Context in Translation: definition, access, and teamwork


  • Alan K. Melby Brigham Young University
  • Christopher Foster Utah Valley University


translation, context, co-text, bi-text, Levinas


It is generally agreed that when translating, context is essential. An individual word, such as "key" (to a door? on a keyboard?) cannot be translated in isolation, unless the target language happens to maintain the same ambiguity as the source language. However, there is a lesser degree of consensus on the full extent of what comprises context in the world of translation and who is responsible for providing it.

After a brief survey of prior discussion of context in translation, this article derives a five-aspect, translation-specific definition of context from one general description.  Section A of this paper then describes these five aspects of context, termed co-text, rel-text, chron-text, bi-text, and non-text. Three of these aspects are monolingual: portions of a text (co-text), versions of a text (chron-text), and related text (rel-text). The fourth aspect (bi-text) covers bi-lingual resources. And the fifth aspect (non-text) is beyond text. Section B demonstrates, through real-life examples, that each of the five aspects is indeed relevant to the work of a translator and that translators thus need access to all aspects of context. Section C asks a broader question: "How can everyone in the multilingual communication chain work together to improve translations through providing and using needed context?"

This article is directed at a broad audience that reaches beyond those who conduct research in Translation Studies and includes translators, translation project managers, buyers of translation services, and those responsible for the authoring of texts that will be translated. Hopefully, an increased understanding of the importance of context will help everyone involved in multilingual communication to better cooperate in providing appropriate, efficient, and effective translations.