2: Creative Translation Framework

Empowerment is a highly contested concept – people even question whether or not it is a relevant concept for people living in poverty. There are often tensions between approaches based on individual personal choice and those based on universal human rights (see Empowerment concepts) These debates to some extent mirror theoretical debates between ‘modernism’ and ‘post-modernism’ and ‘post/neo-post-modernism’ in the arts and social sciences, particularly those from a post-colonial perspective. 

How can community visions and strategies for empowerment be ethically ‘translated’ into powerful visual communication for advocacy in a way that ‘frees, transforms and multiplies rather than possesses, controls and defines’?

In particular:
– can this be done graphically without text through using simple lines and shapes?
– can textless narrative sequences as short comic strips or simple animation overcome some of the communicative limitations of single images
– can this be done using media accessible to most people working in communities?


Top down ‘professional design’

There is currently a profound gap in development agencies between those who participate in and implement participatory processes on the ground and those employed specifically to design ‘development messages’. Many visual materials produced for development agencies on empowerment and other topics are very standardised in appearance and simplistic in their messages. Their top-down (and often rather patronising) approach means that even important information risks being ignored.

Increasing exclusion

The most ‘professional’ design relies on written diagrams – often in English or French! Large numbers of the most marginalised people – from minority ethnic groups, poorer backgrounds and many women – who cannot read and write and/or do not speak any of the major international languages. Many also do not speak the main national Asian or African languages.

Concept Map: Empowerment

Creative Translation

The role of graphic designers and artists can usefully be seen as that of an intermediary ‘creative translator advocate’ between communities and powerful institutions. This requires a detailed understanding of both what different people in communities are trying to communicate, and the ways in which this is likely to be received by those in power.

A creative translator advocate must be very flexible to a multiplicity of possible ‘translations’ and translation media that ‘free, transform and multiply’ provoking those in power to listen and act, not sit back and passively consume messages they have heard many times before (see Translation Theory).

Bricolage Approach

The quest for a visual communication practice that can ‘translate’ community voices into powerful voices for advocacy requires research frameworks and methods that correspond to the empowerment aims. I propose a ‘bricolage’ approach to theory and methodology:

Bricolage is a qualitative approach that weaves together threads and ideas from different theoretical frameworks and perspectives into a more informed and multi-faceted research methodology for understanding of an issue. See Bricolage approach.

‘Bricolage’ comes from the French ‘bricoler’ which means ‘creatively using materials left over from other projects to construct new artefacts’ (Rogers, 2012 P1). It is an approach to theoretical and qualitative methodological enquiry based on the understandings that:

  • reality is complex and multidimensional, particularly social reality. It and therefore cannot be adequately understood through any one pre-determined theoretical framework.
  • all research is political: knowledge and power are intimately linked so the only way to gain rigour and depth of understanding is to include the perspectives of those normally excluded from ‘dominant knowledge construction’.
  • research methodologies therefore need to be eclectic, non-linear and emergent, bringing together multiple and potentially competing voices. Linking back to the meaning of ‘bricolage’ in visual research this includes working with cheap local materials and in multiple styles, particularly those that can facilitate inclusion of people normally marginalised by gender, race, class and other dimensions of inequality.

The bricolage theoretical framework is based on a post-modernism and post-colonial perspective, attempting to weave:

Post-structuralist semiotics

as a framework for investigating meanings of community drawings and diagrams. Looking at the ways in which ‘meanings’ are constructed from visual symbols, focusing on relationships and elements in a conceptual system but (following postmodernism) exploring the challenges of potential plurality and instability of pictorial (as well as verbal) meaning across cultures and contexts.

Visual communication theory

as a framework for looking at the work of other designers and relationships between designers, audiences and messages, including theories of visual dynamics, narrative theory, systems diagramming and information and interactive design.

This Means That:
Post-structuralist semiotics

Semiotics is the study of signs and symbols in the process of production and communication of meaning (my definition). It includes the study of signs and sign processes, indication, designation, likeness, analogy, allegory, metonymy, metaphor, symbolism, signification, and communication. Some influences have been drawn from phenomenological analysis, cognitive psychology, structuralist, and cognitivist linguistics, and visual anthropology and sociology.

Concept Map: Semiotics and Semiology
Concept Map: Semiotics and Semiology

Apart from being a branch of linguistics, semiotics also studies non-linguistic sign systems. The term ‘semiotics’ refers particularly to discussions in the United States where semiotics has been prevalent in discussions of Communication Theory, behavioural science and cybernetics. In Europe the term ‘semiology’ is common, referring to discussions around cultural meanings of signs in everyday life and political discourse, particularly in post-structuralist questioning of modernism, capitalism and universal meanings following the political upheavals in 1968.

Pictorial semiotics

Pictorial semiotics focuses on the properties of pictures in a general sense, and on how the artistic conventions of images can be interpreted through pictorial codes. Pictorial codes are the way in which viewers of pictorial representations seem automatically to decipher the artistic conventions of images by being unconsciously familiar with them.

Semiotics provides a technical language to describe how images are coded and decoded. Amongst other concepts semiotics uses connotation and denotation as a way of describing actual and intended meanings:

  • Denotation describes the obvious, literal things in an image.
  • Connotation describes the associations we have with that image. These associations are determined by our social, economic and personal perspectives.

Meanings also reside in visual dynamics:

  • which images are chosen and what they stand for
  • connotation of different types of line, shape, colour and texture
  • where images are placed and the hierarchy of relationships between each of the signs. Placing something at the front or top of an image will create a different meaning from placing something at the back or bottom.

According to Swedish semiotician Göran Sonesson in (1988). “Methods and Models in Pictorial Semiotics” (1988 pp. 2–98.) pictures can be analysed by three models:

  1. narrative model, which concentrates on the relationship between pictures and time in a chronological manner as in a comic strip;
  2. rhetoric model, which compares pictures with different devices as in a metaphor;
  3. laokoon (or laocoon) model, which considers the limits and constraints of pictorial expressions by comparing textual mediums that use time with visual mediums that use space

Key questions for this research include:

  • how far is it possible to create pictorial symbols to communicate complex concepts and deep meanings, without needing text? what are the limitations, if any? can anyone do this?
  • relationship between individual creation and use of symbols ‘parole’ and public symbol systems ‘langue’ and ‘codes’ – how widely are the former understood and when and how do they become ‘langue’.
  • how far and in what ways might ‘hegemony’ by dominant groups restrict creativity of others to create their own symbols and meanings?

Meaning and message: VisCom theory

Communication theory in graphic design is concerned with the process by which designers design and send encoded messages for particular audiences and the contextual factors influencing that process. Different theories have emphasised and elaborated on different elements.

The following interactive animation gives a summary overview of key points.

Click on the image to bring up the interactive animation file and then click on the text.
Based on my notes from: Davis, M., (2012) Graphic Design Theory, London: Thames and Hudson.

Whose Voice?
Translation Theory

‘Foreignizing translation’ vs ‘abusive fidelity’? (Venuti ref)

How does one write about or represent another culture in one’s own language and terms without those very terms and conceptions altering that which is being represented? How do one’s conceptual notions color what one see and reports? (Niranjan ref)

The Western scholar/translator can partially access the subaltern condition, not through what is specifically said…but by reading that which is not said – reading the gaps, the silences, and the contradictions symptomatically…it is necessary to ‘unlearn’ in order to allow the mute [sic] to speak (Spivak Ref)

Spivak (!!full ref)

Translation theory is concerned with the processes of ‘carrying over’ meanings from one ‘text’ in one form or language to another ‘text’ in another form or language. (my definition). It borrows concepts and approaches from a range of disciplines including: comparative literature, computer science, history,  linguistics,  philology,  philosophy,  semiotics, and terminology.

Cognitive Map: Translation Theory
Cognitive Map: Translation Theory

Texts may take many forms: spoken, written, visual, digital, musical and the ‘carrying over’ may be within or between these forms, or even ‘updating’ within the same form. Translation theory is concerned with issues such as:

  • analysis of source texts and meanings eg is there only one or many meanings in a text? how can meaning be derived?
  • analysis of target text and audience understandings of meaning eg how far does the purpose and audience require adaptation and change in the final form?
  • the nature of ‘equivalence’ and role of the translator in transforming source texts into target texts eg are translators ‘faithful messengers’ or also creative authors of the target text?

Of particular relevance for empowerment and participatory approaches are linkages that have been made between translation theory and post-colonial and subaltern theory by authors such as Tejaswini Niranjan and Gayatri Spivak. They are concerned particularly with:

  • power relations between translators, those producing the source texts and those consuming the target texts: which voices and texts are chosen for translation? can the translator (Western or post-colonial academics in the global South) really understand and translate the voices of ‘oppressed’ and ‘subaltern’ marginalised from dominant cultures? is the role of the translator to replace one ‘word’ in the source text with another ‘formally equivalent’ word in the target text as the risk of either ‘abusive fidelity’ or ‘exotic stereotypical foreignization’? or is the role to be creative in producing texts that ‘free, transform and multiply meaning’ (Quebec feminists ref?!?)
Cognitive Map: Translation Bricolage questions
Cognitive Map: Translation Bricolage questions

Creative Translation:
bricolage methodology

The bricolage approach means a very eclectic and contingent gathering of sources of inspiration:

  • Analysis of the community drawings is the primary driver as valued primary sources – and what is needed for their ‘creative translation’ for advocacy.
  • Selection of work from other illustrators, animators and graphic designers from a range of cultural traditions based on contingent serendipity from openness to new influences as they arise – guides my

A key aim of the research is:

Reflective practice: exploring and applying visual communication theories from graphic design/info-graphic theory and wordless narratives to improve my own visual work as creative translator.

The research therefore involves my own visual experimentation and innovation:

Bricoleur: bringing together ideas about ways of working with different local materials as a means for physical as well as digital dissemination of images. Bricolage is potentially an open, playful, mixed media methodology for ‘translations’, ‘cobbling together’ different styles and cheap local materials for image making and combines these into interactive narrative information graphics. Aiming for a ‘multicoloured cloth’ a that people from different backgrounds and perspectives can unite around.

A key resource here is the work of Bryan Eccleshall in developing questions and prompts for

Ideally I would have been able to test my visual experimentation directly in communities myself to do in-depth ethnographic/ action/anthropological research. But due to some health issues I will not be able to travel for a year or so. But I will still be able to engage in:

Action research: through collaborating on-line with colleagues on the ground who can try things out in communities and organisations overseas and my own presentations in development agencies in UK.

Cognitive Map: Participatory VisCom revisited
Cognitive Map: Participatory VisCom revisited

See: Assignment 2 Theoretical and Methodological Frameworks 

Sources Bricolage

Denzin, N. K. & Lincoln, Y. S. (eds.) (1999) The SAGE Handbook of qualitative research, Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

Phillimore, J., Humphries, R., Klaas, F. & Knecht, M.,(2016) Bricolage: potential as a conceptual tool for understanding access to welfare in superdiverse neighbourhoods. IRIS Working Paper. Birmingham: Birmingham University. https://www.birmingham.ac.uk/Documents/college-social-sciences/social-policy/iris/2016/working-paper-series/IRiS-WP-14-2016UPWEB3.pdf

Rogers, M.,(2012) Contextualising Theories and Practices of Bricolage Research. The Qualitative Report, 17, 1-17. University of New Brunswick, matt.rogers@unb.ca: https://nsuworks.nova.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1704&context=tqr

Wibberley, C.(2012) Getting to Grips with Bricolage: A Personal Account. The Qualitative Report, 17, 1-8. https://nsuworks.nova.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1760&context=tqr

Wibberley, C. (2017) Bricolage Research Methods. In E. A. Glasper & C. Rees (Eds.), Health Care Research: at a glance. Ch 52 pp106-1071. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell:https://www.researchgate.net/publication/307888252_Bricolage_Research_Methods

Sources: semiotics

Barthes, R., (1967 (French 1964)) Elements of Semiology, New York: Hill and Wang.
Barthes, R., (2009 (French 1957)) Mythologies, London: Vintage Books.
Barthes, R., (2010 (French 1967)) The Fashion System, London: Vintage Books.
Barthes, R., (1977) Image Music Text, London: Fontana Press.
Barthes, R., (2000 (French 1980)) Camera Lucida, London: Vintage Books.
Cobley, P. & Jansz, L., (2010) Introducing Semiotics: A graphic guide, London: Icon Books Ltd.

Collins, J. & Mayblin, B., (2011) Introducing Derrida: A graphic guide, London: Icon Books Ltd.

Downs, S., (2012) The Graphic Communication Handbook, London, New York: Routledge.

Guiraud, P., (1975 (French 1971)) Semiology, London: Routledge.

Hall, S., (2012) This Means This, That Means That: a user’s guide to semiotics, London: Laurence King Publishing.

Horrocks, C. & Jevtic, Z., (2011) Introducing Baudrillard: A graphic guide, London: Icon Books.

Thody, P. & Piero, (2013) Introducing Barthes: A graphic guide, London: Icon Books Ltd.

To get: Sonesson, Göran (1988). “Methods and Models in Pictorial Semiotics”
Also link to literature on linguistics and creative thinking/creativity.

Sources: Visual Communication

Davis, M., (2012) Graphic Design Theory, London: Thames and Hudson.

Sources: Translation Theory

!! Berman ref

Mahasweta Devi (Author), & Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak (Translator) (1995) Imaginary Maps, London, New York: Routledge.

Eccleshall, B (2019) An Analytic of Making: Translating Berman’s Twelve Deforming Tendencies inTranslating Across Sensory and Linguistic Borders: Intersemiotic Journeys Between Media Edited by Ricarda Vidal and Madeleine Campbell 2019, Palgrave Macmillan. Pp269-??

Gentzler, E., (2001) Contemporary Translation Theories, Clevedon, Buffalo, Toronto, Sydney: Multilingual Matters Ltd.

Morton, S., (2003) Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, London, New York: Routledge.

Munday, J., (2012) Introducing Translation Studies: Theories and Application, London, New York: Routledge.

Niranjana, T., (1992) Siting Translation: History, post-structuralism and the colonial context, Berkeley, Los Angeles, Oxford: University of California Press.

Schulte, R. & Biguenet, J. (eds.) (1992) Theories of Translation: An Anthology of Essays from Dryden to Derrida, Chicago, London: University of Chicago Press.

Spivak, G. C., (1990) The Post-Colonial Critic: Interviews, Strategies, Dialogues, New York, London: Routledge.

Spivak, G. C., (1998) In Other Worlds, London, New York: Routledge.