Soundscapes: Translating from Music

by Karen Bennett

Soundscapes was a short online course organized under the auspices of the Experiential Translation Network, in collaboration with the Centre for English, Translation and Anglo-Portuguese Studies (CETAPS) of Nova University of Lisbon, which took place in the spring (April/May) of 2022.  

Designed to provide an introduction to the meaning-making potential of music and stimulate the production of intersemiotic translations into other media, it was aimed at anyone interested in or moved by music, with or without a background in musical practice or theory. In the end, we had a total of 21 participants from a range of backgrounds (translation scholars and literary translators, musicologists, choreographers, visual artists, as well as people with an amateur interest in music and other arts). Two classes were organised (one on Friday mornings and the other in the afternoon of the same day) and these were then subdivided into breakout groups for some sessions in order to focus on the semiotic potential of particular art forms (i. Writing/poetry; ii. Visual art; iii. Dance).

Two thirds of the original participants stuck with the course until the end, and most completed the final assignment of producing an intersemiotic translation into another art form. These will soon be available on the Soundscapes website.

The course consisted of six 2-hour sessions, involving discussions and listening exercises.

Session 1. Introduction
This first session was designed to introduce some of the issues to be covered on the course through a series of listening exercises and discussions, in which the participants’ personal associations and past experiences were brought to bear.

Session 2. The building blocks of meaning
On the assumption that music, like most other performing arts, draws much of its semiotic potential from the human body, this session explored the effects of tempo, timbre, rhythm, pitch and volume through analogy with human speech and movement.

Session 3. Harmony and melody
Without delving too deeply into the complexities of musical theory, this session explored the semiotic potential of harmony and melody, looking at how this has been exploited by composers to represent character and narrative (as, for example, in musical adaptations of literary works).  

Session 4. The cultural dimension
This session explored the semiotic effects of form and genre, historically situated in the context of the Western tradition.

Session 5. Preparing to translate
In this session, we discussed, with reference to one or more pieces of music specifically chosen for the purpose, the way in which certain aspects of the musical semiotic could be represented in other art forms. Then each participant was asked to produce an intersemiotic translation of one of the pieces of music analysed on the course, or a different piece of their choice, for presentation in the final session.

Session 6. Translating from music
This final session was devoted to the presentation and discussion of the intersemiotic translations by different members of the group (done individually or in pairs).

Equally fruitful were the theoretical discussions that took place throughout the course. Topics that attracted a great deal of debate (and some disagreement) included: a) the capacity of music to mean/signify beyond itself; b) the similarities or differences between music and verbal language as regards their capacity to mean; c) the extent to which the process of intersemiotic translation is analogous to or different from the process of translating between two verbal languages; and d) the possibility of producing translations from music that are as faithful to their source texts as an interlingual translation of a literary text could expect to be.

África Vidal Claramonte and Sofía Lacasta Millera,“The Typewriter”, translation into visual art of Leroy Anderson’s Typewriter

Different participants had different perspectives on these issues, with the translators and translation scholars generally more inclined to understand intersemiotic translation as continuous with interlingual translation, and people from other backgrounds tending to perceive a qualitative difference between them.

Some of the arguments raised during these debates, and some of the intersemiotic translations produced by the group, will be presented at the ETN 2022 conference in London (Wednesday 13th July, 14.05, Panel 1 Accessing Sound).

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