A Theoretical Account of Translation - Without a Translation Theory

Ernst-August Gutt

This paper argues that the phenomenon commonly referred to as "translation" can be accounted for naturally within the relevance theory of communication developed by Sperber and Wilson: there is no need for a distinct general theory of translation. Most kinds of translation can be analysed as varieties of interpretive use. I distinguish direct from indirect translation. Direct translation corresponds to the idea that translation should convey the same meaning as the original. It requires the receptors to familiarise themselves with the context envisaged for the original text. The idea that the meaning of the original can be communicated to any receptor audience, no matter how different their background, is shown to be a misconception based on mistaken assumptions about communication. Indirect translation involves looser degrees of resemblance. Direct translation is merely a special case of interpretive use, whereas indirect translation is the general case. In all cases the success of the translation depends on how well it meets the basic criterion for all human communication, which is consistency with the principle of relevance. Thus the different varieties of translation can be accounted for without recourse to typologies of texts, translations, functions or the like.

Table of contents

The amount of literature on translation is vast; people have written on this subject for about two millennia. However, the bulk of the literature that came to be written over the centuries does not necessarily indicate the depth of understanding that has been reached on this topic. Thus Steiner states that "despite this rich history, and despite the calibre of those who have written about the art and theory of translation, the number of original, significant ideas in the subject remains very meagre" (1975: 238). Levý observed that the penetration of subject matter was lacking especially on the theoretical side:

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