitness.’ Translation is thus a ‘spelling out’ of forms of knowing. What we call ‘mechanization’ is a translation of nature, and our own natures, into amplified and specialized forms. [5]

As such, the “extensions of man” that form the basis of McLuhan’s theory of media are fundamentally expressions of translation. But McLuhan’s conception of mediation as translation is not limited to examples of mechanization; he proffers in addition that “all media are active metaphors in their power to translate experience into new forms.” [6] Thus, conceived in a manner that accords with the broadest definition of translation, as a transformation into new forms, McLuhan places translation at the heart of our experiences and interactions with media.

Translation scholar George Steiner, whose lengthy study After Babel is one of the definitive texts on the translation of language, echoes, in a slightly different manner, this emphasis on the fact that translation is central and vital to our most basic experiences. Steiner writes,

translation is formally and pragmatically implicit in every act of communication… To understand is to decipher. To hear significance is to translate. Thus the essential structure and executive means and problems of the act of translation are fully present in acts of speech, of writing, of pictorial encoding in any given language. [7]

Moving a step beyond McLuhan’s observation that media are translators of knowledge or experience, Steiner notes that our communications via these media involve an act of translation, or deciphering, as well.

Let is consider for a moment the specific practice of literary or language translation, since it is has become a discipline in its own right and, as a site of theorization, has yielded certain insights into the central issues at stake in approaching the act of translation in general. McLuhan writes, “words are complex systems of metaphors and symbols that translate our experience into our uttered our outered senses. They are a technology of explicitness. By means of translation of immediate sense experience into vocal symbols the entire world can be evoked and retrieved at any instant.” [8] In this manner, our continual engagement with words entails a process of translation, even in one’s native language. Nonetheless, the “process of turning one language into another,” as The Oxford English Dictionary puts it, reveals that there is anything but a single, straightforward approach to translating one form into another. [9]

Steiner describes the translation of a written text from one language to another as a sequential process of decoding and re-encoding, a process of reading and re-writing. He goes on to explain how theories of translation identify roughly three different methods: firstly, “strict literalism, the word-by-word matching of the interlingual dictionary”; the second method is translation “by means of faithful or autonomous restatement [in which] the translator closely reproduces the original but composes a text which is natural to his own tongue”; and lastly, free imitation or “interpretive parallel” [10]. The New Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics describes these methods similarly and highlights the priority in each case: “Approach (1) sees translation as the rendering of words, approach (2) as the rendering of information and ideas, approach (3) as the rendering of spirit and style.” [11] Central to all of these approaches but attended to differently in each, are questions of faithfulness to the original text and the effectiveness in the “receiving” language. And in a similar fashion, these questions arise, along with a certain economy of literalness and interpretation, in translation in and between other media as well.

That is not to say that all theories of translation have been solely concerned with the relations of forms, or with those of source and result. Walter Benjamin, writing in 1923, stated that good translation was not about conveying information, but rather was centrally concerned with pushing the boundaries of one’s own language; the translator is at once "finding the intended effect upon the language into which he is translating which produces in it the echo of the original." [12] In the notion that the aim of translation "intends language as a whole”, in contrast to the aim of an original literary work, translation, according to Benjamin, is not simply a change of form within a medium, but a process of change enacted on the medium itself. [13]

But translation is not only a practice enacted within the bounds (or various forms) of a single medium, such as written language, even as this the most common association with the term. Linda Hutcheon has observed, “The desire to transfer a story from one medium or one genre to another is neither new nor rare in Western culture.” [14] Re-mediation,[15] in this sense as translation, has accompanied the use of media throughout history and, correspondingly, has been a frequent point of discussion or even sharp debate. Different terms are conventionally employed in different discursive contexts, e.g. the term “adaptation” is often used to discuss the transposition of a literary source to film and the word “reproduction” is typically used to describe the translation of an artwork via photographic means for publication in print media; but in the study of media these processes can effectively be approached as instances of translation. [16]

As W.J.T. Mitchell has illuminated, the complex relationship of word and image has been the focal point of a long-lasting and indeed ongoing discourse and taking a moment to consider certain aspects of this particular problematic will make some of the issues related to translation more evident. In Picture Theory, Mitchell discusses the tradition of ekphrasis in the arts, “the verbal representation of visual representations”, and describes three views, or general phases, of ekphrasis. [17] These phases are illustrative of the ambivalence with which media translations of all sorts are often received: these responses range from a belief in intranslatability, as is manifested in “ekphrastic indifference… the common sense perception that ekphrasis is impossible;” and a more utopian “ekphrastic hope” that different modes of representation (i.e. visual and verbal) can enjoy a productive “free exchange”; to “ekphrastic fear,” which considers any “ reciprocity as a dangerous promiscuity.” [18]

These positions exist not only in regard to ekphrasis, in light of attempts to translate the visual into the verbal, but in the opposite direction as well, as is illustrated in considerations of adaptation of literature to film. Linda Hutcheon has commented that adaptation in general recalls the idea of a hierarchy of the arts, [19] and in considering film adaptations specifically, which are frequently considered to be derivative or even vulgar debasements of their original literary sources, she notes that this hierarchy relates to what cultural theorist Robert Stam refers to as “’iconophobia’ (the suspicion of the visual) and the concomitant ‘logophilia’ (the love of the word as sacred).” [20] But, as Hutcheon is well aware, these alleged hierarchies, and the relationship between different mediums, are anything but stable and clear. Nonetheless, these notions persist, and they serve to highlight lingering questions of medium specificity and purity, which are deeply embedded in the discourse surrounding the act of translation (in its many variations).

Hutcheon observes that “when a change of medium does occur in an adaptation [or, alternately conceived, in a translation], it inevitably invokes that long history of debate about the formal specificity of the arts—and thus of media.” [21] While medium specificity is by no means a strictly Modernist conception, then notion attained a degree of entrenchment in the mid-20th century, courtesy of influential art critics such as Clement Greenberg, who articulated a critical framework, primarily in terms of formal and material specificity, that has since been widely applied by critics to nearly every medium. More recently, however, scholars have brought renewed attention to the fact that in regards to inter-media translation the matter is not so simple. Film theorist Dudley Andrews, for one, has written, “Every representational film adapts a prior conception. Indeed the very term ‘representation’ suggests the existence of a model… In the case of those texts explicitly termed ‘adaptations’, the cultural model which the cinema represents is already treasured as a representation in another sign system.” [22] These notions become more complicated when one begins to consider issues of representation more broadly, and specifically conceptions of realism. This is demonstrated in Marshall McLuhan’s comment, “The long revolution by which men have sought to translate nature into art we have long referred to as ‘applied knowledge’. ‘Applied’ means translated or carried across from one kind of material form into another.” [23] In this account, art itself involves a translation, and specifically, a mediation.

The fact that translation is itself an act of mediation, with the translator serving as a mediator, has come to the fore in a number discourses recently, particularly in fields related to gender studies and postcolonial studies. Since the 1990s the transposition and mediation of a culture through the act of translation has been a substantial area of research, and has opened up questions concerning ideology and contested meanings, the “Other” of a given culture, and the manners in which translation has played a significant role in the history of colonialism. [24]

These studies of the ideological potential—or even inevitability—of translation assume a different resonance in light of developments in “Machine Translation” (MT), which aims for fully automated computer translation. [25] Despite advances in the relevant technology, the reality of fully computer-enacted translation has not yet been achieved practically, and the most effective MT procedures at this point have involved human “post-editing” or have been limited to contexts in which more narrowly defined and specialized vocabularies can make the task more predictable, within certain bounds, such as in some instances of international business negotiations. Should machines someday replace human translators fully, a host of different ethical and ideological questions will likely need to be addressed.

The relations of information technology and translation, broadly speaking, and the possible implications, were alluded to as early as the 1960s by Marshall McLuhan. In Understanding Media, McLuhan states, “in this electric age we see ourselves being translated more and more into the form of information, moving toward the technological extension of consciousness. That is what is meant when we say that we daily know more and more about man.” [26] McLuhan’s stance as such, assumed before the creation of the internet, may have been prescient in certain respects, but the utopian and epistemological gesture involved in this statement has has been tempered somewhat by contemporary theorists. As W.J.T. Mitchell has observed,

The notion of digitization as a universal solvent has been a commonplace in media studies, from Marshall McLuhan’s vision of an electrified global village to Friedrich Kittler’s claim that “any medium can be translated into any other”. This sort of statement underestimates the effects and difficulties of translation. The age of cybernetic “communication” and “translatability” would be better described as an electronic Babel in which every device requires an intermediate device to speak to every other device. [27]

Along similar lines, Brian Massumi has demonstrated that the translation of analog images and texts into digital formats necessitates a second process of translation, specifically, back into usable, analog forms. Massumi provides the example of computer-based word processing, in which all possible combinations of words may be present in the digital (discrete) code, but words and meaning only appear on the screen in being read, which is an analog process. As such, our interactions with the digital can exist only through a translation process, since “outside its appearance, the digital is electronic nothingness, pure systemic possibility. Its appearance from electronic limbo is one with its analog transformation.” [28] Thus the proliferation of digitally coded information, which remains reliant on translation back into analog forms, does not mark such an extreme shift in the manner in which we experience the world as is commonly assumed.

Karsten Lund
Winter 2007