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Relevance Theory and Translation

In 1986, Sperber and Wilson (1986: 12) advanced Relevance Theory, viewing language communication as a cognitive process, an ostensive-inferential process, closely related to people’s psychological activities. Relevance Theory has achieved such prominence mostly because it makes a serious attempt to confront the question “What is the nature and role of context”. However, for context here, it does not mean co-text or context of situation, but the set of assumptions the hearer has about the world. In this sense, context here is a wide concept and potentially enormous, including absolutely any assumption owned by the human mind. These assumptions may be from

“information about the immediate physical environment or the immediately preceding utterances” or to a much greater extent, from “expectations about the future, scientific hypotheses or religious beliefs, anecdotal memories, general cultural assumptions, beliefs about the mental state of the speaker” (Sperber & Wilson, 1986: 15).

It is quite true that the recognition of the intended interpretation, even the success of communication depends greatly on whether the hearer uses the speaker-intended or appropriate context. The right choice of contextual assumptions will be followed by straightforward and logical inference of the intended implication, whereas the use of wrong assumptions will certainly lead to misunderstanding, even a complete failure of communication. However, in terms of cognition, context is not self-obvious objective existence, nor a condition prescribed before inference, but the recognition produced in the very dynamic process of inference. In the process of communication, the hearer constructs the immediately given context based on the previous discourse, which is an indispensable part of the next discourse understanding, so his context is constantly changed, expanded and enriched, becoming the base of further interpreting new information. In this sense, context is a variable, not fixed in advance.


Wilson once claimed that “the most basic assumption of Relevance Theory is that every aspect of

communication and cognition is governed by relevance” (1994: 47). In fact, relevance is a relative concept and depends on two main factors: contextual effect and processing effort. The notion of contextual effect is crucial to “a characterization of relevance” or an indispensable condition for relevance. That is to say, when and only when new information achieves contextual effect in a context can it be considered relevant. In addition, other things being equal, the greater the contextual effect is, the greater the relevance will be. The interaction of new and old

information gives birth to the so-called contextual effect which is yielded when newly presented information affects existing contextual assumptions in the following three ways— strengthening or confirming existing assumptions in the context; contradicting and eliminating existing assumptions in the context; combining with existing knowledge to produce a contextual implication. It must be noted that contextual effect is achieved through processing effort. The greater the effort needed to obtain contextual effect, the lower the relevance will be. Gratuitous effort detracts from relevance. Wilson (ibid: 45) argues that two main factors affecting processing effort are the effort of memory and imagination needed to construct a suitable context as well as the psychological complexity of the utterance itself.


In the light of Relevance Theory, the hearer is guided by a single, very general criterion to evaluate a variety of possible interpretations, which is precise and powerful enough to exclude all but a single interpretation. This criterion is nothing but the principle of relevance. The principle of relevance is “the principle that every utterance creates an expectation of relevance” (ibid: 47). This principle is not a maxim, nor a rule, but an exceptionless generalization about what happens in a communication— whenever a person communicates something, he automatically has the presumption that what he is going to say is believed to be relevant to the hearer. In this sense, the speaker naturally makes the assumption that there is no other interpretation which both has enough effect worthy of the hearer’s attention, and is easier for the hearer to construct than the intended

one. In addition, he is convinced that the first acceptable interpretation to occur to the hearer is the one he intends to convey, and proves satisfactory and justifiable. As for the hearer, he assumes that the context needed for the correct interpretation is the most easily available and that combined with the appropriate context, the intended interpretation will be reached, which is effort-worthy. Thus, the pursuit of optimal relevance guides the hearer to keep in mind that “The first interpretation tested and found consistent with the principle of relevance is the only interpretation consistent with the principle of relevance: all other interpretations are disallowed” (ibid : 51).


Initially, relevance-theorists treated translation - in passing - as an instance of the interpretive use of language relying on resemblance in semantic representation or logical form (Sperber and Wilson 1986:228; Wilson and Sperber 1988:136). Language expressions - usually referred to as utterances, though they include both oral and written communication - are interpretively used when they are intended to provide information about the meaning of another language expression, in virtue of a resemblance relationship between their meanings. (This contrasts with the descriptive use of language, which is intended to provide information about the state of affairs which the expression refers to.) Meaning resemblance (interpretive resemblance) between utterances consists in the number of thoughts (assumptions) shared between their intended interpretations. (For further details see Sperber and Wilson 1995, ch. 4, section 7).

As a result of further research, Gutt (1991, 2000) proposed that, within the framework of cognition, translation can be accounted for more adequately as interlingual interpretive use in general, without the restriction to resemblance in logical form. Interpretive resemblance, the sharing of thoughts between the intended interpretations, forms a continuum, ranging in principle from no thoughts shared (no resemblance) to all thoughts shared (complete resemblance). Gutt used the maximal endpoint, complete interpretive resemblance, to define the notion direct translation.

According to the relevance-theoretic framework, in intralingual communication it is one of the unique features of direct quotation that it allows - at least in principle - the full recovery of the originally intended interpretation - if processed in the originally intended context. This crucial condition follows from the cause-effect interdependence of stimulus, intended interpretation and context, conditioned by the inferential nature of communication, a central claim of relevance theory (Sperber and Wilson 1986: ch. 1) Applied to cross-language situations, one can define a mode of interlingual communication, direct translation, which presumes that the intended interpretation of the receptor text will completely resemble the intended interpretation of the original - provided it is processed in the original context (Gutt 1991:128-129). Since contextual information is rarely ever exactly the same between two individuals, the claim of direct translation may be better expressed as a dependency relationship: the closer the context of a direct translation resembles that intended for the original, the closer its interpretation will resemble that of the original.

While the demand that translations should convey the meaning of the original unaltered (= achieve complete interpretive resemblance) has been voiced for centuries, the innovative point about direct translation is the realization that the achievement of this goal crucially depends on the use of the originally intended contextual information;to expect a translated text to accurately reproduce the intended meaning of the original in a context different from that of the original goes against the basic laws by which communication works and is therefore unrealistic. This entails that readers of translations interested in getting as close to the meaning of the original as possible must familiarise themselves with the context of the original (Gutt 1991: ch. 7, section "On the use of the original context"). This is not a matter of choice, but follows from the cognitive laws of communication.

With regard to linguistic differences, Gutt pointed out that what matters for the achievement of interpretive resemblance is not so much the sharing of the concrete linguistic features as the possibility of replicating in the receptor language the more abstract communicative clues provided by the original (Gutt 1991: ch. 6). Though even at this higher level of abstraction the possibility of matching communicative clues is not guaranteed in any particular instance, it is true to say that the mode of direct translation offers the highest possible degree of interpretive resemblance to the original, depending on how closely the context in which it is processed resembles that of the original.


Any translation aiming at lower degrees of interpretive resemblance falls under the mode of indirect translation, named parallel to indirect quotation (Gutt 1991: ch. 5). Indirect translation places no special constraints on the use of context; in fact, indirect translation would typically uses the current receptor context. This gives indirect translation the advantage of good spontaneous comprehensibility. However, by the cognitive laws of communication, it also follows that the nature of that context determines the degree of interpretive resemblance achievable in any particular case.

Thus the relevance-theoretic account brings out the crucial role which context plays in translation, quite apart from the linguistic similarities and differences between the languages involved. A clear understanding of the influence of context can equip translators - and translation users - with a new realism regarding the possibilities and limitations of translation as a mode of interlingual communication.

Another interesting outcome of this account is that explains the inconclusiveness of the innumerable attempts of clearly defining such distinctions as paraphrase versus translation, literal versus free, etc. Since interpretive resemblance forms a continuum, there is no reason for there to be any definable non-arbitrary points apart from its endpoints.

The relevance-theoretic account also argues that 'covert translation' (House 1981) is significantly different from 'overt translation' (Gutt 1991: ch. 3). 'Covert translations', e.g. of tourist brochures, manuals, advertisements, do not aim at providing information about some original text and the resemblance relationship to any such text plays no role for their effectiveness and they can be produced independently of an original in any other language. Looked at as acts of communication, they fall under descriptive rather than interpretive use. Because of these significant differences in nature and with regard to the constraints that apply, Gutt suggests that these cases be differentiated from translation.

Later developments in relevance theory introduced the notion of metarepresentation to complement that of interpretive use (see esp. (Sperber 2000). According to Sperber and Wilson, metarepresentation is characterized by two elements that are already contained in the notion of interpretive use: a) the reliance on a relationship of resemblance between two representations, and b) the embedding of one representation in another. Different from interpretive use, however, in metarepresentation the resemblance does not have to be between the intended interpretations but can also lie in the sharing of linguistic properties. Wilson proposed to call such resemblances "metalinguistic" (Wilson 2000:426). Thus metarepresentation captured all instances of "representation by resemblance", thus "leaving the way open to a unified account" (Wilson 2000:425).

In subsequent research, the application in a cognitive framework of the term 'representation', and hence also of 'metarepresentation', to language expressions has come into question. In a series of lectures and papers Gutt has argued that such usage obscures the differences between mental representations and stimuli that form the core of human communication as we know it (ostensive-inferential communication): mental representations (in the sense of Fodor (e.g. 1981) inherently represent states of affairs, but are private, cannot be shared with others by perception. Stimuli, by contrast, are phenomena that others can perceive but since they do not inherently represent states of affairs (though they often have some representational properties), they require a process of inferential interpretation.

It follows from this insight that any act of communication concerned with another act of communication (now called higher-order acts of communication), can aim at providing information about either of its two key elements: the stimulus used or the interpretation intended in the original act. Higher-order acts of communication that focus on the stimulus used are said to be in s-mode (stimulus-oriented mode). They inform the audience of "what was said", as it were. Those focusing on the intended interpretation are said to be in i-mode (interpretation-oriented mode); they inform the audience of "what was meant".

This revised framework provides an explanation of the intuition that "telling what was said" and "telling what was meant" are not necessarily the same thing. Translation can now be accounted for as an interlingual act of higher-order communication. Translations relying on interpretive resemblance are accounted for by i-mode, those relying on resemblance in linguistic features by s-mode, thus offering a unified account. While indirect translation naturally falls under i-mode, direct translation turns out to be a hybrid, combining the features of both s- and i-mode in a unique way.


Fodor, J. A., Ed. (1981). Representations: Philosophical essays on the foundations of cognitive science. Brighton, The Harvester Press Limited.

Gutt, E.-A. (1991). Translation and relevance: Cognition and context. Oxford, Basil Blackwell.

Gutt, E.-A. (1992). Relevance theory: a guide to successful communication in translation. Dallas, Summer Institute of Linguistics.

Gutt, E.-A. (2000). Translation and relevance: cognition and context. Manchester, St. Jerome.

House, J. (1981). A model for translation quality assessment. Tübingen, Gunter Narr.

Sperber, D., Ed. (2000). Metarepresentations: A multidisciplinary perspective. Oxford, Oxford University Press.

Sperber, D. and D. Wilson (1986). Relevance: Communication and cognition. Oxford, Basil Blackwell.

Sperber, D. and D. Wilson (1995). Relevance: Communication and cognition. Oxford, Blackwell.

Wilson, D. (2000). Metarepresentation in linguistic communication. Metarepresentations: A multidisciplinary perspective. D. Sperber. Oxford, Oxford University Press:411-448.

Wilson, D. and D. Sperber (1988). Representation and relevance. Mental representations: The interface between language and reality. R. M. Kempson. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press:133-153.




  1. How did linguistics enter TS throughout history?
  2. What is linguistic ground in machine translation? What mental process could have been substituted and what could not?
  3. What main grammatical transformations can you name?
  4. What does the ambiguous Necker cube show?
  5. To what extent can we draw a parallel between a phenomenon of this kind that is universal, related to the cognitive or information-processing properties of the mind, and hence not cultural, and the relation between language and the world?
  6. Is the notion of a ‘speech community’ valuable for TS? In what perspectives?
  7. How would you apply the principles of Relevance Theory to the TS analysis?



Texts for analysis:

  1. Armstrong, Nigel. Translation, Linguistics, Culture: A French–English Handbook. – Clevedon • Buffalo • Toronto: Multilingual Matters Ltd, 2005. – 218 p.
  2. Gutt E.-A. Translation and Relevance: Cognition and Context. – Manchester; Boston: St. Jerome, 2000. – 271 p.
  3. Hutchins J. ALPAC: the (in)famous report // MT News International 14 (June 1996), 9-12. Also: http://www.hutchinsweb.me.uk/ALPAC-1996.pdf
  4. Malone, Joseph L. The Science of Linguistics in the Art of Translation : Some Tools From Linguistics for the Analysis and Practice of Translation SUNY Series in Linguistics. – New York: State University of New York Press, 1988.
  5. Simos Grammenidis & Tonia Nenopoulou. The relevance of utterer-centered linguistics to Translation Studies // Doubts and directions in translation studies : selected contributions from the EST Congress, Lisbon 2004 / edited by Yves Gambier, Miriam Shlesinger and Radegundis Stolze. – John Benjamins, 2007. – P. 297-308.


Date: 2016-01-14; view: 2394

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