[B-Greek] Semantics

Iver Larsen iver_larsen at sil.org
Sat Oct 13 04:16:23 EDT 2007

----- Original Message ----- 
From: "Hefin Jones" <hefinjohn at yahoo.co.uk>

> [out of lurk mode]
> I was a student of Deirdre Wilson in the late eighties and early nineties - I'd highly recommend 
> her work and Gutt's which is based on Serper and Wilson's approach. Gutt has been controversial 
> amongst the bible translation community - worth reading just to know what the fuss is about. 
> Seper/Wilson more fundamental.
> Hefin Jones
> Sydney

Sperber and Wilson present a mixture of philosophy and communication theory including pragmatics. 
The basic insight of Relevance Theory (RT), as it is often called, is obviously true and important. 
It is not really a new discovery, but Sperber and Wilson dressed it in new, fancy and IMO often 
misleading terminology. Basically, Relevance Theory says that any utterance, whether written or 
spoken, is made in a particular context and situation and the author assumes his or her audience 
will interpret the utterance from their own relevant background knowledge. Without that assumed 
background knowledge, misinterpretations are common. Some of the more advanced suggestions in their 
theories are questionable. They did not develop a translation theory.

Ernst-August Gutt, being an SIL bible translator, did his ph.d. studies under Sperber and Wilson, 
and built a translation theory that he claims is a corollary or S and W's communication theory. 
Most, if not all, translators agree with the basic idea of RT, and it is especially relevant when 
the originally intended audience is very different from the new audience as is the case in bible 
translation, not only in terms of language, but in terms of culture, history, environment, 
presuppositions etc. Gutt advocates a type of translation that crosses the linguistic gap, but not 
the cultural etc. gap. He prefers to provide the audience with the needed background knowledge 
through other means than the translated text. Without such knowledge they will often not be able to 
interpret the translated text correctly. Most bible translators in SIL and UBS feel that this is 
unrealistic and demands too much of the audience, but it depends on the intended audience and how 
much the translator expects from the audience in terms of investing in studies of the original 
culture and situation. Although Gutt maintains that he does not advocate literal translations, this 
is to be understood in linguistic terms only. Since he does not want to cross the cultural and 
situational gap, his type of translation has much in common with traditional literal translations, 
because they all require considerable cultural background study by the audience in order to be 
interpreted correctly. You may not understand the controversy by reading Gutt alone, but he is worth 

Iver Larsen
SIL translation consultant 

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