Thursday, September 15, 2022

Intersemiotic Paraphrase

                                        Roman Jakobson


Warning: This is a theory post.


Note first that a paraphrase is not the same as a copy. The latter ideally shows no differences from its original. It’s like a photocopy. Whereas there must be differences for something to be considered a paraphrase.


It’s long been accepted that paraphrase is a kind of translation. The linguist Roman Jakobson, in his seminal article referenced below, included it under the name of intralingual translation (translation within the same language) as opposed to interlingual translation ( translation between languages). Yet until recently it has not been extensively studied by translatologists and the articles on paraphrase in Wikipedia and the Encyclopaedia Britannica are surprisingly thin. A better source is the Bhagat & Hovey article referenced below.


One researcher who has done some thorough investigation of paraphrase in recent years is Boguslava Whyatt, head of the Department of Psychologistic Studies at the Adam Mickiewicz University in Poland. Her work has already been highly commended on this blog in a different context; to retrieve the post, enter whyatt in the Search box on the right of this page. For instance in the article referenced below she writes,

Our study fills the niche in empirical research and shows that both tasks [paraphrasing and translating] are carried out in the same stages but the effort needed to translate is much larger because when translating we have to switch between two different languages.


She employs the full panoply of modern research, as the following from another article illustrates:

We argue that cognitive processing in intralingual transfer and interlingual translation displays a substantial overlap in the way decisions are made. Since this theoretical claim has rarely been empirically validated, a comparative analysis of both processes is very much needed to pinpoint the similarities and differences between the cognitive effort needed to translate a text and to provide its intralingual paraphrase, for example in the form of a more reader friendly version. This aim motivated us to design the ParaTrans project in which we apply technologically advanced translation process tools, such as key-logging, eye-tracking and screen recording to collect user activity data. We discuss the methodological considerations needed to ensure the validity of the research design and reliability of its findings and report results of a preliminary study.


Nevertheless there is something missing in the current studies, and to see what it is we can do no better than to go back to Jakobson. Because he spoke not only about interlingual and intralingual translation but also about intersemiotic translation. If there is intersemiotic translation we would expect to find a parallel in intersemiotic paraphrase, and indeed there is one.  Intersemiotic translation

deals with two or more completely different codes, e.g., linguistic one vs. music and/or dancing, and/or image ones. Thus, when Tchaikovsky composed the Romeo and Juliet, he actually performed an intersemiotic translation: he 'translated' Shakespeare's play from the linguistic code into a musical one. The expression code was changed entirely from words to musical sounds

But an intersemiotic translation is never a copy. There are always changes. It’s always a paraphrase. In the case of the Tchaikovsky opus there are even three versions of it, all of them only a fraction of the length of Shakespeare’s play.


Yet even this is not the end of the matter. Because Jakobson was a linguist, he only considered intersemiotic paraphrase from a language original. To complete the picture, we also need to include the many cases where neither the original not its reproduction is linguistic. To do this, we need to move up from the level of language translation to that of conversion. For this specialised use of the word conversion, enter it in the Search box. It’s broad enough to cover intersemiotic paraphrase between any form of expression. To go back to the Tchaikovsky example, “as it was meant for ballet, there was a ballet dancer who 'translated' further, from the two previous codes into a 'dancing' one, which expresses itself through body movement.” For “translated” substitute “paraphrased”.



Boguslawa Whyatt et al. Paraphrasing and translating are similar operations for our mind but they require different effort. Poznan Studies in Contemporary Linguistics, De Gruyter, January 2016,  


Roman Jakobson (1892-1982). On linguistic aspects of translation'. In R. A.Brower (ed.), On Translation, pp. 232-239, 1959.


R. Bhagat and E. Hovy. What Is a Paraphrase? Computational Linguistics, 39, 463-472, 2013.


Kubilay Aktulum. What Is Intersemiotics? A short definition and some examples. International Journal of Social Science and Humanity, Vol. 7, No. 1, January 2017.