SIG Statement

Intersemiotic Translation as Process in Cultural Production

by Madeleine Campbell (


The aim of this special interest group is to identify, foster and analyse creative practices in translation and their potential impact on society.


Intersemiotic translation provides an interactive, participative platform with the potential to engage individuals and communities in connecting with cultures different from their own. This special interest group proposes to chronicle and reflect on this process of collaborative translation, chart its impact in communities or other public settings, and research the socio-cognitive mechanisms at work. In addition to researching its theoretical and aesthetic rationale, we are interested in how intersemiotic translation might function to promote cultural literacy.

What is Intersemiotic Translation? 

The act of translating from one language to another involves a political, culturally embedded process that can impact both the originating and the receiving culture. In literary translation, a text is translated into another text using purely verbal means. This process is considered “intra-semiotic” as it remains in the verbal domain within the system of signs and meaning we call language. In contrast, an intersemiotic translation carries a source text (or artefact) across sign systems and typically creates connections between different cultures and media. While in literary translation the onus tends to lie principally on the translator to convey the sense of the source artefact, intersemiotic translation involves a creative step in which the translator (artist or performer) offers its embodiment in a different medium. This process is facilitated by perceiving and experiencing non-verbal media through visual, auditory and other sensory channels, for example through dance or sculpture. Instead of focusing on the translation of sense or meaning, the translator effectively plays the role of mediator in an experiential process that allows the recipient (viewer, listener, reader or participant) to re-create the sense (or semios) of the source artefact for him or herself. This holistic approach recognizes that there are multiple possible versions of both source and target texts and this can help mitigate the biases and preconceptions a static, intra-semiotic translation can sometimes introduce. 


Creative practice initiatives are difficult to finance. They bring together practitioners from a variety of disciplines and do not scale readily. Thus it is difficult to satisfy funding criteria for impact and public engagement, which usually require a growing number of members of the public to be reached by funded interventions. Such guidelines set up by definition a “them” and “us” between artists/performers and the spectator public and perpetuate the dividing line such projects aim to break down. Creative practice is a qualitative, subjective reality made up by individuals, with the potential for profound transformational learning in a diverse group of participants, which in turn may affect attitudes in a local community and, incrementally, in society at large. This special interest group aims to provide an effective vehicle for influencing funding bodies to develop flexible funding mechanisms more suited to such initiatives.


This SIG proposes to review contemporary theory and practice in the field of intersemiotic translation and to develop case studies of contemporary examples. Informed by philosophy, linguistics, poetics and cognitive sciences, we are also interested in whether and how the methodologies of practice as research (PaR), primarily developed in the performing arts, can be applied to the process of intersemiotic translation as cultural production.

The experience of translating a source artefact (whether text, image, sound, sculpture, gesture) through an interactive process that results in embodied, subjectively-formed, meaningful narrative for the participant forms the central object of enquiry.

Questions of definition include the perennial debate over whether intersemiotic translation is truly translation, or rather adaptation, interpretation or even transcreation (an adaptation that aims to convey the meaning or a source text but is not bound to reproduce the form). Specific types of translation that can be considered intersemiotic include ekphrasis (from non-verbal to verbal), homophonic, homographonic or material translation (respectively from verbal to phonetic, graphic, and haptic—conveyed through the sense of touch). Ephemeral, performative forms of intersemiotic translation are of particular interest in understanding process as cultural production because they foster a real-time interactive relationship with the audience where participants become alternately actors and witnesses in the translation process.

Specific lines of academic enquiry to be pursued may include questions of whether and how the experiential nature of projects involving intersemiotic translation can serve as an awareness-raising tool, break down intercultural boundaries and help build empathy between conflicted communities.


Further information on this SIG, and examples with brief descriptions can be found at:


This special interest group is part of the Cultural Literacy in Europe (CLE) initiative. After publishing an ESF-COST Science Policy Briefing in January 2013 and a volume of essays, From Literature to Cultural Literacy, coedited by Naomi Segal and Daniela Koleva (2014), CLE held their first Conference in London in April 2015.  Following the Conference at Birkbeck College, CLE published the London Statement, which defined cultural literacy as “an ability to view the social and cultural phenomena that shape our lives  — bodies of knowledge, fields of social action, individuals or groups, and of course cultural artefacts — as being essentially readable.

Cultural literacy engages with interdisciplinarity, multilingualism and collaboration. This readability can been elaborated through the lens of four distinct but related perspectives: textuality, which involves describing, explaining, contextualizing the shape of an artefact; fictionality, the way truth effects are achieved as opposed to referentiality; rhetoricity, or how artefacts are employed for purpose and effect and historicity, the quality of a narrative told and heard in contextual time. Cultural Literacy is “as much about innovation and creative practice – whether scholarly, artistic or social – as it is about analysis, and it very often brings these two methods together.”