The Paroikos Bible Blog exists as a resource to those interested in Biblical studies and Koine Greek. It is hoped that this blog will simultaneously provide food-for-thought to the reader while pointing him or her in the direction of valuable resources, both in print and on the internet, that will further help his or her studies in the Word.

Jan 8, 2011

Missionary John R. Himes on Relevance Theory

(my father, John Rice Himes, has been a faithful missionary to Japan since 1981 and is currently involved in, among other things, a new Japanese translation of the New Testament from the original Greek. In addition, at one point he taught Japanese ministers-in-training beginner-level Greek in Japanese, which is not something many Greek scholars can boast about! Here is his brief take on Relevance Theory)

Relevance Theory
By John R. Himes

This is one secular theory that is currently enjoying wide evaluation among Bible translation scholars. Ernst-August Gutt, a British Bible translation researcher and consultant who has worked as a Bible translator in Ethiopia, is the first to begin applying the relevance theory of communication to Bible translation. (See his website at: http://homepage.ntlworld.com/ernst-august.gutt/) He is the author of Relevance Theory, which has the subtitle, “A Guide to Successful Communication in Translation.” (Dallas: Summer Institute of Linguistics, 1992).

Relevance theory is actually a linguistic theory rather than strictly a translation theory. Thus Gutt in a sense follows in the footsteps of Eugene Nida, who also based his dynamic equivalence on linguistic theories such as transformational grammar and code linguistics. On the other hand, relevance theory is a rival communication theory to the code linguistics used by Nida. It was first set forth by Dan Sperber and Deidre Wilson in Relevance: Communication and Cognition (1986). Gutt developed his translation theory based on relevance theory soon after, beginning in 1991.

Interestingly enough, in his book Relevance Theory, which is actually based on transcriptions from his lectures sponsored by the Summer Institute of Linguistics (normally Nida territory), Gutt directly disagrees with Nida’s version of code theory in Chapter One (pp. 10-13), “The Nature of Communication,” saying, “There are many aspects of human communication for which the code model simply cannot account” (p. 11).

Stated clearly, relevance theory teaches that communication “is seen to result from the interplay between the context, or the ‘cognitive environment’, of an utterance and the processing effort required to infer meaning from that utterance” (Key Terms in Translation Studies, by Giuseppe Palumbo, New York: Continuum, 2009, p. 100). Stated simply, successful communication depends on how the communicator phrases things based on his knowledge of what the listener knows. “Thus, according to relevance theory, unless the sender of a message knows something about the recipient’s expectations, situational context and cognitive experience, the message cannot be formulated in an optimally relevant way” (ibid, 101).

Advocates of relevance theory like to use illustrations to explain this. Here is mine. Let’s say you overhear a conversation in which a man says, “No, that’s way too big.” That’s all you hear. The statement could mean that a monetary figure is too big, and he won’t pay. Or a house is too big, so he won’t buy it. Or a piano is too big to fit in his apartment. You lack the necessary information to make complete sense of the statement. If you then hear an answer, “Okay, look at this one, because it only has two bedrooms,” then you can assume he is talking about a dwelling place. The more information the recipient of the message has about the speaker’s subject, the more depth the communication contains.

So how does Gutt apply this to translation? He writes, “Its main concern is to provide translators and others interested with a cause-effect understanding of translation as an act of communication: given the way the human mind goes about communication, what will be the likely effects of particular solutions, or what solutions are needed to achieve particular effects? The overall scientific domain within which these explanations are sought is cognition” (“Applications of Relevance Theory to Translation—a Concise Overview,” from his website). In other words, the translator will choose his renderings of the source text according to how much information the reader has about the original situation. So he may even paraphrase some to add more information to his rendering, such as “wicked city Sodom” in Luke 10:12 instead of just “Sodom.” Or if he is a more theologically conservative translator, he’ll add lots of explanatory notes and footnotes.

So where does this leave us? In a chart, Stanley Porter puts relevance theory even further away from a strictly literal method than functional equivalence, functionalism (skopos theory, etc.) and discourse analysis, which is saying a lot (Translating the New Testament,  Stanely Porter and Mark Boda, ed. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2009, p. 139)! A Bible translator sticking strictly to a relevance theory of translation would end up paraphrasing a lot.

Gutt is no doubt a splendid linguist and translator, but he is not a theologian. His resume at the SIL (Summer Institute of Linguistics) website (http://www.sil.org/SIL/roster/gutt_ernst-august.htm) shows that both his MA and PhD are in linguistics. So it is possible that he does not realize the theological implications of the relevance theory, whether or not he is conservative in theology. The Bible is not a normal book. It is the inscripturated revelation of God! Thus it matters not what information the reader of the Bible knows or does not know about what he is reading, it is still Truth (with a capital T)!! It behooves the translator who believes in verbal inspiration to stick closely to the original meaning and even the grammatical form of the original texts of the Bible. However, the conservative translator can benefit greatly from relevance theory as he considers footnotes and other supplementary material. And the missionary can certainly learn from relevance theory as he considers discipleship and other training material.

1 comment:

  1. Evangelicals seem to frequently demonize “secular” disciplines such as psychology, anthropology, and sociology thinking we only need Scripture and a Greek text. We refuse the wisdom of the city gates in favor of a traditional rigidness of Scripture only, until the discarded discipline proves itself valuable beyond question. How much would we know of King Herod without Josephus? I no longer think that this is so and recognize the value of other methodological data for understanding how mankind thinks, acts, and lives.
    I recommend that one can apply the discipline at his or her leisure in order to see if other data can arise from the text. Consider Gutt's analysis of Luke's denunciation of Bethsaida and Chorazin.