A Typology of Derivatives: Translation, Transposition, Adaptation
What would The Nose be if Nikolai Gogol were an American writing in the twenty-first century?
Certainly we would see a different text: The content wouldn’t include a horse and carriage or cobblestone streets; the form, in all likelihood, would consist of shorter sentences with fewer clauses; the position of the narrator would move closer to the protagonist(s).
Similar considerations characterize a genre that is well-known to us from the days of postmodernism and its laggard acolytes today: that of adaptation. Running the gamut from musicians’ remakes of folk songs to literary adaptations of novels by European men or film adaptations of the classics like Emma, Sense and Sensibility, etc., adaptation has enjoyed great popularity in the postmodern epoch. One of its most interesting sides, which we also find, slightly modified in transposition, consists of presenting a different point of view from the original. If we consider Á la recherche du temps perdu and its adaptation Albertine by Jacqueline Rose, the reader confronts two quite different perspectives of Marcel and Albertine. In other cases, adaptation may develop a specific character or point from the original. Generally speaking, there are few to no rules on what forms an adaptation.
Translation, on the other hand, has many rules, at least in the professional sphere. You may not skip a word, sentence or misread the original or the intent of the original. You certainly cannot leave out whole sections or add additional information. As such the original’s content must appear in the translation, and faithfulness to the original must be largely verifiable on the basis of a dictionary.
If Nikolai Gogol entered the twenty-first century to write The Nose or Dead Souls or another of his classics in America on the basis of the original, it might take the form of an adaptation or a translation. Yet should he retain his nineteenth-century mindset while being influenced by his contemporary American surroundings, a third option would be open to him: a controlled shift of the original to the present. A shift that raises the specter of similarities between the ages, similarities obscured by superficial changes like a horse and carriage becoming a taxi. This we call transposition.
In transposition there is an attempt to produce the original as the author might have done if he or she appeared in the given socio-historical time and place of the transposition and retained the consciousness that created each sentence of the original. The central elements of transposition consist of this engagement with each sentence and the shift in content/form. Thus, it resembles translation in the grammatical aspect and adaptation in the alteration of content. It may alter some aspect of the original and retain others. It is not chained entirely to the original like a translation, but does have to track each sentence of it.
While the most prominent form of transposition is likely to be a text shifted from one language to another, a transposition does not have to take place across languages. Nor is it limited to the text. In fact, it can occur from one form of media to another, like literature to painting or literature to film. Recently, for example, Reinhard Kaiser transposed the idiom of Grimmelshausen (Der Abenteuerliche Simplicissimus) from seventeenth-century to twentyfirst-century German. Such an act, somewhat recalling the abridged versions of the classics we now read in our exceptional American educational system, does not however leave out content, but rather makes an old text accessible by modernizing solely the language (the critiques in the German press were also quite positive). Another instance of transposition would be the rendering of the text in picture form, something we used to see in Western publications and still occurring in some editions of Russian novels. My Russian version of Gogol’s Dead Souls (MD 1984) is a good example, as the illustrator has exaggerated certain content in his drawings. With such a work, however, we have text embellished by image, whereas a transposition would not include both, but rather replace original text with an image in the final version. While I do not know of a specific example, one could conceive of such a narrative e.g. as having dialog in written words and description, especially of places or people, in images.
In the preparation of a transposition, the orientation of the transposer, as informed by the author of the original, will definitively shape the produced text. Whereas a translation adheres closely to the original with little room for license beyond the best rendering of a word or phrase, and an adaptation may depart wholly from the original, a transposition traces the source, but modifies it based on the transposer’s plan for the content and form. In terms of possible options open to the transposer, I can think of the following:
Adapting the content, for instance, may range from modernizing it to altering it completely or even eliminating it. Adapting the form might involve simplifying or complicating sentences, restructuring sentences, eliminating sentences or shifting the perspective (from third to first person).
Finally, before we unfold the specifics of these categories in greater detail, it is important to recall the fundamental framework, i.e. that transposition offers a transposer’s interpretation of an author who stems from a different time and/or place, retains his original consciousness, but is influenced by the new sociohistorical context. Adherence to the original’s sentence coupled with its modification ensures this duality throughout transposition.
A novel set in a different time and place will evince aspects that no longer appear today in their capacity at that time. Examples range from a horse and carriage to servants to jobs. In some cases such as a horse and carriage for regular transportation (not joy rides in Central Park), the former common occurrence in daily life has become obsolete. In other cases, such as servants, we find them under a different title in very wealthy households, yet they are no longer a fixture of a middle-class or even upper-middle-class home. Instead, the services they rendered, like cooking, cleaning, day care, may still be assigned to people other than the parents, but these people are external service providers paid by the hour for the specific activity. Finally, with the possible exception of aristocrats, a protagonist in a different time and place often had a job as we do today. Nonetheless, the position and in all likelihood the tasks involved (like carriage driver or shepherd) often have changed in the years between the original’s appearance and our consideration of it today.
The transposition of content alters these manifestations of life. It supplants the (obsolete) occurrence with a commensurate one that pertains to our present time. If the horse and carriage are used for the commute to work, then they might be replaced by a car or taxi. Should the vehicle be intended for a longer trip, then a plane might supplant it in the new narrative. The same goes for our paradigmatic servants and jobs. The servants become cleaners, restaurants or takeaway, day care providers or babysitters. Likewise with the jobs. If Emma’s “job” is to help the poor in Austen’s work, then she might become a social worker in the twentyfirst century; where Chichikov plays the part of a dubious businessman in Gogol’s poem, then he could metamorphose into an amoral investment banker in the aughts.
In the preparation of transposed content, the author must decide which elements in the original will be shifted and which ones retained. A variety of options present themselves:
A new context for a nineteenth century novel such as The Nose by Gogol will entail a shift in the character. The protagonists’ morning routine, for example, will probably not involve a visit to the church as was common in Moscow at Gogol’s time. It is also unlikely that a protagonist will be a barber, and he certainly won’t have regular customers whom he shaves every third day. Assuming that Gogol has dramatized characters typical of his time, the transposer may well be inclined to alter the profession or morning routine.
If the setting of the narrative moves from nineteenth century Petersburg to twentyfirst century Manhattan, the transposition of character will nearly be required. Many of the aspects we sketched above, such as the metamorphosing of horse and carriage, servant, etc., relate to this transposition of setting. It again rests on an interpretation of authorial intent similar to that of a writer’s representation of his actual environment; only the transposer handles the text of the original, the actual environment at that time as well as his own actual environment (i.e. two actual environments and one textual environment) as opposed to the writer who solely, in this sense, addresses his sole actual environment.
One of the surprising observations in the transposition of setting involves the similarities over time: people getting lost, strangers pretending to know more than they do, etc. Nowhere does this surprise manifest itself more than in the mentality or consciousness of protagonists. We can imagine Chichikov from Dead Souls as a dubious bank employee or Manilov, hardly changed, as a chameleon. It is startling the degree to which characters like Mr. Wentworth, Charles Musgrove, Anne Elliot and others from Jane Austen’s Persuasion mirror, with only minor modification - the professional employee, the somewhat eccentric husband, the slightly discontent, modest, constructive single woman, i.e. the consciousness of our fellow men and women today.
By identity I mean a person’s inclinations, oddities, unique characteristics, or peculiarities that define an individual. This might consist of paralleling an obsession in the original with a different one in the transposition if other factors such as the setting make an aspect of identity incongruous with the new context. One basis for the transposition of identity is where the author determines the original character to be typical of his time. We might look at Manilov again, who is a landowner and insanely lazy. (Gogol 47) if the transposed Manilov becomes a hedge fund manager due to the setting and interpretation of typicality, this profession precludes, on the whole, laziness. Instead of this character trait, the transposer might chose a different one common in the profession or general (in this case, American) context: frugality or efficiency come to mind quickly.
Finally, transposing voice or recreating it in another language or in a different medium may be felt more prominently if the content is modernized. With Gogol, the irony exhibited in the speech of the narrator can be attenuated through the form as well as the content. Here is an example from the translation of Dead Souls:
But all these things were too trivial and Mrs. Manilov was well brought-up. And, as we all know, a good education is to be obtained in young ladies’ boarding schools, and, as we also know, in young ladies’ boarding schools three principal subjects constitute the foundation of all human virtues: the French language is indispensable for the happiness of family life, the pianoforte to provide agreeable moments for husbands, and, finally, domestic science proper, such as the knitting of pursues and other surprises. (Gogol 36)
Certainly if Gogol were writing ironically about the education of women in the twentyfirst century, he would not talk about boarding schools, French and piano, though surely he would mock some aspects:
But these are all minor subjects, and Mrs. Friendly has a good education, and we all know that you get a good education at college. And as we know in these colleges three subjects form the basis for a successful life: participation, which is absolutely necessary for happiness in family life, choice, to have the ability to take the initiative later with your spouse, and finally the pragmatic part: obtaining a degree and then jobs. (my transposition; unpublished)
In Shostakovich’s transposition of Gogol’s short story The Nose, he retained the content of the original, but modified the form for the opera by changing narration to discourse (Tumanov 401), producing more colloquial speech (ibid 403) and simplifying passages (ibid 403). This constitutes a transposition of form. In a transposition from literature to literature, we are all familiar with the abridged and “dumbed-down” versions of the classics. Such a transformed text represents an extreme transposition of form. In simplifying or smoothing sentences, in cutting entire sections, the author of such a work has identified central themes and intent within the original and attempted to convey that differently in the new narrative. The radicalness of these cuts, however, causes such a work to gravitate toward transposition. Whereas an adaptation might disregard a certain sentence, add material or adopt an ambiguous relationship to the original in parts, a transposition reveals the transposer’s interpretation and intent with regard to each sentence of the original. The considerations that inform the transposer’s decision on form may range from an altered literary landscape (nineteenth century omniscience vs. twentyfirst century personal narration), different geographic context for the new narrative (America vs. an original in Germany), a different society (twentyfirst century vs. nineteenth century) or a deviating audience (teenagers or Americans as opposed to adults or Russians, respectively), to name a few.
In general and on the most general level, we can breakdown the formal options in transposition as follows:
Let me briefly elaborate on these approaches.
An English transposer who engages in simplification may reduce the length of original sentences, eliminate clauses, alter word order, and leave out superfluous adverbs or conjunctions. In some instances, this may be very similar to translation. Frequently translations from German to English leave out the adverb schon because it is implied by the verb or context. Often conjunctive adverbs (furthermore, however, moreover) are also not retained on the basis of such logic. Less frequently, entire sentences are divided and rebuilt into two separate ones with the content of the previous single one. In this later case, however, we are speaking of what I would define as transposition.
In contemporary English, it is hard to conceive of complicating a sentence or composition. For a transposition of this kind we need to look at texts shifted from English to e.g. German or Russian. If you regularly read in Russian or German, it is very startling to open up a Russian translation of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce. At first glance, you think it is a children’s book for a mentally-challenged child. Every sentence begins with the subject, which is naturally emphasized in Russian by the clear form of the tense for nominatives. Now, Joyce’s narrative does begin from the perspective (personal narrator) of a young boy, so this simple language structure can be excused, but what startles a Russian reader is the uniformity of streamlined prose throughout the narrative, even when Stephan grows older. This divergence between the expectations of English and Russian readers results from a history of different values with respect to literary fiction. To bring Joyce’s text into harmony with the tradition of Russian literary fiction, in all its diverse forms and styles, the author/transposer would have to create some more clauses, shift the word order and arrangement of sentences and probably add material (also see Modification by addition, subtraction or rearrangement below). An example of this approach appears in Mona Baker’s primer on translation In Other Words. Here a German translator overhauls an advertising/promotion brochure by taking into consideration the higher level of education, professionalism and objectivity among the text’s likely German audience. It begins as a translation, with the first sentence, for the most part, being replicated in German. But the second sentence deviates widely:
So is this brochure necessary? Isn’t the ceramic market already over-bombarded with technical literature? Why should Matroc add more? (Baker 264)
Wir haben uns daher gefragt, ob bei der Flut von technischer Literatur, die derzeit auf den Keramikmarkt einwirkt, dieser Katalog noch eine entsprechende Resonanz finden wird. Sollte Matroc das Seine hinzutun? (Baker 264)
Literal back-translation/transposition of the German
Therefore we asked ourselves whether with the flood of technical literature that is currently pouring onto the ceramics market, this catalog would still resonate sufficiently (find sufficient resonance). Should Matroc add its own?
First, we observe that three short direct questions in English have been turned into one long sentence of governed indirect discourse (we asked ourselves whether...) in German. Second, the English contains no clauses; the German, on the other hand, multiple, including an independent one (die derzeit...). Third, the position of the narrator is ambiguously close to the reader and narrator in English, asking questions that might be in either’s mind, while in German the narrator sits in an office far removed from the questions, from active involvement, and reflects on the topic like an omniscient narrator. Fourth, the English text is less formal than the German. On the whole, this rendition of the English text is what I would classify as a transposition. An actual translation of this discussed English sentence would be something like:
Ist diese Broschüre (nun) wirklich notwendig? Gibt es den Keramikmarkt betreffend nicht schon mehr als genug technische Literatur? Warum sollte Matroc (dann) noch eine weitere hinzufügen?
It is perfectly normal German, perhaps simple, perhaps as incongruous with tradition as Joyce’s narrative in Russian, but that is a translation with its requirements that differ from transposition.
The final three general options for the transposition of form – retention, elimination or modification by adding, subtracting or rearranging – involve varying degrees of the simplifying/complicating approach and might even be considered subsets thereof. The retention of the original’s form would involve the faithful reconstruction (or copying, if the language is identical in the original and transposition) of the source’s style in the new text. If the content and form are preserved, then this act would have to take place from one type of media to another or else it falls under the category of translation between languages or is superfluous (since in the same language, you cannot recreate the form and content of e.g. Persuasion in text form without it being what the text started as: Persuasion). If the content deviates on account of the considerations discussed in the transposition of content, then we have a transposition with the form retained.
The elimination of text from the original recalls particulars discussed within the simplification of form. It implies that certain information is not applicable in the new context. Again, this is not particularly uncommon in the related genre of translation where e.g. the German title Hr. Dr. Jedermann becomes Dr. Jedermann without the Hr. in English because we do not use Mr. + Dr. in America. Here, too, the classification of the text depends on the scope of elimination and the treatment of content. Furthermore, it should also not be as extensive as in the abridged classics discussed above.
Lastly, modification by adding, subtracting or rearranging represents a prominent issue in translation and, if minor, circles within the bounds of that genre. Wherever extensive, as we saw in the example from Baker, such modification, even coupled with identical content, becomes a transposition. In the context of a transposition of form, which is focused on the sentence by definition, such modification involves the adding of prepositions, the removal of others, the conversion of other parts of speech, the alteration of word order to subject-verb-object +, etc.
As we observe in theatrical adaptations of classic drama where the stage is set in the contemporary world and the language modernized commensurately, the groups converging at the theater enjoy alterations of the classics. Productions such as Faust with cars, televisions, contemporary accoutrements (1999, Weimar, Germany) sell out; Pygmalion becomes a popular contemporary musical (My Fair Lady), etc. The Queen of Spades by Tchaikovsky takes place at a Moscow hotel in the 1990s with oligarchs and the nouveaux riches (Berlin Komische Oper 2010); Jacqueline Rose writes Albertine’s parallel story in English.
While these works are primarily considered adaptations due to the focus on content, nothing impedes the combination of transposed form and content. The practices described in the respective sections above would facilitate a seamless merging of altered form and content. It might be argued that the transposition of content, especially from an earlier era, entails a shift in form: Can you have commuters riding in cars described in long, read-retarding independent clauses? Certainly. Especially in the opera when the libretto is retained in its original form. But as Jacqueline Rose shows in Albertine, the author of the new work might frame the narrative in streamlined contemporary forms (see Fisk, 2002).
Each of the aforementioned operas also furnish an opportunity for transposition. In the Tchaikovsky production at the Berlin Komische Oper, the libretto was translated into German, but without altering the vocabulary or the idiom from the nineteenth century. This decision resulted in an odd mixture of an adapted setting (the hotel with oligarchs) and dialog with words such as king, queen, princess, etc. Against the backdrop of a translated libretto and a contemporary setting, it would only have been one more step, that of altering the original text, to a classic instance of transposing both the form and content.
Paintings or illustrations tend to be reserved for comics and graphic novels. Despite the inclusion of images in many textual editions of narratives, as mentioned with James and Gogol, such visual work has only complimented the text, never replaced it. In a transposition of this kind, the author would replace narration with a painting, illustration or photo. We might find this imagetext evincing similarities to another: motion picture.
Movies offer the opportunity to replace some words with images while retaining others in text (dialog). To some extent, and certainly the closest common existing type, the filming of the classics hints at a transposition of form partially to image. While the content is retained in a filming of Emma or Sense and Sensibility or Wings of the Dove, the narration appears in the visual scenes or background rather than narration, while the direct and even indirect discourse unfolds in the dramatic dialog between the characters. As a result of the need to abridge lengthy novels with dialog that is too extensive for a maximum of a 3 hour movie, these renditions of the classics resemble more of an adaptation, as they are often called. An actual transposition in motion picture would resemble a complete filming of a novel, such as the 2005 Russian production of Bulgakov’s Master and Margarita by Vladimir Bortko or the 2006 production of Solzhenitsyn’s The First Circle by Gleb Panfilov. These serial films integrate substantially more of the original’s dialog than adaptations (and are thus commensurately longer). Shown for an hour each week over a season on the Rocciya channel, the movie of Master and Margarita ends up being over nine hours long. Nearly all of the dialog in chapter one, for example, is incorporated into the film and thus chapter one itself spans almost sixty minutes. Since narration requires no lapse of time – with the exception of brief shots of an expanse or motion, the description/narration appears in the background image. As a result, we find the serialized movie assumes a position with respect to every sentence of the original – one of the key criteria for a transposition. Even if the authors of Master and Margarita chose to eliminate certain sentences, this conscious decision falls within the bounds of modification by subtraction. Since Master and Margarita reproduces the entire content of the novel as faithfully as possible (i.e. without modernizing it) the film version would be considered a transposition of form because it was shifted from the form of literature to the form of film.
A typology of derivatives is especially useful for aligning the expectations of a client, author and audience. The term translation is applied very loosely to describe a variety of different derivative works. In my experience of revising translations produced by others, in a commercial context, a wide range of practices are employed by English translators. Many of these veer strongly in the direction of what is categorized here as transposition. This is problematic and has been problematic for translators who adhere to this school. Clients will request the complete overhaul of texts, the elimination of every “we” used to replace a passive, the exact replication of the original’s clauses, the formality of the source, etc. These translators are preparing transpositions, they have probably been taught in English language schools that such an approach offers the most natural reading in the target language of English. At the same time, my experience translating (almost exclusively for German and Swiss agencies) suggest that Germans overwhelmingly want an English translation that replicates the original’s form and content as closely as possible. In commercial translation, there is no time or patience to discuss each 30 or even 300 EUR/USD order. The solution to the ambiguity in the type of derivative can be resolved by rigorous application of a distinction between translation and transposition. The same applies to literature.
In discussing the most recent translation of Kafka’s The Trial, the translator, Breon Mitchell, was asked to produce a word-for-word translation. (Wechsler 37) This occurred after the acquiring editor had hired another translator and then rejected the entire translation (Wechsler 220). The native German editor’s acceptance of Mitchell’s word-for-word translation suggests his dissatisfaction with the original was in part due to its failure to mimic Kafka’s own style. What he wanted, for better or worse, was Kafka’s German with English words, and what should appropriately be called a translation as opposed to a transposition. Unfortunately, the original translator must have been trained in a school that sees translation as transposition. A typology of derivatives – with translation understood as word-for-word replication, transposition involving a freer rendering of the original and adaptation viewed as the furthest removed from the original – would reduce this confusion.
Baker, Mona. In Other Words. London, UK: Routledge. 1992. Print
Elliot. Kamilla. “Literary Film Adaptation and the Form/Content Dilemma.” Narrative across Media: The Languages of Storytelling. Ed. Marie-Laure Ryan. Lincoln and London: University of Nebraska Press, 2004. Print.
Fisk, Robert Hartwell. The Dictionary of Concise Writing: 10,000 Alternatives to Wordy Phrases. Oak Park, IL, USA: Marion Street Press, Inc., 2002. Print.
Гоголь, Николай. Мертвые души. Москва: Издательство «ПРАВДА», 1984. Print.
Gogol, Nikolai. Dead Souls. Trans. Pevear and Volokhonsky. New York: Vintage Classics, 1997. Print.
Tumanov, Alexander. “Correspondence of Literary Text and Musical Phraseology in Shostakovich’s Opera The Nose and Gogol’s Fantastic Tale.” Russian Review. Vol. 52 No. 3 (July 1993) 397-414. Online. Accessed Mar. 20, 2012.
Wechsler, Robert. Performing without a stage: the Art of Literary Translation. North Haven, CT, USA: CATBIRD PRESS. 1998. Print.
Wright, Andrew. “Jane Austen Adapted.” Nineteenth-Century Fiction. Vol. 30 No. 3 Jane Austen 1775-1975 (Dec. 1975) 421-453. Online. Accessed Mar. 5, 2012.
 For example, in the introduction to her “third-world“ Pride and Prejudice, Joan Macintosh summarizes the central theme of the entire work as a straight-forward love story. (Wright 424)
Henry Whittlesey is a writer and translator
of Russian and German literature. His work in these areas has prompted
an attempt to define a type of derivative that lies between translation
and adaptation. This type is called transposition. Now 35 years old, he
lives in Brooklyn after 13 years in Moscow (Russia) and Röhrmoos
See also: The Transposition of Form
Published - June 2012
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