The Transposition of Form

by Henry Whittlesey

(Originally published by Translation Directory; full version available there)


A derivative describes a work that is related to a previously existing original. We currently have two common types of derivatives: adaptation and translation. Adaptation uses the original as a rough template for a new text. Translation is more or less a direct copy of the original in a different language. Somewhere between these two types is transposition.[1]

Primarily, a transposition traces the structure of the original, including each original sentence, or segment as we will refer to it. Similar to radical adaptations like the movie Clueless, the content and sometimes the form of a transposition differ from the original work.[2] The degree to which the original is retained or modified depends on the coincidence between the respective contents and contexts of the two texts. As a result of the shift in content, it is possible for a transposition to exist within one language or from one language to another.

In order to gain a concrete understanding of these differences, it is helpful to examine a comparison of one passage in a text that has been translated, adapted and transposed. The original text in the first column below was written by the Russian author Nikolai Gogol at the beginning of the nineteenth century. Its translation stems from the critically acclaimed couple Larissa Volokhonsky and Richard Pevear. With some help from Zamyatin and others in writing the libretto, Dmitry Shostakovich composed an adaptation of the story in the form of an opera.[3] In the last column, we see the transposition which retains the form of the original, while modifying the content.