Translation without Borders

Studies in semiotics suggest that the borders tend to be more multiple and permeable than traditionally conceived. What if we erase the border completely and rethink translation as an always ongoing process of every communication? Translation becomes viewed less as a speech-act carried out between languages and cultures, and instead as a condition underlying the languages and cultures upon which communication is based. This paper discusses research in translation, cultural studies, and semiotics and suggests a new model for translation studies, which includes related languages, overlapping sign systems, shared discourses, and multiple meanings.


Having been borne across the world,

we are translated men.

—Salman Rushdie, Imaginary Homelands

 I, too, sing America.

I am the darker brother.

—Langston Hughes, ‘I, Too’ from Collected Poems

Rethinking translation

Traditional definitions of translation invariably include a border over or through which translation is ‘carried across’. Yet studies in semiotics suggest that the borders transgressed in translation tend to be more multiple and permeable than traditionally conceived. In this paper I ask, what if we erase the border completely and rethink translation as an always ongoing process of every communication? What if translation becomes viewed less as a speech-act carried out between languages and cultures, and instead as a condition underlying the languages and cultures upon which communication is based? In this new postmodern, global age, because of advanced means of communication and improved modes of travel—mobile phones, the Internet, better roads, faster trains, and low-cost airfares—it is easier than ever to move through, over, and beyond traditional borders. In addition, new intra-national connections are simultaneously emerging between and among regional ethnic groups, professional associations, different races, genders, language minorities, communities, neighborhoods, and generations. As individuals constantly traverse these multiple and increasing micro-borders, definitions of nations or nation-states are changing, and so too are definitions of language and translation. Cultural studies have developed several tropes to discuss these new splintering spaces, yet even the discourse that includes definitions of polylingual, heterogeneous, nonsynchronous, and fragmented spaces retain residues of traditional definitions of translations. Rethinking translation, not as a product—a translated text—nor a process—a carrying/ferrying a text across a divide—and instead considering translation as the very definition of the foundation upon which cultures and languages emerge, is, I admit, difficult. If there is no border, then there is no source or target language; distinctions between ‘home’ and ‘foreign’ tend to disappear; the separation between the colonial and the postcolonial no longer serve. Indeed, the entire system of metaphors upon which translations are described disappears. What it is like to think of translation when one has no native language, one’s homeland dissolved? What does one call those who have immigrated, emigrated, been displaced, absorbed, ex-communicated, ex-patriated? Where is the home? Despite the progressive nature of the new cultural studies programs, particularly in universities in North America, the hyphenated designations describing the ‘new’ subjects have never been enjoyed by those to whom the terms have been applied—the so-called Asian-American, Afro-American, Amer-Indian peoples have invariably found such labels limiting and discriminatory.

The good news is that new categories of thought are emerging, consuming, and internalizing the above system of metaphors and generating new ones, with highly creative results. In my research, which I see as part of an international trend in the field of translation studies, I have found concepts generated by Latin American scholars particularly productive, including Fernando Ortiz’s and Ángel Rama’s concept of ‘transculturation’, Octavio Paz’s use of translation as ‘transformation’ and ‘recreation’, and, especially Haroldo de Campos’s various neologisms, including ‘transcreation’ , ‘transtextualization’,  ‘transparaization’, ‘transillumination’, and most provocatively, ‘transluciferation mefistofáustica’. There is a sense in these metaphors that the translators are not taking something from one culture and carefully bringing it across intact, but instead a transforming, reformulating, incorporating, devouring a text, making it one’s own, and reproducing it in their own language and on their own terms. The metaphor that works best for me is one in which translation is not seen as a form of importing a text from the outside, but rather drawing upon reserves and experiences from within each individual and one’s own multicultural heritage. In this context, translation is not a mechanical activity applied to a text, but the very living substance of both the source and target text, a living, malleable, formable matter. I am no longer talking about translation in the traditional sense, but rather another deeper form of translation, one that underlies the human in this postmodern, global age. Instead of thinking in terms of the self and other, in which the ‘other’ being is translated into the ‘same,’ instead of thinking in terms of the native and the immigrant, in which the immigrant is labeled the ‘foreign,’ I suggest that we rethink translation in terms of getting rid of the border dividing ‘us’ from ‘them,’ and rethink the cultural foundation in terms of all of us being immigrants or everyone living in form of exile, hence the epigraph from Rushdie. My research for Translation and Identity in the Americas (2008) reconfirms the Indian hypothesis, as Anglo-Americans, French-Canadians, Spanish-Latin Americans, Portuguese-Brazilians, and, especially, Creole-Caribbeans, are all translated peoples. Indeed, the terms ‘Anglo-American’ and ‘French-Canadian’, et cetera, are misnomers, false labels, imposing European figures and European languages to designate indigenous and multifarious cultures alive with their own underlying languages, traditions, and religions. In the United States today, over 150 languages are spoken, not including the 50-plus indigenous and slave languages cultures that have been eliminated. Yet sign systems, songs, rhythms, religious references, foods, dress, and beliefs from those lost languages continue in the present. Today, I suggest that scholars broaden such international discoveries from postcolonial Indian, immigrant American, and other international definitions to see if they apply it to all cultures. What if the Indian and American cultures were not the exception to the rule of translation, but the rule itself? In this new global age, I suggest we live in a translational culture, or better said, translational cultures, always in an ongoing process of movement, maneuvering, traversing boundaries, changing and adapting as needed, buying, consuming, borrowing, interpreting, and translating. The sentence from my book Translation and Identity in the Americas (2008) that is most quoted reads, ‘[T]ranslation in the Americas is less something that happens between separate and distinct cultures and more something that is constitutive of those cultures’ [italics in original] (Gentzler 2008, 5). I argue that rather than thinking about translation as a somewhat secondary process of ferrying ideas across borders, we think beyond borders to culture as a whole, reconceiving translation as an always primary, primordial, and proactive process that continually introduces new ideas, forms or expressions, and pathways for change into cultures: translation without borders.

The evolution of translation studies

As we embark upon the launch of a new journal called translation, several questions arise. Why another new journal on translation and what sets it apart from earlier journals in the field? Why not call it translation studies, translation and semiotics, translation and culture, or combine it with some of the related interdisciplinary fields? By calling it translation, we do not want to limit it to translation studies investigations that have become traditional in the field, nor do we wish to refer to translation as an interdiscipline. Rather we hope to refer to translation in its absolute, broadest signifying sense, reconsidering old conceptions, expanding definitions, and breaking down borders. In this next section, I show how the field of translation studies grew from essentially a minor subdiscipline of literary and linguistic studies into a metafield that extends to and informs many disciplines, including linguistic and literary studies, philosophy, history, political science, cultural studies, postcolonial studies, ethnography, and anthropology, to name just a few. Yet, I suggest, even that metafield has its limitations that no longer serve the discipline well, often limiting its growth and range of investigation.

Eclectic/subjective period

For many years, translation studies was centered around quite subjective essays and prefaces authored by mostly translation practitioners. In the 1960s, for example, there were no translation programs at universities in Europe or the United States, no centers, no associations, no publications or conference activity. In the United States, in 1964, Paul Engle established the Translation Workshop at the University of Iowa, perhaps the first time translation was taught in higher education. Courses soon followed in the history of translation. In 1965, the University of Texas at Austin established the National Translation Center, and in 1968, the journal Delos was founded, devoted to the history and practice of translation. In the English language, the field began to expand in the 1970s, with courses and then degree programs being offered at Yale, Princeton, Iowa, Texas, Binghamton, and Massachusetts. Soon followed professional organizations—ATA and ALTA—and by the mid-seventies, national grants for translators, and the discipline was on its way.

As with any new discipline, this initial phase developed in a quite eclectic/subjective way, with literary translators and translation teachers discussing the problems encountered in the process of translations. In general, translation was considered a creative process that could not really be taught; nevertheless, in a form of apprenticeship, through practice and feedback with experienced translators, progress could be achieved, problems could be identified and solutions emerge. Theory and research receded in importance, and practice and history became paramount. And in the 1960s, at least in the United States, literary translation and discussion of translations experienced a boom: popular sales of translated fiction and poetry were at new highs; international music and religions mixed with new forms of travel and communication; youth culture looked beyond national boundaries for new ideas; and technological inventions, particularly in the music and film industries, spread internationally more rapidly than ever. This new energy led to breakthroughs in terms of overcoming constraints of communication, and breaking linguistic and cultural barriers that had impeded the international flow of ideas.

In addition to the boom in literary translation during the 1960s, Bible translation also experienced a boom, in both theory and practice. In 1960, Eugene Nida published Message and Mission, covering his practical experience in introducing new ideas to cultures remote from his own. Drawing upon communication theory, Nida proposed a dialogical model of the receiver of the text of the Bible with the spirit of God. In 1964, Nida published Toward a Science of Translating, eliminating many theological considerations, and focusing primarily upon translation matters. The text has become widely successful, used in teaching translation in the United States in both religious and academic circles. Nida’s focus was less on the meaning of any given sign, religious or otherwise, and instead on how the sign functions. Here he introduced his concept of dynamic equivalence, still much in use today: the goal of successful translation is to produce a response in today’s reader that is essentially like the response experienced by the original readers. While Nida’s theory strongly favored the message or spirit of the original over its linguistic equivalent, he also considered the importance of formal and stylistic qualities, which he felt determined the ‘flavor and feel’ of the message (1964, 150-1). In many ways, Nida’s theory appealed to both Bible translators and literary translators in the United States, and in an uncanny manner anticipated a later generation of more ‘scientific’, functionalist translation studies scholarship in Germany and Austria, and even to some extent the ‘target-text’ scholarship in Belgium and the Netherlands. Despite Nida’s early influence, for the past few decades, Bible translators have been excluded from academic translation studies programs and paradigms of investigation; the goal of the new journal is to include all avenues of inquiry.

While many discredit this early period in the United States as atheoretical and unsystematic, I do not wish to discount the discoveries made during this period, the nuances intuited, the shared etymologies unearthed, and cultural resonances brought to light. In many ways, the definitions offered by Roman Jakobson of ‘creative transposition’ and ‘intersemiotic translation’ (Jakobson 1959, 238) seemed applicable, for creative was the operative strategy and intersemiotic forms—including images induced under the influence of psychotic drugs and sounds imported from international music—became the norm. While it is true that rational solutions were not always found, that some translators’ knowledge of the foreign language in question was suspect, the 1960s were a great age for cultural expansion in general and translation in particular, and many ideas entered US culture for the first time. What was remarkable was that many of the key creative writers at the time were also active translators: for example, among the poets, W. D. Snodgrass translated from German; W. S. Merwin translated Latin, Provençal, French, Spanish, and Old English texts; Charles Simic translated from French, Serbian, Croatian, and Macedonian; Robert Bly translated Spanish, Swedish, and Persian; Gary Snyder, translated from Japanese; Galway Kinnell translated from Spanish and German; and Philip Levine, translated from Spanish. These translations were not minor affairs. During this period, the philosophers Husserl, Merleau-Ponty, Sartre, Jaspers, Cixous, Lévi-Strauss, Habermas, Heidegger, and Scheler; the European poets Apollinaire, Mallarmé , Rimbaud, Neruda, and Rilke; and experimental playwrights Beckett, Brecht, Pirandello, and Ionesco entered US culture via translation. It is also the period that Marxist political texts by Althusser, Mao, Trotsky, Che Guevara, Luxemburg, and Fanon were introduced. Lines between creative writing and translation were blurred; intercultural, intersemiotic practices were introduced and flourished.

The operating thesis of the period was that good creative writing knew no national boundaries, and texts flew freely with the spirit of the age. For example, Harlem Renaissance poets such as Langston Hughes, Countee Cullen, and Claude McKay were translated and read in the Caribbean and West Africa, then a generation of Negritude poets such as Aimé Césaire, Edouard Glissant, Léopold Senghor, were translated into English, deeply influencing the writers and political activists of the civil rights movement in the USA and giving birth to a new generation of black writers such as Amiri Baraka (formerly LeRoi Jones), Donn L. Lee, Nikki Giovanni, Sonia Sanchez and a host of others, who were then translated into French, Caribbean Creoles, and African languages, fueling liberation movements and a new generation (now the fourth) of Black African and Creole Caribbean writing. These translations, which included history, politics, multiple languages and sign systems, religion, music, and dance, did not move from the center to the periphery, but instead traveled circuitous routes from one marginalized culture to another, yet in the long term, these translations cannot be considered as minor activities but instead as contributing to large international movements of resistance and liberation. Likewise, they cannot be considered as conforming to the status quo, but instead as contributing to and changing the culture, paving the way for major legislation such as the 1964 Civil Rights Act in the USA (setting the groundwork for later civil rights accomplishments, and some might argue, the awarding of Nobel laureate honors to novelist Toni Morrison and the eventual election of Barack Obama as US President), and then the subsequent independence movements in Senegal, Ghana, Sierra Leone, Congo, Nigeria, and South Africa. (Emmett Till, it is worth noting in this regard, might be more famous in Senegal than he is in the United States.) While adjectives such as ‘transnational’ and ‘transcultural’ were less frequently employed at the time, they certainly did apply to this dynamic transformative period. In my research, Afro-Cuban scholars such as Fernando Ortiz, Gustavo Pérez Firmat, and Roberto Retamar, have proven more influential than more traditional (and dare I say, Eurocentric) translation studies scholars, and Afro-Caribbean creative writers such as Aimé Césaire, Wilson Harris, and Kamau Brathwaite, with their introduction of new hybrid language forms and intersemiotic imagery, have done much to inform and invigorate my research. The matrix of metaphors that inform Afro-Brazilian-Caribbean-American creative writing, are closely related to the space of translation—the crossroads, passages, intersections, thresholds, and, invariably, limbo, that liminal space between the material and spiritual worlds. Fluidity, transition, and change become the norm rather than the exception; language is continually undergoing processes of interpretation, translation, and refiguration.

During this great age of translation, French structuralism and Russian formalism also entered US culture. Fleeing German occupation, in 1949, Jakobson moved to the United States, taking a teaching position at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and in the 1960s much his work entered the culture. Other European structuralists moved to the United States, including René Wellek, who moved to Iowa and then Yale, and Claude Lévi-Strauss, who taught at the New School for Social Research in New York, introduced a whole range of continental ideas, linguistics, semiotics, comparative literature, and translation studies into the culture. For translation and linguistics, this is a great period of interdisciplinary interaction. In 1959, Jakobson published ‘Linguistic Aspects of Translation’ in On Translation; in 1964 Jiří Levý published Umění překladu, translated as Die literarische Übersetzung (1969); and also in 1964, Yuri Lotman began publishing the journal Sign Systems Studies, the oldest semiotics journal in the world. In 1969, František Miko published Estetika výrazu. Teória výrayu a štýl; and in 1970, Anton Popovič published ‘The Concept ‘Shift of Expression’ in Translation Analysis’. In terms of a method for the analysis of intersemiotic elements by literary translators and critics in the United States, though, or by an emerging group of translation studies scholars in the Low Countries, semiotics and translation studies have remained rather distant partners; this period might be referred to as the semiotic turn not taken. Yet during this early eclectic boom in literary translation, and as intersemiotic as many of the translations were, magic realism was introduced from Latin America; surrealism and impressionism arrived from European poetry; subtle religious, dissident markers, and black humor entered from Eastern Europe; African deities, myths and roots were explored; US jazz and blues were exported and then returned via Brazilian Bossa Nova, European rock, and North African folk art; and imagery and beliefs from Far Eastern religions entered. At the same time, Gary Snyder translated Noh plays and the Beatles went to India. I suggest that the multicultural and intersemiotic nature of the translations of this entire generation of translators remains largely unexplored.

National period

Generally, in histories of translation studies, developments in the 1960s are omitted. Many scholars consider a series of conferences on literary translation held in Belgium and Israel in the mid- to late 1970s as the beginning of the discipline. The first of these was held at the University of Louvain in 1976, the proceedings published in 1978 as Literature and Translation: New Perspectives in Literary Studies; the second at the University of Tel Aviv in 1978, the proceedings published as Translation Theory and Intercultural Relations in a special issue of Poetics Today in 1981; and the third at the University of Antwerp in 1980, the proceedings published as The Art and Science of Translation in Dispositio in 1982. The general theses of the group included a view of literature as a complex system; a descriptive target-oriented approach with an interest in the norms and constraints that govern translation; and an emphasis on the role translation plays within a given literature. Key figures in the group include José Lambert, Theo Hermans, Gideon Toury, Maria Tymoczko, Susan Bassett, and André Lefevere. The journal Target, edited by the Belgian/Israeli group, perhaps the leading journal in the field, was founded during this period, which not only reflected the nature of the scholarship, but also set the standard. Theo Hermans’s introduction ‘Translation Studies and a New Paradigm’ to the volume The Manipulation of Literature: Studies in Literary Translation (1985) is often cited as the definitive philosophical statement outlining the principles of the group.

Yet as my discussion above about the eclectic development of literary translation in the United States shows, the interest by Slavic semioticians in Central and Eastern Europe, or the emerging science of translation by Bible translators, is evidence that translation studies certainly existed before the ‘historic’ 1976 conference. For me, James Holmes’s essay, ‘The Name and Nature of Translation Studies’ (1972–75, 67–80), which circulated even earlier in mimeograph form, provides a better starting point. In that text, Holmes not only coined the term ‘translation studies’ for the discipline, he also laid out the scope for this new discipline, suggesting that translation studies cover theory, description, and practice. Holmes was a practicing literary translator of Dutch poetry and in many ways one of the early ambassadors for the field. An American, born in Iowa, he returned to his home state on an annual basis, often visiting the University of Iowa and presenting his work at the Translation Workshop there, but he mostly lived and taught in Amsterdam, and thus was well aware of and participated in the emerging translation studies discipline there, as well as in other new experimental disciplines. He also traveled in central Europe, facilitating exchanges with Prague structuralists and Moscow linguists. I should add, however, that he was never a great admirer of the polysystem hypothesis developed by scholars such as Itamar Even-Zohar and Gideon Toury and which became closely identified with the Belgian/Israeli group.

During this period, the object for study was the translated text, conceived of as an empirical written document, one that could be described and analyzed by scholars via various comparisons with the original and a hypothetical invariant of comparison. The reception of the text was measured in relation to the reception of a variety of texts within the so-called ‘target’ culture, which was invariably conceived of as a national culture, the system of texts circulating in any given country. While these two ideas—(1) thinking about translations as empirical documents; and (2) measuring their success by their reception in the national system of language and literature as a whole in any given country—were quite progressive at the time, in hindsight, they have also proven to limit the nature of the investigation of translational phenomena. Once these methods were in place, during the 1980s, many of the most important translation studies scholars in Europe devoted themselves to descriptive studies, while theory, such as intersemiotic theories, intercultural theories, psychoanalytic theories, took a back seat. Scholars such as José Lambert, Hendrik Van Gorp, Raymond Van den Broeck, Theo Hermans, Kitty Van Leuven-Zwart, and Lieven D'Hulst developed models for better describing translations and sought out normative behavior for translation activity in different national cultures. Their pioneering work looked not only at literary and linguistic problems but also at the role of translations in the development of literary systems and the conventions, or norms, of both the receiving and target cultures. Mainstream literary translations dominated the focus of inquiry—Shakespeare, Goethe, Hugo, etc., while marginal groups, ethnic and language minorities, were barely noticed. Those elements visible in the translations became the focus of inquiry; those elements made invisible because of the translation, including large eradications of entire sign systems and cultures, were not covered.

Indeed, the translation studies scholars of the Low Countries put translation studies on the academic map and broke the stranglehold of approaches that relied too heavily upon the source text. This early work in Europe was very valuable, in as much as it created a methodology for studying and comparing translations, focusing as it often did on translations’ impact on political, religious, and economic institutions of power. Most importantly, it studied what practicing translators actually did, not what some idealistic theory said they should do, thereby generating data that has been enormously productive for all translation scholars, regardless of their stance toward descriptive translation studies.

Yet there are drawbacks to this early period of translation studies. The methodology focused primarily linguistic matters—additions, deletions, and shifts of words or syntax. These were much more easily analyzed than the images presented, metaphors, tones, ambiguities, double entendres, and varied responses. The work of some descriptive studies scholars on metaphors, for example, was particularly weak; most studies ignored them, and if they were dealt with, the metaphors described were the little literary features/ornaments added to any given text. In general recommendations were made to leave metaphors intact. Little thought went into new metaphors appealing to the target culture or into reflecting on why they were chosen, or how larger textual units could function metaphorically, including entire characters, landscapes, or relationships. Little thought was given to the fact that entire texts, genders, classes, or events can function metaphorically, or to how certain metaphors, such as religious icons or political signs, held the power to convert or colonize under certain conditions.

My biggest complaint, which I raise here, is that during this period, scholars focused almost entirely on national languages and the role translations played in the evolution of the nation state. Typical projects during this period included research on translations in England in the sixteenth century, France in the seventeenth century, Germany in the eighteenth century, Czech in the nineteenth century, or Belgium in the twentieth century; all were primarily focused on the nations, nation-states, and national canons. How translations functioned in the literary polysystem, conceived of as a national system, was the main topic of investigation, but little thought was given to how translations functioned beyond the national borders. International movements were ignored, the two-way flow of translations, from source to target and back to source, of such crucial importance to the study of American and postcolonial cultures, was ignored. Gideon Toury, the most well-know translation theorist affiliated with the group, was cited by Tejaswini Niranjana as saying, ‘From the standpoint of the source text and source system, translations have hardly any significance at all. …Not only have they left the source system behind, but they are in no position to affect its linguistic and textual rules and norms, its textual history, or the source text as such’ (Toury 1985, 19; qtd. by Niranjana 1992, 59-60). From hindsight today, in light of two decades of postcolonial research, such a claim is shocking. As Niranjana showed, British translations of Indian writers have had an enormous reciprocal impact on writing and translation in India. Translation into English gives Asian/African/Latin American writing enormous prestige and influence, greatly influencing the source cultures. My work on translation in the Americas shows that translation functions not just from Europe to the Americas, but is invariably multi-directional, influencing work to the South, back to the East, as well from the postcolonial to the colonial. True, American writers are influenced by, translate and transpose work by European writers, and in the struggle to find their own voice, beg, borrow, and steal from Europeans, and often Europeans remain indifferent. But there are also many cases in which, such as the Latin American boom in creative writing, or with the example of the Afro-American writing cited above, in which those texts reciprocally are translated into and impact European writing. I suggest that this transnational flow of ideas and forms, pointed out in the first section of this paper, was the norm rather than the exception, and that the cross-fertilization and creative aspects of translational intercourse need also to be studied.

A final short-coming of the target-text approach to translation studies was that empirical written texts were foregrounded at the expense of oral translations, and, especially, what I call hidden and repressed translations. The oral and performative ‘texts’ comprise the canon in many cultures around the world, including Ireland, rural America, Latin America, Africa, Brazil, the Caribbean, and Native American cultures. Indeed, oral texts comprise the majority of texts around the world, and because of their performative nature, are subject to creative change, invention, and audience response. Additionally, I suggest scholars need to study both what is said in translation, and what is not said, and why. Following Pierre Macherey, I call this the non-dit of translation and call for methodologies to read between the lines and against the grain. In as much, accidents, slips of the tongue, contradictions, and ‘mistakes’ need to not be classified as errors, but need to be studied for their social-psychological causes. I also suggest that nonlinguistic sign systems—music, images, sounds, tones, pacing, silences, rhythms—be incorporated into translation studies investigations. To give one example from my book, I cite Gayatri Spivak’s example from Toni Morrison’s novel Beloved in which a mother Sethe tells her daughter Beloved about her friend and at the time fellow slave Nan. The key sentence reads, ‘What Nan told her she had forgotten, along with the language she told it in. The same language her ma’am spoke, and which would never come back. But the message—that was—and had been there all along (Morrison 1987, 62; quoted by Spivak 1993,195). Here the hidden and forgotten language is impossibly remembered, and equally impossibly, translated and passed on to the daughter. How? Intersemiotically: Sethe picks up her daughter and takes her to the smokehouse, where she unbuttons her dress and shows her daughter a scar on her ribcage. The mark is a brand, a circle with a cross, inscribed on her body by her master. Yet rather than a mark of shame, the mother reclaims the brand, passes it on to her daughter, with the forgotten language and memory, by slapping her daughter and leaving her own mark. Morrison coins a term for this form of translation, which she calls ‘rememory’, which for me has become more useful for studying translation than many of the empirical strategies developed during the 1970s and 1980s.

Work in semiotics during this period was not totally effaced. Roman Jakobson and other Russians were studied as forerunners to the movement; Susan Bassnett, one of the pioneers of this group, showed an early interest in the semiotic and cultural aspects of translation, especially with regard to theater translation. José Lambert, another pioneer, made connections with Umberto Eco and his students, focusing on interpretations and reception of translations in the receiving culture. Structural relations and systems of communication were taught and incorporated into research models. Scholars such as Dinda Gorlée, drawing upon Peirce and Wittgenstein, wrote Semiotics and the Problem of Translation (1994) during this period; her essay ‘Wittgenstein, Translation, and Semiotics’ (1989) was published in the first issue of Target. Film studies critic Patrick Cattrysse became affiliated with the group and productively applied translation studies methodologies to the study of film and film adaptation. Static concepts such as equivalence and meaning were called into question. Indeed, Lambert and a colleague Clem Robyns wrote the contribution on ‘Translation’ for Semiotics: A Handbook on Sign-Theoretic Foundations of Nature and Culture in which their definition of translation reflected the influence of semiotic discourse. Translation, they argue, is the ‘migration-through-transformation of discursive elements (signs)’ and the ‘process during which [these elements] are interpreted (re-contextualized) according to different codes’. Robyns and Lambert borrowed Charles Sanders Peirce’s concept of ‘final logical interpretant’ to mediate between their target-oriented approach, which analyzes the empirical product of translation, and more mobile and versatile semiotic approaches, which are more open to the movement and flux of the ongoing, indeed never-ending, semiotic process.

Unfortunately, this semiotic turn slowed considerably in the decades to follow. Robyns more or less dropped out of the profession. Cattrysse turned primarily to screenwriting and film narration. Lambert focused primarily on teaching and methodology. The hope that Eco would follow his work on semiotics with further investigations of translation did not materialize. American translation studies scholars did little to follow the work of Peirce, Jakobson, and Wellek in linguistic or literary translation. Bassnett turned more to cultural studies, women’s studies, and postcolonial investigations. In my book Contemporary Translation Theories (1993), I offered a chapter on early translation studies which included discussion of pioneers such as Jakobson, Levý, Popovič, Tynjenov, and Eichenbaum; but others who date the beginning of the discipline to the 1976 conference in Leuven, Belgium, discount this earlier period of translation studies. In order to return semiotics to its rightful place as one of the most useful tools for the analysis of culture and communication, we are founding the journal translation and have invited Siri Nergaard, with her training in semiotics and translation at Bologna and her work in cultural studies, semiotics and translation, illustrated by her book La Costruzione di una cultura: La Letteratura norvegse in traduzione italiana (2004), to serve as editor. It is also why we welcome the input of Bible translators affiliated with the Nida Institute for Biblical Scholarship; no text has been translated more often and into more languages than the Bible, no book has a greater variety of genres, spiritual symbols, tones, metaphorical associations, or emotional appeal. We suggest that translation scholars can learn much about sacred text translation from Bible translators, and we welcome the exploration of the translation of religious texts from all faiths and traditions. Indeed, perhaps the most important issue facing translation scholars is to better understand how the translation and reception of sacred texts and images, for better or worse, contribute to cultural construction. 

Inter- and intranational period

In the 1990s and 2000s, the focus of the investigation has shifted away from the ‘empirical’ text to all those non-empirical markers (presences), redirected from equivalences to non-identity and differences, from text, to pretext/preface, from the impact of translations on national literary systems to international and transnational repercussions as well. Scholars such as Sujit Mukherjee, Martha Cheung, and Myriam Salama-Carr are expanding definitions of translation to see how the field is defined within non-European contexts—such as in India, China, and the Arab world. In India, for example, there are two common words for translation: Sankrit/Indian: rupantar, referring to ‘change in form’, and anuvad, referring to ‘speaking after’ or ‘following,’ neither of which suggests that either term implies fidelity to the original. Mukherjee adds that the field of association includes both translation and transcreation, that alteration and variation are permissible; this definition perhaps connects with new definitions of translation as transcreation emerging in countries such as Mexico or Brazil. In China, the word most often associated with translation is fanyi, which incorporates the notion of ‘turning over’. The first part of the word, Fan, refers to ‘turning’, ‘flipping’, or ‘somersaulting’; the second part, yi, refers to ‘interpreting’, but can also invoke ‘exchange’. Martha Cheung, in suggesting that translation and its invoking of two sides of the same coin/leaf/embroidery, considers translation as the front and back, the yin and yang, of the same thing, yet facing in opposite directions (Cheung 2006, 177; see Tymoczko 2007, 72). When considering ‘New World’ translations, this concept of not being either one or the other (source or target), but involving a two-way flow or exchange, interests me greatly. Also a student of translation in China, Judy Wakabayashi in ‘Translation in the East Asian Cultural Sphere: Shared Roots, Divergent Paths?’ (2005) talks about hidden translation in the Chinese sphere. In China, as is well known, many languages are spoken, but they all share the same written tradition, that of Mandarin. Wakabayashi suggests that the different language groups in China often perform acts of a silent ‘mental translation’, a concept that informs my research on the mental acts of translation in the Americas, particularly in Spanish-speaking Latin America, English-only USA, and to varying degrees in multi-language contexts in Brazil and Canada. In the Arab world, the word most frequently associated with ‘translation’ usually is tarjama, which originally refers to ‘biography’ (Naous 2007). Because the translator is the one who narrates the story and thus frames the reception of the translation, the term allows for a certain amount of agency by the translator. In an essay entitled ‘Translation into Arabic in the ‘Classical Age’’ (2006) on the Baghdad School of Translation during the ninth and tenth centuries, Myriam Salama-Carr describes how translators were viewed as scholars in their own rights, at the same level as authors. Scholars having taken the transnational turn in translation studies are interested in the connection of translation to the construction of displaced peoples’ cultural identity and are undertaking studies that illustrate the primary rather than secondary role of translation in the construction of culture.

I have also turned to translation theorists who look at the translation practices of smaller groups within nations—those living in cities, communities, neighborhoods, and even within families. In Translation and Identity (2006), Irish translation theorist Michael Cronin looks at translational phenomena not in nations such as Germany, France, or Belgium, or even in traditional cultural capitals such as Paris, London, and New York. Instead, he shifts the analysis to new crossroad cities such as Shanghai, São Paulo, Calcutta, and Barcelona, and to new groups of immigrants, ethnic and language minorities, refugees, and displaced peoples within those cities. In Translating Montreal: Episodes in the Life of a Divided City (2006), Canadian translation theorist Sherry Simon looks at the multicultural life of the city of Montreal, focusing on translation within different neighborhoods, how it informs the cultural life and contributes to new forms of artistic expression, including in texts normally considered original creative writing. In Can These Bones Live? Translation, Survival, and Cultural Memory (2007), Bella Brodzki talks about translation of traumatic events from within families, focusing on intergenerational translation, from father to son, mother to daughter. Such translations are both interlingual and intralingual, written and oral, honest and evasive, collective and individual, assimilating and unassimilated, in both a cultural and psychoanalytical senses, creating whole new sets of translational problems, which in turn demand whole new sets of tools for their analysis. The emphasis on individual identity, small groups, biography, autobiography, and mental translation are indicative of new directions the field is taking, and certainly have informed my work on Translation and Identity in the Americas (2008).

Old definitions of transferring a text from one language to the other are being increasingly revised to include aspects and connotations present in other texts not normally considered translations. Today, definitions of language are changing; they must consider new semiotic codes and sign systems, not to mention the problems associated with dialects, hybrids, and emerging languages. Definitions of what constitute a text are also changing, as more oral and performative texts are included in studies. Lines between translation, adaptation, abridgement, paraphrase, and summary are blurring. Intersemiotic translations complicate definitions, as images, paintings, movies, and music are also being studied under translation rubrics. A more up-to-date model might focus less on Language 1 and Language 2, but instead on Culture A (in which multiple languages, discourses, and sign systems exist) and Culture B (which also contains multiple sign systems, many of  which overlap those of Culture A). Where is the border in such a model? It is everywhere at once.

Translation is viewed both as a transfer of a communication from Culture A to B and as an always ongoing process within both cultures, with various intralingual, interlingual, and intersemiotic translations always at play below the surface. Some of the languages in both cultures have been lost, covered up, repressed, and oppressed, but they continue to have life in other codes and sign systems, and every once in a while traces of past discourses and signs appear. Translation in this view is both an activity of carrying something across from one language to another and part of the fundamental fabric on which the different societies are based. A translated text can draw upon many shared discourses within that translational fabric, so that the process involves translation and non-translation, adaptation of existing terms and codes as well as the importation of new ones. Translation is not a one-directional, but a multidirectional, unceasing activity component of every culture. I suggest that mini-translations are going on within cultures all the time. For example, in the United States, non-native English speakers are continually translating their communications into English; songwriters publish their songs; filmmakers translate scripts into movies; journalists adapt and comment upon international news, people experiment with alternative means of expression; and media images, consciously or subconsciously, enter our psyches. Communication moves over, under, behind, and through traditional boundaries. New boundaries, not ones based upon national languages, appear, and new and highly creative strategies for subverting those boundaries emerge. The success of a culture, of a person within a culture, depends on their very ability to negotiate the translational fabric of a nation. We are all translators.

To take this model one step further, one could argue that translation describes not just the process of transfer from one discourse, sign system, or language to another, but is more characteristic of the entire discursive fabric upon which all forms of communication rest.

Semioticians have been working with such an idea for some time now. In ‘On the Semiosphere’ (1984), Yuri Lotman talks about the semiosphere as a semiotic space preceding all forms of communication, forming a condition for the very existence of language and sign systems. Without this foundation, language, and, by extension, translation, could not exist. For Lotman, there exists a boundary between semiotic and non-semiotic space, which is represented by what he calls the ‘sum of bilingual translatable ‘filters’’ (205) in which texts are translated into other languages. According to Lotman, semiospheres are embedded within other semiospheres, comprising interconnected groups, each participating in local or micro-dialogues as well as participating in the larger space as a whole. The theory of the semiosphere is built upon the assumption that no language or sign system can exist in isolation, and thus they always participate in a larger continuum of ongoing semiotic activity. The analogy is to the ‘biosphere,’ a geological force posited by biochemists that underlies the composition of the earth, derived from ideas of the Russian mineralogist Vladimir Vernadsky.

For Lotman, translation plays a pivotal role in the very definition of the semiosphere, for in order for its manifestation, signs must be translated into one of the languages, discourses, sign systems of that very space. Lotman writes, ‘In order that these [semiospheres] may be realized, they must be translated into one of the languages of its internal space’ (205). Signs can only acquire their signifying power via their transfer and reception. In a Saussurean fashion, difference and diversity create the structure upon which communication systems are based, albeit a very irregular structure of a very heterogeneous nature. Translation thus becomes the fundamental process that allows the very existence of any signifying activity; indeed, translation does not take place across the border, translation is the very border, the critical functional mechanism underlying the entire system. Lotman writes, ‘The border is a bilingual mechanism, translating external communications into the internal language of the semiosphere and vice versa’ (210). Foreign elements, introduced via translation, become a catalysis for change. Mental-ideological structures develop at a different pace than languages as a whole, and thus need different sets of tools for their analysis. The semiotic range of investigations by Lotman and his colleagues—from written texts, to art works, films, poetry, jokes, alphabets, Chinese ideographs, music, sounds, the cries of animals—all are linked to, even determined by, the processes of translation.

Once one accepts this rather unorthodox view of translation, translational phenomena are everywhere to be seen, including in texts normally considered to be original writing. In my own work on writers such as Toni Morrison, Maxine Hong Kingston, Chang-Rae Lee, Rudolpho Anaya, Leslie Marmon Silko, and other indigenous, immigrant, or ethnic minority writers, I suggest that while these writers may write in English, the texts are overloaded (heavily determined) by both overt and covert discourses, modes of signification, and translational practices used quite frequently in daily life by blacks, Hispanics, Asians, and Indians within US culture. From conversations with grandparents/abuelos recorded in English, but which clearly took place in a different language, to the cultural translation of stories, myths, songs, and beliefs often at the core of such texts, some of the newer translation studies methods can help unpack some of the mysteries or so-called ‘magic’ of such texts. Translations tend to be carried out not necessarily between nations and national languages, but from city to city, community to community, family to family, or even individual to individual. For example, when translating Cuban writer Guillermo Cabrera Infante’s Three Trapped Tigers (1971), Suzanne Jill Levine did not translate from a Spanish national language to a English national language; instead she translated from a hip, Afro-Cuban, streetwise Havana Cuban-Spanish into a extremely local, equally streetwise, hip, New York City jargony, Afro-American, gay-inflected US vernacular. She drew on a variety of shared intersemiotic discourses including pop and hip-hop music, popular TV, popular fiction, biblical passages, Spanglish neologisms, and regional slang. She invented a new kind of language, a slanglish as she went, one that knows no normative usages, but which can be unpacked using an intersemiotic methodology. I have suggested that Levine’s translation strategy can be used to release the other from within US English, many of those multilingual and multisemiotic languages and discourses that have become marginalized by mainstream US media. Her translations both carry a text across from a complex Culture A to and equally complex Culture B and also reveal the multilingual, multicultural, and myriad semiotic sign systems underlying both. Indeed, I suggest that one follow the multicultural and intersemiotic trail to see where it leads. In Can These Bones Live? (2007), Bella Brodzki discusses those translational phenomena in memoires such as Claude Morhage-Bégué’s Chamberet: Recollections from an Ordinary Childhood (1987), about surviving the French Holocaust, or T. Obinkaram Echewa’s I Saw the Sky Catch Fire (1992), about a child undergoing secondary traumatization from the suffering by her mother during atrocities committed during the Nigerian civil war. In this study, Brodzki focuses on intergenerational translation, memory, and remembrance. Normative cultural communication necessarily impedes and distorts such communications. How, then, is the trauma to be communicated? Brodzki points out psychological blocks, intralingual translations, mental displacements from the language of the ‘unspeakable’, carefully and protectively constructed oral narrations, in the translation of writings that work through and overcome the repressed and traumatic events. There is no hope of equivalence, accuracy, or replication of the event or its meaning; there is only another translation in an ongoing process of transmutation and refiguration.


Whereas translation studies might best be characterized as still dominated by an empirical, scientific form of theory, in which translations are analyzed and trends, norms, and/or universals posited, theory in other parts of the world is more derived from social and literary critical theory, in which Marxist, feminist, psychoanalytical, hermeneutical, structuralist, and post-structuralist interpretive techniques are applied to translated texts. Translators follow norms, but they also consciously and unconsciously take liberties and invent, sometimes making implicit references more explicit, adding material to explain cultural references, inventing new terms, expressions, and metaphors to glean new connections, and devising evasive routes to access implications otherwise too difficult or traumatic to articulate. Those who have taken the semiotic turn in translation are well equipped to unpack the translator’s imagination as it solves problems, invents, and creates. Equivalents and substitutions do exist in translation, but so too do supplements and displacements. I suggest that scholars of the future be open to subtle connotations, repressed meanings, lost etymologies, and deep cultural and spiritual references. I suggest that translation studies scholars take advantage of collaborative opportunities with such natural partners as semioticians and begin to think without borders in order to see all those twists and turns that comprise the translational fabric at the root of culture. 


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Edwin Gentzler is a Professor of Comparative Literature and Director of the Translation Center at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. He is the author of Translation and Identity in the Americas: New Directions in Translation Theory (Routledge, 2008) and Contemporary Translation Theories (Routledge, 1993), which has been issued two revised versions (Multilingual Matters, 2001 and Shanghai Foreign Language Education Press, 2003) and translated into Italian, Portuguese, Bulgarian, Arabic, and Persian. He is the co-editor (with Maria Tymoczko) of the Translation and Power (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2002). He serves as co-editor (with Susan Bassnett) of the Topics in Translation Series for Multilingual Matters and as an executive committee member of the American Translation and Interpreting Studies Association (ATISA).