Sunday, 1 April 2012

The Relevance of Theory

As an aspiring literary translator, it seems only natural to question the need to study translation theory. Will learning about different theories really help me to become a better practicing translator? The field of translation often seems to be divided into those that practice and those that theorise, so before beginning the ‘Translation Theory’ module I was unsure whether it would in fact directly affect my own translation practice.

During the course of this module, we have looked at a wide variety of theories including some from a number of other disciplines which have been applied to translation. One example which has particularly interested me so far is Relevance Theory, which we recently studied during a session on cognitive stylistic approaches to translation.

Relevance Theory, as developed by Dan Sperber and Deirdre Wilson in 1986, has been applied to translation by Ernst-August Gutt as in his comprehensive book Translation and Relevance (2000). Relevance Theory is all about communication and Gutt rightly looks at translation as an act of communication. The question really is what exactly are we trying to communicate when we translate?

As Jean Boase-Beier discusses in her 2004 article, ‘Knowing and not knowing: style, intention and the translation of a Holocaust poem’ perhaps the most significant aspect of Relevance Theory for us as translators is the notion of author intention. Sperber and Wilson (1986) stated that “the crucial mental faculty that enables human beings to communicate with one another is the ability to draw inferences from people’s behaviour.” In other words, we always have to work out what exactly the “informative intention” of the communicator is. Therefore, the recreation of the intention of the original author is arguably the most important task of the translator. We should try to convey what it is exactly that the author of the source text really meant.

The claim that it is possible to know the intention of the author has frequently been contended and it is true that we can never know this for certain. However, it is in fact possible to use clues in the text to reconstruct the original intention as far as possible. To use Sperber and Wilson’s terminology, we use a set of “implicatures” which Boase-Beier (2004) locates in the style of the text since from this we can determine the choices and attitude of the author. This can be related to the distinction made by Gutt (2000) between indirect and direct translation which can be likened to indirect and direct quotation. In this case, literary translation is seen as an instance of direct translation since the style of what has been written needs to be conveyed rather than the form.

In fact, looking back to last semester’s module ‘Stylistics for Translators’, I can’t help but think that the knowledge I now possess of translation theory would have helped considerably with my essay on the importance of the translation of style in a German text called Simultan by Ingeborg Bachmann (translated as Word for Word by Mary Fran Gilbert). During this essay I claimed that in this particular text, “the style is arguably of greater importance than the meaning and content of the narrative.” A better understanding of Relevance Theory and other concepts related to Cognitive Stylistics such as mind style would certainly have facilitated my analysis and understanding of that text and its translation, whilst simultaneously strengthening my argument!

I suppose what I am trying to say is that theory can be considered as relevant in terms of reading texts before and after translation. Knowledge of Relevance Theory, for example, can help us develop particular strategies for the translation of a text, ensuring that the assumed intention of the original author is conveyed as far as possible in the target text. On the other hand, it can also enable us to understand why a text has been translated in a particular way. I think that, although my aim is to work as a practicing translator, I fully understand the importance of gaining this grounding in translation theory and I am grateful for it. As Mary Midgley (2001) said, theories are “pairs of spectacles through which to see the world differently.” And with a bit of luck, our future translations will similarly enable others to see the world in a different way.

Fiona Hayter translates from German, French and Spanish into English. She is currently studying the MA in Literary Translation at UEA where she has also just completed an internship at the British Centre for Literary Translation. You can contact her at

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