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Saturday, July 30, 2005

Relevance Theory: how relevant for Bible translation?

In his 23rd July 2005 posting here Bible translation theory: a shifting paradigm, Wayne gave a brief introduction to (RT) and its relevance to (BT). (For more papers on RT in general, see for example Here I make some further comments about this issue. I assume that readers have read that earlier posting.

I would also recommend that readers of this first read David Weber's paper Evidence that demands a verdict?, which Wayne referred to in that previous posting. Weber makes a good case there that there is a real problem with the approach of Eugene Nida and others, although I don't consider the issue to be quite as fundamental as Weber does. But Weber explains well why BT needs to take into account newer theoretical approaches like RT.

But the way in which RT has been applied to BT has led to confusion and controversy. The best known proponent of RT in the BT world is Ernst-August Gutt, author of Translation and Relevance: Cognition and Context, 2nd edition, Manchester: St. Jerome 2000, and Relevance Theory: A Guide to Successful Communication in Translation, SIL and United Bible Societies 1992. Gutt was perhaps the first to apply RT to translation, and specifically to Bible translation, and his major contribution was to make the distinction between "direct translation" and "indirect translation". The basic distinction here is that direct translation rules out making explicit in the translation anything which is implicit in the original, whereas indirect translation does not. In practice a direct translation is likely to be relatively literal, close to "formal equivalence", although restructuring is permitted when it is required for purely linguistic reasons, such as to avoid unnatural foreign syntax. But any kind of clarification of the background, or resolution of ambiguities which could be left unresolved, is not permitted. And for this reason a direct translation of the Bible is unlikely to be suitable for less educated audiences with little or no previous Bible background knowledge.

Now this is indeed a theoretically meaningful distinction. The problem came when Gutt moved on to a value judgment, that a good Bible translation must be a direct translation. He avoided doing this explicitly in his books listed above, although he made clear in Relevance Theory: A Guide... his preference for direct translation. However, in a separate paper Urgent Call for Academic Reorientation in the SIL internal journal Notes on Sociolinguistics 5 (2) 47-56 (2000), he wrote much more explicitly:
the integrity of the historically attested biblical text is violated by the insertion of extraneous background information. ... Our reverence for the integrity of the biblical texts and our concern for the authenticity of Bible translations require us to abandon this practice as quickly as possible and to solve the problems by other, more acceptable means.
In other words, Gutt is claiming that an authentic Bible translation must be a direct translation - despite the fact that such a translation is unlikely to be understood by an unsophisticated audience. And he is condemning the widespread existing practice of resolving ambiguities and clarifying implicit information within the text of the translation. He suggests that such clarifications should be given in separate aids to readers, which might include footnotes.

Gutt has been understood as stating that this claim is a consequence of RT. But it is not, although presented in an RT framework, for RT provides no basis for making this value judgment. In fact it is clear that Gutt is arguing here from presuppositions which are not linguistic but theological, relating to the integrity and authenticity of the Bible.

However, his argument here is misguided, even for those who share his high view of the Bible. He is correct that there is a loss of authenticity, as he defines it, in making an indirect translation of the Bible, but then the same is true, to a lesser extent, with a direct translation. For this kind of authenticity is an attribute of the original language text which cannot be preserved in translation. Doctrinal formulations of the authority and inerrancy of the Bible recognise this, for they usually refer explicitly to the texts as originally given.

It seems to me that in Bible translation a choice must generally be made in the major orientation of each project. The focus needs to be either on authenticity or on communicative accuracy. Now there are some audiences for whom authenticity is the primary concern. Ideally such audiences should read the fully authentic original texts, but, if they cannot, a suitable alternative might be a direct translation, in which the loss of authenticity is minimised. However, understanding of such a text requires a lot of work. But for more general audiences the primary concern is not authenticity - or they are prepared to accept a secondary form of authenticity which is that the text comes from a trustworthy source. Such audiences require that a translation be communicatively accurate, which implies that it must be easily understood. So, for these audiences an indirect translation is likely to be required.

Indeed it can be argued that RT itself implies that an indirect translation is preferable. A direct translation will include ambiguities which are unresolved within the text, although they may be resolved in a separate aid or footnote. But, according to the basic principles of RT, if there are ambiguities in a text, which may be a translation, readers will resolve them in the way which requires the least processing. The implication is that the reader will choose the interpretation which best fits the context in the text, and will refer to an external aid or footnote only when unable to come to a clear understanding without it. And undoubtedly this is how most people read footnoted texts. But average readers' preferred interpretations will be in accordance with their own cultural presuppositions, in ways which in many cases are known to conflict with biblical culture. Indeed, as Bible translators Tim Farrell and Richard Hoyle put it:
Relevance theory predicts that the audience will misunderstand a passage where it seems more relevant to them to do so.
A good footnote will resolve the ambiguity - but most readers will ignore the footnote if they think they understand the passage. Therefore, it is necessary to resolve such ambiguities within the text itself - which implies an indirect translation.

This point may seem complex, and so here is an example of it (given originally by Farrell and Hoyle). A direct translation of Luke 5:12 is likely to end something like RSV's "Lord, if you will, you can make me clean". A normal reader with little biblical background from a modern western culture, which puts a high value on personal hygiene, is likely to understand the leper as asking Jesus to give him a bath or shower. But this is certainly not the correct interpretation, which in fact relates to Jewish concepts of ritual purification. In a direct translation any such explanation would be allowed only in a footnote or an external aid. But an average reader would consider the direct translation quite clear without even reading the footnote - but would misunderstand the passage. If the target audience for a translation includes this kind of unsophisticated reader, this problem can be resolved satisfactorily only by including some kind of explanation in the text itself - in other words, by an indirect translation.

So, Relevance Theory is relevant and important for Bible translation. But, despite Gutt's excellent theroretical work, his conclusions cannot be accepted as normative for Bible translation projects. Further work is required on how RT can be applied profitably to the translation task. Meanwhile, it teaches correctly that communication is not just a matter of decoding encoded meaning, and so that translation is not just a matter of converting to a different code. The task is much more than that... but this posting is already too long and too theoretical, so I will leave things here.

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At Sat Jul 30, 04:25:00 PM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

Peter, thank you for posting these helpful comments. I can't say more now as the meter on my Internet access is about to expire. I agree with you that we must not promote any translation theory that makes it more difficult for Bible users to understand the text than it was for the original hearers of the biblical autographs to do so.


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