Monday, 12 December 2011

On Adaptation Revisited: Fidelity, Quality and Translation

In the past week, I attended a doctoral colleague's work-in-progress seminar, which touches on one of my interests: adaptation. Now, old readers know that I have written on adaptation in here before (and also on the related question of what constitutes a medium), but the seminar made me think about a few things yet again and it seemed appropriate to revisit the subject.

The seminar once more revealed the seemingly great bogeyman of adaptation studies and theories: the issue of fidelity. For some reason, this issue is deemed very problematic, and has people twisting themselves every which way to avoid it. I cannot help but ask why? In truth, to my mind, the issue is much less problematic than most of these critics and theoreticians seem to think, and I will explain why.

Regardless of what medium one adapts from and to, there is a need to distinguish the process of adaptation from the resulting adaptation. The former is arguably an act of translation, a word which etymologically comes from the Latin translatus, i.e. literally "carried across" (see Merriam-Webster). However, as has been noted many times, the act of translation (whether between languages or media) is never a simple process of transfer, but one that always, without exception, involves change on some level. The etymology of the word "adaptation" ("from Latin adaptare, from ad- + aptare to fit, from aptus apt, fit") is arguably a good indication of this aspect, as the idea that necessary changes occur in the process can be seen as the result of the act of fitting something into a different language or medium, and act of metaphorical tailoring attached to the process of the transfer of content. The resulting adaptation, however, is never just a result of that process; it is also a narrative object in its own right.

So what do I mean with this distinction and why do I stress it? Well, the process of translating anything — whether it is translating a text in Swedish to English, or a narrative in literature to film — implies a given source material that needs to be carried across a void of difference, from one language or medium to another; ultimately being fitted into its new location. As such, fidelity can arguably be seen as the mark of a successful process: Was the material carried across adequately; and was it made to fit its new language or medium?

However, fidelity in itself will never tell us if the resulting narrative object is any good. Arguably, one could conceivably transfer and adapt properly (to use Brian McFarlane's distinctions) more or less everything from the source text into the new object (if you will), but without making that object a good one. Sticking to the classic example of adaptation from literature to film, this would basically mean turning a good book into a faithfully adapted but ultimately poor film.

Please note that I am not saying that faithful adaptation is impossible. I am merely pointing out the rather obvious, yet sometimes quite forgotten truth, that fidelity is not a mark of qualitative narrative. In fact, I think that it is this very forgetfulness that haunts adaptation studies and causes the rather unnatural twists and turns in the discourse in trying to shun notions of fidelity and a source text. It is not that the narrative object to come out of the process is not tied into a web of intertext all its own, but clearly the fact that we talk about it as an adaptation of another text means that one of its intertexts is singled out and heavily emphasised. To pretend otherwise seems to be missing something very fundamental about the process.

Similarly, to merely point out failure to be faithful is equally missing the point. The core question here is rather why than what. This is where formalist theories like McFarlane's is so useful. It allows us to delineate what can be transferred (rather simplistically) and what requires adaptation proper (i.e. medium specific changes). Needless to say really, the process at very least mostly involves changes that strictly speaking are not necessary (from the point of view of possibilities in the target medium) and those instances (like those of adaptation proper, I would argue) are what is truly interesting. They are what gives us insights into dimensions beyond the media specific, let us call them societal dimensions to the processes of translation and adaptation. These include ideological, economic, cultural, and even individual-related factors; because an adaptation is never only a question of transfer, or even of making a good narrative object for that matter. (The latter obviously not being unique to the process of adaptation, but a condition it shares with all artistic endeavours to various degrees.)

Art is always produced in an historical and cultural context; it involves individuals in existing ideological and economic systems. Granted that some media are less dependent upon the latter (e.g. literature in its rawest form) than others (e.g. film-making). It would be foolish to think these factors would not also affect the processes of translation and adaptation, just as it would be foolish to assume that the effect itself would be identical (in a heterogenous fashion, I will grant you) to the production of art that does not involve these processes. From an academic point of view, however, these questions would seem not only highly relevant and interesting, but also something that ought to be situated at the very core of adaptation studies.

In short, I think adaptation studies, theory and theorists need to get over both their reluctance towards fidelity and source material, and their willingness to let these concepts blur all boundaries.

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