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Publicly Available Published by De Gruyter Mouton February 4, 2017

Roman Jakobson’s Triadic Division of Translation Revisited

Hongwei Jia

Hongwei Jia (b. 1977) is an associate professor at Capital Normal University, China. His research interests include translation semiotics, social linguistics, the history of modern linguistics, and overseas sinology. Recent publications include Exploring the Chinese Translations of General Linguistic Classics: 1906–1949 (2017), Academic Writing: A Methodology (2016), “A Translation-semiotic Perspective of Jakobson’s Tripartite of Translation” (2016), and “Chinese Semiotics before 1949: A Historical Survey” (2016).

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From the journal Chinese Semiotic Studies


Grounded on archival files, the general development of Jakobson’s tripartite division of translation (intralingual, interlingual, and intersemiotic) and its current situation in the academic world is recovered to reveal its influence on linguistics, semiotics, and translation studies worldwide, and to point out the significance of criticizing the triadic division in terms of the broad sense of translation as a term and the classifications of signs. Gideon Toury (1986), Umberto Eco (2001), Peeter Torop (2002), Dinda Gorlée (2010), Zhonglian Huang (2015), Hongwei Jia (2016b and 2016c), and others criticized this division and constructed their own systems, but these have their own problems and limitations. Therefore, it is necessary to construct, with reference to Lotman’s idea on semiosphere, a new division system (intra-semiospheric, intersemiospheric and supra-semiospheric) for translation semiotics.

1 Introduction

In the late 19th century and early 20th century, Ferdinand de Saussure (1857– 1913) and Charles S. Peirce (1839–1914) started to explore sign problems in terms of linguistics and philosophy respectively, followed by Charles W. Morris (1901– 1979), Louis Hjelmslev (1899–1965), Roman Jakobson (1896–1982), Thomas T. Sebeok (1920–2001), Algirdas J. Greimas (1917–1992), Umberto Eco (1932–2016), Juri Lotman (1922–1993), and others. Among these, Roman Jakobson is considered the first to have applied semiotics to translation studies.

Inspired and influenced by Peircean tripartites, Roman Jakobson believes “the meaning of any linguistic sign is its translation into some further, alternative sign, especially a sign ‘in which it is more fully developed,’ as Peirce, the deepest inquirer into the essence of signs, insistently stated” (Jakobson 1959: 233). In On Linguistic Aspects of Translation (1959), he put forth three ways of interpreting a verbal sign: “it may be translated into other signs of the same language (intralingual translation), into another language (interlingual translation), or into another, nonverbal system of symbols (intersemiotic translation)” (Jakobson 1959: 233). He emphasized intralingual and interlingual translations with verbal signs as reference, and dealt less with intersemiotic translation. In intralingual translation, Jakobson believes one can either use “another, more or less synonymous, word or resort to a circumlocution” (Jakobson 1959: 233), citing the referential differences between bachelor and celibate as evidence to point out that complete equivalence in intralingual translation does not exist; in interlingual translation, as he asserted, “there is ordinarily no full equivalence between code-units, while messages may serve as adequate interpretations of alien code-units or messages” (Jakobson 1959: 233). Furthermore, he warned that “no linguistic specimen may be interpreted by the science of language without a translation of its signs into other signs of the same system or into signs of another system” (Jakobson 1959: 234), and “any comparison of two languages implies an examination of their mutual translatability; widespread practice of interlingual communication, particularly translating activities, must be kept under constant scrutiny by linguistic science” (Jakobson 1959: 234). Basically, we may consider Jakobson’s three ways of interpreting a verbal sign as another interpretation of Peircean “genuine sign-activity” and “degenerate sign-activity” (Gorlée 1994: 157).

For decades, Jakobson’s tripartite division of translation has been influential, and has been cited and quoted in reference works of various sizes. Referring to statistical figures on the themes of Roman Jakobson and translation reception in academic reference works (Sütiste 2008), the linguistic encyclopedias The Encyclopedia of Language and Linguistics(Asher 1994) and Encyclopedia of Language and Linguistics(Brown 2006) cited Jakobson (1959) four times and once respectively; the semiotic encyclopedias Encyclopedic Dictionary of Semiotics(Sebeok 1994) and Semiotik. Ein Handbuch zu den zeichentheoretischen Grundlagen von Natur und Kultur [Semiotics: A handbook on the sign-theoretic foundations of nature and culture] (Posner et al., 1997–2004) both cited Jakobson (1959) twice; and the translation encyclopedias Routledge Encyclopedia of Translation Studies (Baker 1998) and Übersetzung: Ein internationals Handbuch zur Übersetzungsforschung /Translation: An International Encyclopedia of Translation Studies (Kittel et al. 2004) cited Jakobson (1959) six and sixteen times respectively. As the aforementioned statistical figures show, Jakobson’s translation concept has been taken up in authoritative reference works for translation studies, linguistics, and semiotics, and widely accepted in European and American academic circles.

Although Jakobson’s division (intralingual, interlingual, and intersemiotic translations) offers a valuable reference for translation theory and three ways of interpreting a sign, as well as breaking the ice of focusing on interlingual translation to some degree, thereby widening the scope of and enriching the perspective of translation studies, this division has many problems; for example, it does not cover semiotic transformations from intangible signs to tangible ones (i.e. from thoughts to texts) or from tangible signs to tangible ones (i.e. from entities to images). Regarding the definitions of and more information about tangible and intangible signs, see Jia (2016a, 2016b).

This paper criticizes Jakobson’s tripartite division of translation with reference to the broad sense of translation and sign as technical terms, and reconstructs them in light of Lotman’s conceptions of semiosphere (1984) to construct a translation typology and to promote translation semiotics as an emerging discipline.

2 Critical analysis of Jakobson’s division of translation

Throughout Jakobson (1959), he did not give a clear definition of either a sign or translation. Grounded on the semantic interpretations of a verbal sign, he put forth his tripartite division of translation, i.e. intralingual translation, interlingual translation, and intersemiotic translation, with the unavoidably unclear boundaries between interlingual and intersemiotic translations, thus incurring the criticism of Gideon Toury (1986), Umberto Eco (2001), Peeter Torop (2002), Dinda Gorlée (2010), Zhonglian Huang (2015), and Hongwei Jia (2016b and 2016c), among others.

In Translation: A Cultural-semiotic Perspective (1986), Gideon Toury pointed out that Jakobson’s division of three types of translation takes verbal signs as a point of departure and is too strictly bound to a linguistic point of view (in fact, it is too strongly based in structuralism, as evidenced by the use of the term equivalence). Though Toury was also rooted in structural and interpretative semiotics, he believed that the translation of a word needed to go beyond not only one semiotic boundary. He treated translation as a process and an activity and reconsidered the systematicity of translation. As a result, he proposed substituting Jakobson’s triadic division with a dyadic division: intrasemiotic and intersemiotic, with intrasemiotic translation being further subdivided into intralinguistic and interlinguistic translation (Baker 1998/2004: 220), and intersemiotic translation involving translating from language to nonlanguage. In fact, Toury did not give a working definition of the term sign, though he took sign as a starting point (but as the equivalent of language being the typical member of the sign family, neglecting the relation between the whole and parts) and pushed forward the development of translation types in terms of semiotics. However, not only is Toury’s division rooted in structuralism, but he also neglects the fact that the transformation from literary texts into film and television texts is also a translation process and activity. What’s more, he did not take into account the role of nonverbal signs in this transformation, or that of translation activity in the broad sense from the outline of thoughts into textual presentations.

In his book Experiences in Translation (2001), Umberto Eco started with the influence of Peircean semiotics upon Jakobson, emphasizing Peirce’s statement that “meaning, in its primary sense, is a ‘translation of a sign into another system of signs’” (Eco 2001: 69, emphasis in original) and showing that the concepts of translation and interpretation are close in Jakobson’s case. Based on the logic that “translation is a species of the genus interpretation, governed by certain principles proper to translation” (Eco, 2001:80), Umberto Eco (2001: 100–128) proposed his tripartite division as shown in the following figure:

Figure 1 Eco’s tripartite division
Figure 1

Eco’s tripartite division

In his model, Eco put Jakobson’s intralingual, interlingual, and intersemiotic translation into intrasystemic interpretation and the first part of intersystemic interpretation, took into account the semiotic transformation from verbal signs into behavioral signs (i.e. nonverbal signs), and extended Jakobson’s intralingual translation to adaptation and a continuum of synonyms. Although Eco’s system is a development of Jakobson’s division, it is not strictly logical to exclude interpretation by transcription from his “system,” as it is similar in nature to performance in that they are both semiotic transformation between verbal and nonverbal signs. Furthermore, Eco did not take into consideration the semiotic activities between intangible and tangible signs.

In Translation as Translating as Culture (2002), Peeter Torop made a critical analysis of several new conceptions of metaliterature (James Homes 1988) and metatext (Anton Popovič 1975), and recounted Jakobson (1959) and Eco’s (2001) efforts in translation types. He found the inadequacy of Jakobson’s division, and proposed his own theory, which had been formed in 1995 and complemented in 2000, namely:

Textual translation or ordinary translation; metatextual translation or description via criticism, advertising and other texts of this kind; in-textual and intertexual translation or transmitting or introducing a foreign word into a text, and extratexual translation or translating out of a text, using other semiotic material, for instance, in adapting literature to film. (Torop 2002: 596–597)

He did touch upon the cross-media transformation of literary works into drama, film, and television texts after he had given a working definition of the term sign in his work. Reading through his work, we can find that his division is still based on literary texts, with the texts as the axis of semiotic activity, and his expressions on extratextual translation are more or less vague in that literary works, films, television programs, and dramas are art forms. If a text is translated into other forms of texts, what precisely are “the other forms of texts or other texts of this kind”? If based on the definition of language and characters as typical members of tangible signs, and that of thoughts, conceptions, etc. as intangible signs, how do we, in Torop’s system, deal with the translation activity from a writer’s idea into the written texts?

Since the 1990s, Gorlée has been examining Jakobson’s threefold division of translational expressions in literary form, and she believes that Jakobson gives the term translation extralinguistic horizons (Gorlée 1994: 147–168, 1997: 240– 244, 2005: 34–35) beyond “translation proper” (Jakobson 1959: 233). In her view,

Jakobson’s diagrammatical structure represents a sign-system that reflects the relational structure of mainly literary translations, but has also more global structure out of merely literary taste and into other genres. In the 1950s, intralingual, interlingual, and intersemiotic translations were new theoretical possibilities of understanding a source text-sign transposed and metacreated into a target text-sign. (Gorlée 2010: 57)

As to the nature of Jakobson’s translation types, Gorlée reasons that

intralingual translation is a monoadic activity, due to its one-language-oriented equivalences of flexible code-units; interlingual translation being the conventional translation proper is dyadic, since it involves two-language-orientedness ... embodying a contradiction between Saussurean langue and parole; while intersemiotic translation is sequentially triadic (or even more complex), since it involves the union of intermedial translations into an embedded one. (Gorlée 2010: 58)

The differences between intralingual, interlingual, and intersemiotic translations are time/space differences without any internal habitat, but still based on the mood, fashion, and taste of the individual and respondent to those of the social consensus. (Gorlée 1994: 147–168)

Based on her wide and critical analysis, she pointed out that

the three kinds of translation were rather narrowly defined by Jakobson, who was still unconcerned with reverse or inverse operations during the remainder of the 20th Century. Now, in the 21st Century experimentations with intermedia and multimedia art became common as artists searched for new expressions. In Jakobson’s original terms, the translation of non-linguistic into linguistic text signs, and the translation of nonverbal signs by means of other nonverbal signs of the same or different language (or “language”) is lacking. (Gorlée 2010: 58)

Though Gorlée corrected Jakobson’s divisions using opera and musical texts as cases, she did not consider the semiotic transformations from tangible signs into intangible signs, or vice versa.

In A Semiotic Consideration of Critical System for Translation (2015), Huang criticized Jakobson’s triadic division as a disordered standard and a staggered parallel. And he further remarked:

If taking semiotic sign as the reference, translation would be divided into intrasemiotic and intersemiotic translations; if a sign was a verbal sign, translation would be subdivided into intralingual and interlingual translations. (Huang 2015: 95)

In fact, similar problems exist in Huang’s re-division in terms of sign and translation in the broad sense, because language is commonly considered a typical member of the sign family. Broadly speaking, signs can be divided into linguistic and nonlinguistic signs or verbal and nonverbal signs, and linguistic signs involve intralingual and interlingual translations, while nonlinguistic signs concern semiotic transformations within the same system (i.e. intrasemiotic translation), exemplified by the typical red, yellow, and green lights used as traffic signals, and the transformations between different semiotic systems (i.e. intersemiotic translation), characterized by the translation of these colored signals into Arabic numerals or intangible signs in the brain into gestures. Furthermore, Huang mixed up the boundaries between linguistic and nonlinguistic signs, and did not consider in his framework the transformations of nonlinguistic signs and intangible signs in translators’ brain into tangible signs, and the interpersonal information transmitted by intangible signs, which is essentially an atypical translation activity.

Jia (2016b) reviewed the critical analyses in Gorlée (2010) and Huang (2015), and pointed out that they both missed the point of the sign divisions into tangible and intangible signs and of their mutual transformations. Moreover, Gorlée only developed interlingual and intersemiotic translations with the consideration of musical and poetic texts and their intermedia and multimedia synthetic products, while Huang’s division is not strictly logical and not applicable as expected, without considering the transformations between tangible signs and intangible ones, though he re-divided the translation types grounded on Jakobson (1959).

Broadly, the sign family consists of tangible signs and intangible signs. The former is presented in physical forms, which could be divided into linguistic signs, with languages as its typical members and nonlinguistic signs with gesture, color, light, sound, music, etc. as its atypical members, while the latter is not presented in physical forms, such as thoughts, ideas, concepts, conception, etc. in the brain. The transformations between the tangible and intangible signs are linguistic or nonlinguistic, intrasemiotic or intersemiotic translations in the broad sense. Based on this working definition, we found the following problems in Jakobson’s triadic division:

(1) Though inspired by Peircean triadic semiotic divisions, Jakobson’s framework carries a strong sense of structuralism, putting source and target texts in the static state, considering their equivalent relations from paradigmatic and syntagmatic views, and bringing forth a series of binary terms, with writer and translator, source text and target text, faithful version and unfaithful version, translatability and untranslatability, etc. as examples, and hereby neglects the nature of Peircean triadic semiotic relations being endless, recursive, and interpretative activity and processes.

(2) In order to solve the dilemma of (un)translatability, Jakobson adopted the concept of interpretant from Peircean semiotics, namely the meaning bound in signs, in turn restrained by its object, this concept of interpretant hereby entailing a meaning-referential concept. However, he modified its logical referential range, and therefore weakened its referential relations, leading it into Saussurean binary categories of signs (i.e. signifier and signified), and making the situational relevancy turn into a situation embedded with code units with the situation being the immediate environment of semiotic activity. Thus, the situation in which a sign is put becomes the foundation for determining the meaning of a translated text, making the meaning of a sign a function of the dual context.

(3) As was the case with Peircean triadic semiotics and Saussurean dyadic semiology, Jakobson neglected the role of humans in his translational semiosis. To be specific, he did not take into consideration the role of human beings as sign inventors, users, and interpreters. So his framework is formed on an ideal conception. In fact, any sign text is the product of a synthetic semiotic process and activity consisting of human–sign–text in which human includes writer– translator–reader/interpreter; sign includes icon–index–symbol and qualisign– sinsign–legisign; and text, consisting of semiotic relations of sign–object– interpretant, includes the source texts, the virtual texts based on the intermediary language in the interpretation process, and the final target texts based on the virtual texts.

(4) In terms of the translational scope, Jakobson’s classification is not so adequate in that there is no clear boundary between interlingual and intersemiotic translation and their parallel is staggered; what’s more, he did not take inverse or reverse translation, transedition, retranslation, etc. into his framework. Moreover, the virtual text, consisting of intermediary language, and the transformation from the author’s conception into the written text are also not included. Clearly, a sign text going from a conception in the writer’s mind to a more developed written text, carries clear features of semiotic transformations in the broad sense as the term translation was defined previously, so Jakobson’s division seems a misconception of Peircean semiotics, which is well illustrated in the horticultural metaphor in Peirce (1931: 521): “Very wretched is the notion of the categories that can be conveyed in one lecture. They must grow in the mind, under the hot sunshine of hard thought; and you must have patience, for a long time is required to ripen the fruit.”

To improve the triadic division of translation and to serve the construction of translation semiotics in a better way, it is necessary to ground on Jakobson’s work and Lotman’s ideas on semiosphere and to restructure a tripartite division with the consideration of the transformations between tangible and intangible signs, i.e. from tangible signs to tangible ones, tangible signs to intangible ones, and intangible signs to tangible ones.

3 Reconstruction of a new triadic division

The term semiosphere was originally introduced in “On the semiosphere” (1984) by Juri Lotman (1922–1993), in which he explained this term using examples, but not in a technical sense. Going through the history of cultural semiotics, we find it a key term denoting “the semiotic space necessary for the existence and functioning of languages” (Lotman 1990: 123), within which constantly function and emerge processes of signification, and also “the result and the condition for the development of culture” (Lotman 1990: 125). As for its nature and function, Lotman (1984: 207) considers it as “a specific sphere, processing signs, which are assigned to the enclosed space. Only within a space is it possible for communicative processes and the creation of new information to be realized.” And also, “a semiosphere is a space in which we are ‘immersed’ whenever we speak or communicate” (Lotman 1990: 123), and a space enclosed by a boundary, but this boundary has, more often than not, no geographic existence. In any case, a semiosphere being the carrier of an ethnic culture is a space in which all signs and texts of the ethnic culture exist and grow. In other words, any language exists in a semiotic space, and the languages can realize their function of signifying something else unless the languages are in constant interaction with the space. As a language is not existent in isolation, but in the space in which it expresses a culture where it is embedded, the language is considered a code unit and an operating mechanism that cannot break down.

As the above definition shows, a semiosphere is a space in which ethnic cultural signs exist and grow, with its basic elements being the cultural texts, and metalanguage is used to describe the state and the transformations of the culture. Cultural texts lie in the deep structure of the ethnic culture as the whole, and its deep structure stays as a constant, though experiencing the transformations into languages and various forms, physical or spiritual, with a variety of semiotic losses in the surface structure between the source and target texts. This provides a basis of translatability for its transformation within the same language or between different languages.

Because language and culture are both the products of daily activities and interactions through history, and dynamism is a major feature of a language and its culture, and the semiocity and significance are to a large degree not equivalent or correspondent in any two languages, there are, in fact, no complete and true equivalent entities. This inequivalence and incorrespondence are often presented in translations. Strictly speaking, there is no absolute equivalence between the different forms within the same semiotic text or the transformations from one ethnic text to another.

In terms of semiotic activity, all languages and cultures enjoy their boundaries, coming up with a continuum of all cultural spaces. Generally, cultural space can be divided into inner space and outer space, with the semiosphere of selfhood culture (the term I use to designate the culture surrounding an individual that contributes to constituting the self), being the inner space and that of other cultures being the outer one. Only through the division into inner and outer spaces can the commonalities between cultures be found and their translatability be realized. Inner space is both inequivalent and incorrespondent, but unified and homogeneous, with the unity and homogeneity in terms of deep structure, and the inequivalence and incorrespondence in terms of family resemblance. In the semiotic activity, selfhood language occupies the center, while other languages are peripheral. Hereby, translators interpreting other sign texts with the help of selfhood signs come up with incomplete equivalent and correspondent texts, promoting the continuous regenerations of meaning, which presents the nature of translation from the perspective of translation semiotics.

As far as the broad sense of translation is concerned, any semiotic transformation is a translation process and translating activity. Any translation in terms of translation semiotics involves three kinds of transformations: from tangible signs to tangible ones, from tangible signs to intangible ones, and from intangible signs to tangible ones. In the sense of Lotman’s semiosphere, both tangible and intangible signs are media carrying ethnic cultural messages, so we can borrow and revise Lotman’s term to construct translation types.

In terms of Lotman’s semiosphere, all translations go from one space into another, and so all are in one pocket – interspheric translation. Furthermore, the transformations within one single semiosphere need to go from one subspace into another, so there is no intraspheric translation in the narrow sense. In accordance with Jakobson’s approach and the actual situation of sign transformation, however, to meet the need of translation types in translation semiotics building, we define Lotman’s semiosphere as the medium or space carrying the signs of a given culture in different times. Hereby, inner space becomes a space carrying the signs of the same culture while outer space carries the signs of other cultures or exotic culture, so the transformation within the inner space through time or between different styles at one given period of time, though similar to Jakobson’s intralingual translation, is not limited to linguistic sign activity, so we call it intrasemiospheric translation. Intrasemiospheric translation involves the transformation(s) of a single text or more than one text between different styles at a given period of time or through time, but within the same cultural space, and includes three subclasses of transforming tangible signs into tangible ones, tangible signs into intangible ones, and intangible signs into tangible ones.

Although the three subclasses may appear abstract and metaphysical, the semiotic activities of these types exist everywhere in our daily life. For instance, translation from tangible signs into intangible signs occurs with the ideas or thoughts coming from reading a newspaper, poems, and current affairs reports; translations from tangible signs into tangible ones occur when a director adapts a novel into a film scene, or an editor selects, interprets, and collates some poems by Tang Dynasty poets or dramas by Yuan Dynasty dramatists into an anthology, etc.; translations from intangible signs into tangible ones come with ideas (conceived in the mind) growing mature and forming a text when a designer drafts a project, which is the same as the aforementioned horticultural metaphor used by Peirce himself.

The semiotic activities between inner space and outer space are intersemiospheric translation, not like intrasemiopheric translation, which only exists within the same cultural space, but they both include three subdivisions into the translation between tangible signs, from tangible signs into intangible ones, and from intangible signs into tangible ones. Intersemiospheric translation involves the transformation(s) of one or more texts from inner space into outer space or vice versa (namely between different spaces). Of them, the translation from tangible signs into tangible ones is translation proper in the conventional sense. The translation from tangible signs into intangible ones comes with reading a piece of news in foreign languages and forming relevant mental activities in one’s mother tongue as the metalanguage (in this case, it is a virtual text based on the mother tongue as the translator’s metalanguage). The translation from tangible signs into tangible ones occurs when a translator renders an English text into Chinese (or Chinese ethnic languages) or vice versa; a director adapts a foreign-language written text into a Chinese film scene; a dubbing specialist dubs a US-produced film with a Chinese ethnic language, etc. The transformation from intangible signs into tangible ones also lies in the Chinese language as a metalanguage in drafting certain ideas in English. Of course, when a translator takes several texts as source texts, selects relevant parts which he is interested in or thinks appropriate, and combines them into one single text, this translation (called transedition) also belongs to intersemiospheric translation. Sometimes, to meet the needs of social and educational development, a translator who is not proficient in Russian or other foreign languages will take English translations as the source texts; this gives rise to retranslations. These retranslations are also intersemiospheric translation.

As mentioned above, Jakobson’s intersemiotic translation emphasizes the activity between signs, not between the spaces, and it is too broad and general to be specifically applicable, so it can either be the activity between intangible signs or tangible signs, or between tangible and intangible signs. Therefore, the broader and more general it is, the weaker it is in terms of operationality and performance in the semiosis. Furthermore, if considered in terms of time, the activity within the same sign system or say the same culture can also be intersemiotic. In this sense, Jakobson’s “intersemiotic translation” is not a rigorous or clear technical term. Compared with intersemiotic translation, intersemiospheric translation focuses not on the activity between signs, but on the change in the spaces in which the objective signs act objectively or subjectively, implying two spaces within the same temporary or different temporary dimensions. Unlike intersemiotic translation, both intersemiospheric translation and intrasemiospheric translation are clearer in logic and broader in scope, as both presuppose the existence of space(s) in which signs carry cultural messages, the transformation of/between tangible and intangible signs as mentioned previously, and the intertextuality coming from the intersemiosis in translation activity.

Coming into the 21st century, with more advanced computer technology and more international communication, the nature and means of semiotic transformation are affected to a greater or lesser degree. A novel goes from intrasemiospheric translation (into a stage play or film script) or intersemiospheric translation (from an English version into scenes in a Chinese film or play), and combines sound, stage performances, makeup, costumes, lighting, settings, etc. into a multimedia synthetic text accompanied by bilingual subtitles, saved into a digital text for repeated playing. This multimedia text starts with intrasemiospheric translation (from the novel to the script), and comes into intersemiospheric translation (from the script into a synthetic text combined with sound, lighting, image, performance, music, etc., and accompanied by corresponding monolingual or bilingual subtitles). And finally, this transformation from a paper medium to stage or screen as a multimedia synthetic text is a superasemiospheric translation.

As the above shows, intrasemiospheric translation as a semiotic process and activity only involves the semiotic transformation within the same cultural and temporal space, or between different temporal spaces of a given culture, or between the styles of expressions. Intersemiospheric translation concerns semiotic transformation within the same temporal space of different cultures or between the different temporal spaces of the two cultures. And superasemiospheric translation is a cross-media semiotic transformation involving intra- and intersemiospheric translations, i.e. a multimedia synthetic text combining sound, lighting, costumes, image, performance, music, etc. Compared with intra- and intersemiosheric translations, superasemiospheric translation not only concerns the intrasemiospheric translation between tangible signs, and from intangible signs into tangible ones, with the transformation of a novel into a film scene and a notion in mind into a text as instances, but also covers intersemiospheric translation between tangible signs and from intangible signs into tangible ones, exemplified by the transformation of actors’ lines into foreign language subtitles and their juxtaposition with Chinese subtitles, and the directors’ configuration of sound, lighting, setting, costumes, color, etc. based on their staging experience and aesthetic conceptions.

Compared with conventional translation studies, intra-, inter-, and superasemiospheric translations also involve the subjective and objective factors occurring in translation processes, and they are also subject to the theories of cultural space, textual boundedness, constant information, information quantity, channel operation, etc. Nevertheless, translation semiotics is still an emerging discipline, with its construction of three translation types awaiting improvement, and its practicality yet to be substantiated.

4 Concluding remarks

Grounded on the linguistic historiographical paradigm and literatures available, this paper has recovered how Jacobson’s triadic division of translation developed under the influence and inspirations of the Peircean tripartite division of signs, showed how influential Jacobson’s division is in the areas of linguistics, semiotics, and translation studies based on the statistic data from Elin Sütiste (2008), and affirmed the role of Jacobson’s translation types in pushing forward language and culture research worldwide. In consideration of the definition of the terms translation and sign in the broad sense, it was necessary to conduct a critical analysis of Jacobson’s threefold division and to re-analyze the relevant reviews by Gideon Toury (1986), Umberto Eco (2001), Peeter Torop (2002), Dinda L. Gorlée (2010), Zhonglian Huang (2015), and Hongwei Jia (2016b, 2016c) in order to reveal the problems existing in Jacobson’s division and the relevant reviews.

After the re-analysis in terms of translation semiotics, we have found that the previous reviews are mostly confined to conventional translation, i.e. translation proper, without considering the definitions of sign in the broad and narrow senses, and meanwhile neglecting the differences between the signifieds and definitions of the term translation in the broad and narrow senses. In terms of the definitions of sign and translation in the broad sense, Jacobson’s translation types have the following four problems, namely:

(1) Although Jacobson starts with Peircean triadic and dynamic semiotic relations, he is still anchored in the binary oppositions of structuralism, and takes equivalence as the standard to consider the static relations between the source and target texts and their relevant factors such as the writer and translator, faithful and unfaithful, etc. Meanwhile, he ignores the nature of endless, recursive interpretations in translation semiosis.

(2) He revises but weakens the relevancy between object and interpretant in the triadic semiotic relations, and is still confined to the binary oppositions to drag the relations between object and interpretant into a dual context, forcing the significance of a sign (which is, in fact, the significance of interpretant) to be a function of the context, which is inconsistent with the semiotic notion of an interpretant transformable into a sign through endless interpretations.

(3) He ignores the role of humans in the translation semiosis, and the elements of translators’ intermediary language and the virtual texts based on this intermediary language in the translation process.

(4) His division is inadequate in that he does not take into account the transformation between tangible signs, for instance, inverse or reverse translation, cotranslation, retranslation, transedition, just to name a few, and the translation from intangible signs to tangible ones as well.

Finally, referring to the term semiosphere proposed by Lotman (1986) and its relevant theories, we re-analyzed Lotman’s definition for semiosphere, redefined it as a space or medium carrying the signs of a given culture and the place in which semiotic activities or transformations occur, and divided it into intrasemiospheric, intersemiospheric, and superasemiospheric translations in terms of the broad definitions of sign and translation, combining into this system the transformations between tangible signs, from tangible signs into intangible ones, and from intangible signs into tangible ones, in order to lay a tentative foundation, from the perspective of translation semiotics, for the framework of translation types and its relevant theories.

About the author

Hongwei Jia

Hongwei Jia (b. 1977) is an associate professor at Capital Normal University, China. His research interests include translation semiotics, social linguistics, the history of modern linguistics, and overseas sinology. Recent publications include Exploring the Chinese Translations of General Linguistic Classics: 1906–1949 (2017), Academic Writing: A Methodology (2016), “A Translation-semiotic Perspective of Jakobson’s Tripartite of Translation” (2016), and “Chinese Semiotics before 1949: A Historical Survey” (2016).


In the process of writing this article, many colleagues and friends helped me in one way or the other, but here special thanks go to Ms. Catherine Schwerin, Dr. Yu Hongbing from Nanking Normal University, Dr. Ye Lixian from Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, and Prof. Anna Di Toro from Università per Stranieri di Siena, Italy.


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Published Online: 2017-2-4
Published in Print: 2017-2-1

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