Pragmatics and Translation: A Relevance-Theoretic Approach

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2016

13 Pages, Grade: 2,7


Table of contents

1. Introduction

2. Role ofPragmatics in Translation

3. Relevance Theory in Translation
3.1 Relevance Theory: An Overview
3.2 Concepts of Relevance Theory
3.2.1 Optimal Relevance
3.2.2 Loose Use of Language
3.2.2 Narrow Use ofLanguage

4. Relevance Theory: A Context-Based Analysis

5. Conclusion

6. Bibliography

Bünyamin Yuvarlak

Professor Stella Neumann


19 August 2016


Over time, pragmatics played an increasingly important role in different areas of language study. A particularly interesting instance of language use in this matter is translation. Thus, the decision to discuss the relation between pragmatics and translation came up. More precisely, the influence of a specific pragmatic field, namely Relevance Theory, on the study of translation will be analyzed below.

It begins with a brief look into the history of translation studies and the reason why it is possible for pragmatic concepts to be applied to the study of translation.

The most fundamental concept in connection to the respective study is Relevance Theory which was developed by Dan Sperber and Deirdre Wilson. A general overview of the theory will introduce the examination of this part of the research. It is mostly based on Sperber and Wilson’s work Relevance: Communication & Cognition (1995).

Which role the relevance-theoretic notion plays with regard to translation will then be studied. In terms of translation and relevance, the efforts of Ernst-August Gutt are of major interest with his book Translation and Relevance: Cognition and Context (2000) being of primary attention.

This chapter will furthermore focus on a few selected relevance-theoretic concepts. It starts with the notion of optimal relevance and continues with investigating the interpretive use of language in translation.

Finally, my goal is to make use of the relevance-theoretic approach to translation by applying the respective concepts to an example. This will be the core area of the paper. The analysis is made up of scrutinizing a translated version of an online newspaper article from the UK edition of the Huffington Post with German as the target language. The article is about the British author J.K Rowling criticizing a supporter of the withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the European Union, better known as Brexit, in a referendum. Ned Simons is the author of the original text which will thus be referred to as (Simons 2016). The translated article which appeared in the German edition of the Huffington Post was rendered by Susanne Raupach and will be referred to as (2016).

A summary and an outlook at the end will serve as the conclusion of the discussion.

Note that in this paper, the speaker, as in anyone expressing an utterance, is referred to as he and the female pronoun is attributed to the hearer or anyone receiving a message.


There are certain pragmatic principles that need to be considered for a successful translation. During the process of translating a text, a translator makes choices based on his perception of the text and the relation between him and the targeted audience. Therefore, translation does not only rest on the lexical level; most translations are not simple word-for-word processes with the only difference being the involvement of two different languages between two texts.

We draw from this knowledge that the notion of translation centers on the context it occurs in, which results in the fact that translation is a form of communication.

From a historical point of view, relating the principles of pragmatics to translation has become more important because since the 1960s especially linguists began to assign linguistics to the problem of translations (cf. Albrecht 2013: 19). So translation has been looked at as simply another type of language use which is indifferent from other types. Hence, it falls under “the remit of verbal communication” (Sequeiros 2005: 5), which makes it possible to study it within pragmatics. This derives from the fact that the theory of verbal communication was further developed in the second half of the last century. Before the 1960s, communication was generally recognized as an action of solely encoding and decoding information in a message (cf. Sperber and Wilson 1995: 2). This formed the so-called code model which was later considered to be a weak representation of verbal communication since “it failed to notice both the gap between language and thought in communication as well as the role played by interference” in the communicative act (cf. Sequeiros 2005: 12).

Adapting from this problem, Paul Grice revolutionized a new approach to verbal communication based on inference. He proved that the code model was not efficient with respect to the interpretation of an utterance made by a speaker. So, according to his theory, meaning beyond what has been linguistically expressed is conveyed in an utterance due to certain assumptions about the real world made by the communicators (cf. 13).

Knowing the conditions a verbal communication requires, I now go back to the understanding of translation as an act of communication and this enabling the same pragmatic principles to be applied to translation as any other instance of verbal communication. ErnstAugust Gutt is regarded as “the chief proponent of [...] application of pragmatics to translation” (7). His assumption that translation is yet another matter of communication (cf. Gutt 2000: 2223) is rooted in the fact that context is crucial in connection. So, contextual assumptions function the same way in the study of translation as in any other pragmatic analysis (cf. Sequeiros 2005: 9).

When translating a text, the translator does not only pay attention to the linguistic content, but his interpretation of the original text (cf. 21) is crucial with regard to the reception of the translated text by the targeted audience. Here, Gutt’s relevance-theoretic approach to translation comes into play, which will be discussed in the following chapter.


This chapter deals with Relevance Theory linked to the notion of translation. Any assumptions made about Sperber and Wilson’s concept will be considered pertaining to translation.

3.1 Relevance Theory; An Overview

In later investigations, there have been problems encountered with Grice’s approach to verbal communication. Sperber and Wilson stated the following by reference to the Gricean approach:

Grice’s greatest originality was not to suggest that human communication involves the recognition of intentions. [...] It was to suggest that this characterisation is sufficient: as long as there is some way of recognising the communicator’s intentions, then communication is possible. (1995: 25)

To argue against Grice’s supposition, they furthermore claim that “a general theory of communication[, it] ignores the diversity of forms of communication” because “a communicator can mean something, and successfully communicate it, without all these Gricean intentions being fulfilled” (ibid.: 28). This led to the development of Grice’s inferential model to a new theory due to which it is possible to study all kinds of verbal communication, hence why it is applicable to translation as well (cf. Sequeiros 2005: 11).

According to Relevance Theory, communication is built on “the ability to draw inferences from people’s behaviour” (Gutt 2000: 24), that is, the communicator passes meaning on to the audience in a verbal or a non-verbal way through “informative intention” (cf. Sperber and Wilson: 54-60). It is a subtype of a speaker’s intentions, which stands in contrast to Grice’s belief of a general intention that the communicator expresses.

Here, I will naturally only focus on the informative intentions and meaning expressed in linguistic communication since translation involves a verbal stimulus.

In agreement with general pragmatic principles, meaning is context-dependent, thus an utterance conveys particular meaning hinged on “the contextual information with which it is inferentially combined” (Gutt 1998: 42). A quote from Jeanne Dancette (2010) explains the contextual function in relation to translation and meaning as follows:

In translation, meaning is always contextualised. Formal descriptions of meaning, be they syntactical, semantical or semiological, lead to analysing the conditions and modalities of the reception of statements in an act of communication, where referents, objects and events of the real world play as important a role as literal meaning. (67)

Pertaining to Relevance Theory, the dependency of an utterance on its context means that the contextual task is a psychological concept due to the hearer’s assumptions of the real world which she believes are true. Thus, following Sperber and Wilson, the interpretation of an utterance requires a context constructed by the hearer’s “set of premises” (1995: 15).

In terms of utterance interpretation in translation, the translator functions in a twofold way when rendering his task. He “is not only a receptor of the original text, but also a communicator of the target text” (Sequeiros 2005: 8). This means that different pragmatic effects arise from the communicative process of the translation which is made up of the translator’s perception of the original text which he then reproduces in the target text (cf. 9). As a result, the target text often differs from the original text, barely ever being a literal translation.

At this point, the interpretive resemblance between both texts comes into effect, which is responsible for a successful communication in translation (cf. 8). This relevance-theoretic concept accounts for textual discrepancies that appear in the target text and will be further reviewed in the following chapter.

3.2 Concepts of Relevance Theory

3.2.1 Optimal Relevance

Having pointed out that translation is an instance of communication, it must be considered that in order for it to be communicated successfully the content must be optimally relevant. In Relevance Theory, optimal relevance is crucial to human communication. It is a hearer’s expectation “that his attempt at interpretation will yield adequate contextual effects at minimal processing cosf (Gutt 2000: 32). In other words, an utterance is optimally relevant, when the hearer recovers the meaning behind it effortlessly, thus the intention of the speaker being led by the presumption that his utterance is “worth the audience’s effort” (Gutt 1998: 43). This conception falls under the category of Sperber and Wilson’s principle of relevance (cf. 155163). In terms of optimal relevance, the hearer is set to accept the interpretation intended by the speaker, given the right contextual information (cf. Gutt 1998: 43-44).

Since the act of translation involves the interpretation of the translator, we understand translation as an interpretive use of language. This includes the previously mentioned interpretive resemblance between two utterances, as in an original utterance and another one that represents it. This can be applied to a simple speech report (cf. 44), but also to translation. The question that arises here is how high the degree of the resemblance between the original utterance and the one that represents it is, which depends on the amount of mutual implicatures or explicatures (cf. 45).

Following Carston (2007), implicatures and explicatures are “assumptions [or propositions] communicated by a speaker” (116). These terms are defined in the following way:

(I) An assumption communicated by an utterance U is explicit [hence an ‘explicature’] is and only if it is a development of a logical form encoded by U.
(II) An assumption communicated by U which is not explicit is implicit [hence an ‘implicature’]. (2007: 116)

An explicature is therefore the proposition that is communicated explicitly, or in other words, the encoded meaning of an utterance on a linguistic level. An implicature, on the other hand, is the communicated meaning that depends on the context.

With regard to the principle of relevance, the way the translator reports the original utterance depends on what he believes is optimally relevant to the audience. He decides about the relevant aspects, that is, he considers the audience’s expectations of consistent information. In doing so, he must consider the dependency of an utterance interpretation on the context. For instance, if the audience has a different cultural background than the audience the original text was meant to be addressed to, the translator renders his interpretation into the target text “out of context” (49). In other words, the writer of the original text assumes it would be optimally relevant to the audience it is addressed to, not thinking about it possibly being translated and thus appearing in a different context (51).

In conclusion, many problems arise during the process of translating a text. Therefore, the translator is most probably expected to widen the contextual knowledge for the text to be optimally relevant, that is, understandable to all intents and purposes for the audience/reader. There are different relevance-theoretic methods that help in doing so, two of which will be discussed here.


Excerpt out of 13 pages


Pragmatics and Translation: A Relevance-Theoretic Approach
RWTH Aachen University  (Institut für Anglistik, Amerikanistik und Romanistik der RWTH Aachen)
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ISBN (eBook)
Pragmatics, Relevance-Theory, Translation, Pragmatik, Übersetzung
Quote paper
Bünyamin Yuvarlak (Author), 2016, Pragmatics and Translation: A Relevance-Theoretic Approach, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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