A Reflexion on the Murky Difference between Adaptation and Translation | October 2018 | Translation Journal

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A Reflexion on the Murky Difference between Adaptation and Translation


This paper examines the various definitions and types of adaptation. It further looks at the techniques of adaptation and adaptation itself as a technique of translation. Some reasons why adaptation is carried out are also spelt out in this paper. In the area of drawing a demarcation line between adaptation and translation, many critics have not made the difference clear. This constitutes a problem both in translation and adaptation studies. This paper attempts to make this distinction clearer by using various texts as concrete examples for illustration.


“Literary texts are built from systems, codes and traditions established by previous works of literature” (Allen 1). This quotation gives us an image of a hypertext, i.e. a text that has links to other texts and also the idea that every literary work at hand is a recreation, a reworking, a manipulation or a reinterpretation of a previous work or works. This reworking, manipulation, recreation, reinterpretation can be intra-lingual, inter-lingual, or inter-semiotic. When this reworking is global (i.e. affecting the entire text), it refers to adaptation and when it is local (i.e. affecting only a small isolated part of a text), it is considered as translation. Adaptation and Translation are so closely related that many critics, for instance Whittlesey (1), Susan Bassnett, Christiana Schultz, Kussmaul, Venuti, and Faiq are not explicit as to what constitutes the difference between the two. The arguments on when a translation ceases to be a translation and becomes an adaptation have been ongoing for some decades now. Susan Bassnett for instance, poses a question whose answer can make the distinction between adaptation and translation clearer. The question is: How close or how far does a translation have be to the original before it is termed a translation or an adaptation respectively? (43)

This paper attempts to answer this question. In doing this, we shall look at the definitions of adaptation, types of adaptation, techniques of adaptation, reasons for adaptation, adaptation and type of texts and the demarcation line between adaptation and translation.

Conceptualizing Adaptation

Bastin (5) in Mona Baker (8) views Adaptation as a set of translative operations that result in a text that is not generally accepted as a translation, but is nevertheless traced to a source text”. According to this definition, adaptation is a text resulting from translative operation, but cannot be called a translation. The question to ask here is: If adaptation is a text resulting from translative operations, why can’t it be called translation? We insinuate here that it may be because of its overall distortion, falsification of the source text and deviation from literality in such a way that the resulting text is so globally distant from the source text. Thus making it unfit for the translation (Inter-lingual) to admit the definition of translation posited by Nida and Taber (1969).

According to Julie Sanders, “adaptation can also constitute a simpler attempt to make texts ‘relevant’ or easily comprehensible to new audiences and readerships via the processes of proximation and updatings”. Here also, in the process of proximation and updating, some pieces of information are either removed or added. Thus making the resulting text richer or poorer than the source text, creating a departure from the source text. In our opinion, the target text in this form cannot be considered a translation.

 As for Brisset (10) adaptation is "a 'reterritorialization' of the original work and an 'annexation' in the name of the audience of the new version". Then for Santoyo adaptation is "a form of 'nutralizing' the play for a new milieu, the aim being to achieve the same effect that the work originally had, but with an audience from a different cultural background."(104)

In ‘reterritorializing and naturalizing a text, the text is given some characteristics of its new environment to make it identify with it. Such a naturalized reterritorialized text is a denaturalization of the original text, constituting a serious departure in termes of form and content. In the literary domain, such a text can only be considered an adaptation and not a translation. This explains why we consider some translated advertisements as adaptation. It is usually the target-audience focused and fashioned according to their taste and culture. We realize as we reflect further on adaptation, due to the nature of some texts, there can an adaptation of form and a translation of the content. For example the translation of correspondences (formal and informal letters) from French to English. The layout of a translated letter is usually according to the culture or tradition of the target audience, while the content is identical to that of the source text.

Vinay and Darbelnet further see adaptation as a translation technique and from this perspective define it as "a translation procedure which is used whenever the context referred to in an original text does not exist in the culture of the target text, thereby necessitating some form of re-creation".

Apart from the definition postulated by Vinay and Darbelnet, the rest present adaptation as a global departure from literality. A critical study of these definitions clearly reveals two considerations about adaptation:

Adaptation is a reworking of an existing text either in the same language (intralingual Adaptation) or in another language (interlingual adaptation), to produce a target text that cannot be considered as a translation but can be traced to a source text.

Adaptation as a translation technique that is used locally during a translation exercise to solve a problem of the source text’s cultural item or situation that does not exist in the target language culture. This consideration is upheld by Vinay and Darbelnet. This is also our stand; a text in which adaptation affects just a few portions is in our opinion a translation.

This paper focuses on the first consideration to draw a line between adaptation and translation. The second consideration helps in highlighting adaptation as a translation technique, where the difference between it and translation is blurred. Having seen the various views critics have expressed about adaptation, we shall now consider reasons for adaptation.

Reasons For Adaptation

There are many reasons why adaptation is carried out. Milton proposes the following:

The requirements of the target literary audience: The literary stock of a country may be lacking in some aspects of its literature, for instance children literature. This may necessitate the adaptation of foreign texts to meet the needs of this category of audience.

Expansion of the target literary repertoire: The adaptation of many novels into plays or films are undertaken in order to expand or enrich the literary repertoire of a small country whose literature is lacking in some aspects.

The literary norms of the target country: In the 17th and 18th centuries for example all adaptations of foreign literary texts entering into France had to obey the norms of clarté (clearness), beauté (beauty) and bon goût (good taste).

Disable audience: Texts are sometimes adapted to visual texts by means of sign language or subtitling for the hard-of-hearing.

Language pair: There is a tendency to adapt when dealing with a language that is much further away from the source language than a language which is grammatically much closer.

Types of Adaptation

Right from the definitions of adaptation seen above, we find two types of adaptation: Adaptation that is a reworking of an original text to produce another text that is not generally and literally related to the original and Adaptation that constitutes a translation technique locally used to solve isolated translation problems of source text’s cultural items that do not exist in the target culture. Bastin (476) describes these two types of adaptation as “Adaptation ponctuelle” (local adaptation) and “Adaptation globale” (global Adaptation).

Local adaptation

This type of adaptation can be explained as a translation technique employed to resolve a translation problem when faced with a source text situation that does not exist in the target audience’s culture. It affects just a minor part of the translation and still allows the target text to bear most of the characteristics of the source text in terms of meaning, form and style. This type of adaptation does not cause the target text to be seen as an adaptation of the original. The target text is still seen as a translation. Some characteristics of local adaptation as follows:

It affects only very few areas of a text.

Its end-product (target text) remains very close to the source text language and culture, thus seen as a translation and not as an adaptation of the original.

It is a means of solving a problem a translator encounters at the level of a sentence or an expression.

It is optional and has a very limited effect on the generality of target text in terms of meaning, form and style Bastin (477).

Global adaptation

As explained above, this type of adaptation affects the entire target text, thus making it not resemble the source text in terms of form or genre and style. Here, the only thing that it has in common with the source text is the themes. By this type of adaptation, a novel can be transformed into a play or a film in the same language(intralingual adaptation) or into another language( interlingual adaptation), or even intersemiotically from a verbal to a none verbal sign system. Georges Bastin again outlines some characteristics of global adaptation as follows:

It disconnects the target text from the source text in terms of genre and style.

It affects the target text in its entirety.

It only upholds the themes or the global objective of the source text.

It can bear the adaptor’s name as the author (and not the translator) of the resulting target text. In this sense, it is not considered as a translation.

Other types of Adaptation

Following the logic of types of translation according to Roman Jakobson, adaptation, too, can be classified as follows:

Inter-lingual adaptation:

This can be defined as a rewriting of a text from one language to another in accordance with exigencies of the target audience. An example of this includes the French adaptation of the 2001-2011 American police drama, Law & Order: Criminal Intent, as Paris enquêtes criminelles.

Intra-lingual Adaptation:

This is an adaptation carried out within the same language. It includes rewriting in the same language a novel that was previously written for adults into children storybook. An intra-lingual adaptation also has as an example the changing of a novel into a play in the same language. Shakespearean play we today read in modern English are intra-lingual adaptation from his old English versions. Other examples include Oedipus the King and its adaptation, The Gods are not to Blame, as well as the adaptation of novels such as Great Expectation into a film directed by David Lean in 1946 and The Day of the Jackal into a film directed by Fred Zinnemann in 1973.

Intersemiotic Adaptation:

An intersemiotic adaptation is an interpretation of a verbal text into another text using nonverbal signs.

The Intersemiotic adaptation deals with two or more completely different codes, for example transforming a linguistic text into a musical or dancing, or image text. Thus, when Tchaikovsky composed the song Romeo and Juliet he actually performed an intersemiotic adaptation: he 'adapted' Shakespeare's play from the linguistic code into the musical one. The expression code was changed entirely from words to musical sounds. Then, 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.

Techniques of Adaptation

Adaptation, be it local or global, inter-lingual or intra-lingual or even inter-semiotic, employs one or more of the following techniques:

Transcription of the original:

Transcription is the act of listening to a speech (live or recorded) and converting it to a written document. Julien B. defines transcription on her website as « Reproduction exacte, par l’écriture, de ce qui a déjà été écrit ; resultat de cette action ».[Reproducing exactly by writing, what has already been written or the result of this action]. On the same website, we find this other definition :

Transcription can also refer to the pure and simple parroting of an already printed text on a paper document. Generally, this task is remobilize an ancient text to fit the modern paper or reading formats.

Though this definition does not tell us whether or not parroting takes place within the same language or across languages, at least it tells us that mere recopying of an ancient text while making it to suit the expectations of a particular audience is a means of adaptation.

Omission or addition:

This is another technique of adaptation that involves omitting some parts of the source text which in the judgment of the adaptor, are not relevant to the target readers. By this technique, the adaptor can also proceed by adding some materials that are not in the source text just to meet the expectations of the target readers.


It is a technique that has to do with the explication of source information to make it more explicit to the target audience.


This entails substituting an ancient language or cultural items of a source text by the modern one, to make it accessible to modern readers.

Situational Equivalents:

It is an adaptation technique that involves replacing source text cultural items or situations with other equivalent items or situations in the target language culture.


It is a technique that entails replacing specific cultural items or concepts in the source language with target cultural items or concepts in the way that meets the need and understanding of the target language audience. According to Venuti (1995), domestication is an ethnocentric reduction of the foreign text to the target language cultural values.


Here the adaptor get inspiration from the source text and reproduces a target that maintains only the themes of the source text and deviates from it in terms of style and register. It only preserves the most essential information of the source text.

Having reflected on the whole notion of adaptation, we shall now examine an example of an adaptation.

The Gods Are Not To Blame

This is a Greek play titled Oedipus the King. The play was translated into English by F. Storr. Ola Rotimi made an English intra-lingual adaptation of it and titled it, The Gods are not to Blame. Here below is the summary:

The book The Gods are not to Blame is the dramatic tale of a man Odewale born with a destiny he tried to run away from. At birth when his Parents took him to the village diviner  the Ogun priest to tell his future, they met sadness. Their first son was destined to kill his father and marry his mother and the only way to avert this was to kill him.

However, unable to balance understanding of his assignment coupled with   love for the new born baby, the messenger Gbonka who was sent alone to dispose of the child in a forest found a foster father for the child and went back to his place of service.

The foster parents Ogundele and Mobike who had no child happily took the child as their own and only a few people knew that the child was not theirs but did not know the true parents of the child as Gbonka had left the two men in the bush without saying much.

As an adult, Odewale’s uncle told him the truth of his destiny but failed to mention that his real parents were not known. Because of this, he ran away to far away land where he bought a farm at the place where the three foot paths meet and he worked hard to own a good living. Sometime later an old man came to the farm land he had suffered to get and keep and claimed the land to be his and called him a thief but Odewale did not react to all of this until the old Man insulted the village they both thought he came from and that was something Odewale could not take. He tried to use his mystic powers against the old man but the old man’s powers seemed to be more potent than his so in a last attempt to save his life, he struck the man with a hoe and he died.

Odewale then ran from town to town for months until he got to Kutuje where they had just lost their king and the enemy took advantage of this to attack them, but Odewale in his hot temper led the people to war against their enemies and conquered. Due to respect they broke protocol for him and made him King of their land which meant he had to marry the wife of the late king( his mother) therefore fulfilling the whole prophecy that he would kill his father and marry his mother.

However, all this was yet unknown to the king until he promised to find and punish the man who killed the former king of the land whose perturbed spirit was the cause of the terrible disease that plagued the people of Kutuje; the priest accused him of being the man he was looking for, and his old friend Alaka paid him a visit and old stories were told with a new meaning to them.

Soon, Odewale saw a conspiracy between the son of the late king Adetusa and the Ogun priest and for this he swore never to set eyes on Aderopo again. When the chiefs pleaded with him to disregard the words of the priest he almost turned against them also until the queen mother, his wife told him of her first son who the priest had asked to be thrown away in the bush because he was destined to kill his father and marry his mother and that the king was reportedly killed by armed robbers. Many others bits of stories were told to confirm that old age had gotten the better of the priest and he could no longer be trusted.

When it came to the issue of the former king being killed by robbers, Odewale got interested and asked for the eye witness to be brought unaware that the same messenger who had handed him over to Ogundele was the same eye witness to the murder.

Gbonka, now grey with old age was helped by Alaka to make more sense of the stories and he finally told the truth; that Odewale was the abandoned child, the son of the late king and the son of the queen mother whom he now called wife and who was the mother of his four children. Unable to bear the truth, the queen killed herself and the king in order to fulfill his promise to the people of Kutuje plucked out his own eyes and gave an order for the proper burial of the queen and banished himself with his children after mending the wounds he had created in his relationship with his brother Aderopo.

A Comparison of Oedipus the King and The Gods are not to Blame

A side by side reading of the English version of the Greek play translated by F. Storr and its English adaptation by Ola Rotimi reveals a marked difference between translation and adaptation at the following levels:

Play Title

Oedipus the King

The Gods are not to Blame

F. Storr literally translated the Greek title Oidipu:sTyran:os as Oedipus the King, while Rotimi adapted the title as The Gods are to Blame.



Oedipus the King

The Gods are not to Blame

King Laius (Who was killed by his son)

King Adetusa





Theban Elders



Priest of Ogun


Baba Fakunle

Queen Jocasta

Queen Ojuola







Oedipus the King

The Gods are not to Blame

Greek setting: Thebes

Yoruba setting: Kutuje



The themes of both plays are identical: The helplessness of man against what has been destined for him by the gods. A man, Odewale, born with a destiny he tried to run away from. At birth when his Parents took him to the village diviner  the Ogun priest to tell his future, the  priest said their first son was destined to kill his father and marry his mother.

Demarcation Line between Adaptation and Translation

Attempts to make a distinction between translation and adaptation have been on for many decades and one has hardly found a clear definition of this distinction. Susan Bassnett (40) states:

the basis of the distinction appears to be the degree to which a text that has been rendered into another language diverges from the source: if it seems so close as tobe recognisable, then it can be classified as a translation, but if it starts to move away from that source, then it has to be deemed an adaptation.

Furthermore, she says, “the problem is that of knowing how close  you have to be to the source text, and how far you have to move away from it before the labels change”. The issue of knowing when a target text has to be considered as adaptation or translation is examined by considering types of texts. We have observed that with some types of text, despite the departure from their literal translations and all the modifications of source text items, the target text is still considered as a translation. Examples include informative texts such as Newspaper articles, manuals, correspondences, persuasive texts such as adverts, and other texts such as academic transcript, legal documents, proverbs, idioms, biblical/religious texts, etc. For instance, in the translation of an informal or a formal letter from English to French for instance, the position of the writer’s address and that of the recipient on the paper are not the same as in French. Some changes or a kind of adaptation is effected both at the beginning and at the end and yet the resultant target text is still called a translation because the changes affects only some parts of the text and not the entire text. However, there are some other texts that do not tolerate some modification that can affect them globally. These are literary texts. Once the style, the genre, register, characters and the settings of the source text are modified to suit the target text audience, the text ceases to be a translation and it is seen as an adaptation. And where the intellectual property law allows, the adaptor becomes the author.

A good example is the adaptation of the Greek play titled Oedipus the King asThe Gods are not to Blame by Ola Rotimi. Right from the handling of the title, we see a difference between translation and adaptation. While translation stays closer to the source text as can be seen in F. Storr’s translation of the Greek title Oidipu:sTyran:os  into Oedipus the King, adaptation moves away from it.

At the level of characters or actors and actresses, Storr, in his translation, maintained the Greek names as they are in the original, while Rotimi replaced the names with Yoruba names. This is a case of reterritorialization of a play. The play is derooted from its original culture reflected by the names of its Greek characters and rooted into e new culture, the Yoruba culture in Nigeria. This is reflected through the Yoruba names the characters of The Gods are not to Blame now bear. For this reason, The Gods are not to Blame cannot be accepted as a translation.

Furthermore, alteration is not only made at the level of the characters, but also at the level of the relationship between the characters. Worthy of note here is the fact that in Oedipus the King, Creon is Oedipus’ brother-in-law, while in The Gods are not to Blame Creon in the name of Aderopo is Adewale’s (Oedipus’) blood brother.

Also, in Oedipus the King, the king (King Oedipus) who killed his father and married his mother has two daughters (Antigone and Isemene). In The Gods are not to Blame, the adaptator-author says that the King, Odewale has four children with his mother-wife ( Adewale, Adebisi, Oyeyemi, and Adeyinka).

In Oedipus the King, the old king, Laius was killed at a cross-road as a result of a quarrel that led to a fight over whose chariot has the right-of-way. Rotimi’s The Gods are not to Blame, the old king was killed in Odewale’s farm.

Besides, in Oedipus the King, the translator, Storr, retains the Greek setting, Thebes, while in The Gods are not to Blame, the adaptor gives the play a Yoruba setting, Kutuje.

Another area where adaptation appears to be very different from translation is in transforming a novel into a piece of drama. According to Wikipedia, “a novel is a long narrative, normally in prose, which describes fictional characters and events, usually in the form of a sequential story”. Drama on the other hand is defined by the same source as, “A piece of writing almost exclusively written in dialogue”. When a writer decides to rewrite a novel either in the same language (intralingual) by changing the register to make it understandable to children or to rewrite it in another language (interlingual) in the form of a play or a film, then the process can be described as adaptation. A detailed comparison of a novel’s adaptation with its original in a bid to demonstrate the difference between translation and adaptation could constitute the substance of another research work.


We should recall at this point that this paper sets out to examine the notion of adaptation in Translation Studies and to answer a pertinent question posed by Sussan Bassnett in a bid to know how close should a target text be to its original in order to be termed a translation and how far should it be from it, to be called an adaptation. From the above analyses, we find that right from their definitions, adaptation and translation are different despite the fact that both are traced to a source text. We also realize that the demarcation line between translation and adaptation is very blurred when adaptation is local or taken to be a technique of translation employed to solve an isolated problem encountered in the course of translating a text. Here, the target text realized at the end of the exercise is known as a translation because the adaptation does not affect the entire text.

With some text-types, we realized that some critics find it difficult to label the target text as either a translation or an adaptation. These text-types include correspondences..

Furthermore, we found out from Bastin’s explanation of global adaptation that when adaptation affects the entire text, the resultant target text appears to be completely different in terms of its form or genre, style or register from the source text and in some cases bearing an author other than that of the source text. It is only at the level of the themes that an adaptation is traceable to the source text. We have illustrated this in this paper using some literary texts such as Oedipus the King and its adaptation, The Gods are not to Blame.

Works Cited

Bastin, Georges L ¿Traducir o Adaptar? Caracas: Universidad Central de Venezuela, CDCH/FHE, 1998.

BAKER, Mona and SALDANHA, Gabriela. Routledge Encyclopedia of Translation Studies. New York: Routledge, 2011.

VENUTI, Lawrence. The Translator‘s Invisibility: A History of Translation. London & New York: Routledge, 1995.

VINAY, Jean-Paul and DARBELNET, Jean. Comparative Stylistics of French andEnglish. Philadelphia: John Benjamins, 1995.

Wikipedia. “Adapting for film”. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Literary_adaptation

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Bastin, Georges. « La notion d’adaptation en traduction » Meta : journal des traducteurs / Meta: Translators' Journal, vol. 38, n° 3, 1993, p. 473-478.

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SCHULTZ. Christina.Translation or adaptation? Authors writing in a second Language: an analysis of stefanheym’s “hostages” and “der fall Glasenapp”.unpublished THESIS, University of Illinois: Urbana-Champaign,2010.

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WIKIPEDIALaw & Order: Criminal Intent, and Paris enquêtescriminelles.

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Mombe Michael Ngongeh is a Lecturer of French and Translation in the Department of Foreign Languages and Literatures, University of Port Harcourt, Rivers State, Nigeria. He is a Cameroonian and holds a BA, English/French, an MA in Translation(both from the University of Buea, Cameroon) and a PhD in Translation Studies from Abia State University, Nigeria.

His area of interest in Translation include: Literary Translation, Translation Technology, and Intersemiotic Translation.

He is a member of the University French Teachers Association of Nigeria (UFTAN), Nigerian Institute of Translators and Interpreters (NITI) and the Association for Translation Studies in Africa (ASTRA).

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