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Skopos Theory in translation

An introduction to Skopos Theory in translation

Table of contents

  1. The evolution of translation theory

In the world of translation studies, there is considerable debate about how best to achieve equivalence between source texts and target texts (translations.) The arguments are centred on the extent to which source material should be translated word for word or adapted in consideration of the target audience. In other words, should translations be literal or functional?

Skopos theory posits that functional considerations are primary. It is a relatively new theory and yet one that absorbs ideas dating back many centuries.

Translation across the ages

Humans have been translating texts for at least 4,000 years. The word “translation” is derived from the Latin term translatio which meant “to carry across”. In ancient times, it was principally literary and scholarly texts that were translated. But the demand for translation became much greater as new religions and spiritual ideas were evolved. The need to spread the word and inspire faith meant that religious texts required translation into multiple languages.

Skopos Theory

As the centuries passed, more and more material was translated but the practice remained largely confined to tackling academic, literary and religious texts until the dawn of the Industrial Revolution. The world was then transformed by mechanisation and scientific advances and it was then commercial, scientific and promotional material that required translation. New machinery enabled the mass production and distribution of printed texts, increasing the demand for communicative translation.

Businesses were availing themselves of professional translation services as early as the 18th century. By the middle of the 20th century, it was possible to market goods and services globally.

The introduction of the internet then resulted in people everywhere being able to access written material from across the globe. Readers were able to use online tools to translate texts into their own language, but these tools have always had limitations.

It is no coincidence that many academics began exploring translation theories in earnest around the middle of the 20th century. The volume of material to be translated had increased exponentially and had become significantly more diverse. That diversity raised questions about the method of translation used and how the translation of texts should be approached.

The evolution of translation theory

Of course, the practice of translation has always been a matter of debate. The ancient Greeks made a distinction between metaphrase (literal translation) and paraphrase. This distinction has always been at the heart of the translation debate.

The English poet John Dryden (1631-1700) described translation as the judicious blending of metaphrase and paraphrase when selecting counterparts in a target language:

“what is beautiful in one [language] is often barbarous, nay sometimes nonsense, in another, it would be unreasonable to limit a translator to the narrow compass of his author’s words: tis enough if he choose out some expression which does not vitiate the sense”

Skopos Theory

Dryden clearly felt that word for word translation alone would not result in the creation of appropriate texts in the target language. The beauty of the language or the essence of its meaning could be lost. Dryden was commenting on literary translation, but the same issues may arise when translating any source texts.

Formal translation theories which dictated that formal equivalence to source text was the principle factor in determining success, were increasingly superseded by theories prioritising functionality and cultural adaption. In the 1970s, the German Linguist Katharina Reiss proposed classifying each text for translation into one of four text types. She posited that text should be differentiated according to functions, which she defined as “informative”, “expressive”, “operative” or “audio-medial”. The latter referred to texts which featured other forms of communication such as audio or graphics. Reiss is now considered to be the co-founder of Skopos Theory, along with Hans Vermeer.

What is Skopos Theory in translation studies?

Skopos theory first appeared in a piece published by the linguist Hans Josef Vermeer in the German Journal Lebende Sprachen, in 1978. The theory reflected the shift away from formal translation theories to those emphasising the importance of functionality and cultural considerations.

Skopos is a Greek word meaning “purpose”. As coined by Vermeer, Skopos is the theory that a functional approach should be taken to translation. Translations should reflect the values, expectations, life experiences and cultural norms of the target audience. The intended aim and impact of the source text should be reflected in outputs rather than the precise words used or linguistic style.

The theory reflected the growing need for the translation of non-literary texts in the 20th century. When translating instruction manuals, tourist guides and advertisements, the target audience should be the primary concern and not the original words. Translation is not merely the act of linguistic transference. Source material is written with a purpose in mind, and it is the purpose that must be transferred. A translator must consider the effect that the text will have on the target readers. The linguistic approach to the translation should be adapted to suit that audience. The theory considers that a destination guide for tourists should be handled very differently to a novel. The source text can no longer be considered sacred. A translation can only be successful if it accomplishes the same purpose as the source text.

Further development of Skopos Theory

As a concept, Skopos Theory continued to evolve as it was developed by numerous academics. Vermeer and Reiss themselves collaborated in refining Skopos Theory to feature both the general Skopos Theory and Reiss’s Functional Category model. Six directives for translation emerged:

Skopos Theory

  • 1. A translatum is determined by its Skopos.

  • 2. A translatum is an offer of information in a target culture and language concerning an offer of information in a source culture and source language.

  • 3. A translatum does not initiate an offer of information in a clearly reversible way.

  • 4. A translatum must be internally coherent.

  • 5. A translatum must be coherent with the source text.

  • 6. The five rules [sic] above stand in hierarchical order, with the Skopos rule predominating.

  • These directives are based on the three primary rules governing Skopos Theory:

  • 1. The Skopos rule (the function of the target text is paramount)

  • 2. The Coherence rule (target text must make sense to its audience)

  • 3. The Fidelity rule (target text must bear some relationship to the source text)

What are the merits of Skopos Theory?

It is always vital that translators reflect the aim of the client who has provided them with the source text. Skopos Theory can help in this regard as it highlights the need to consider the purpose of a translation. However, for a client to accurately assess the Skopos of a text, they must possess a good understanding of both translation theory and the target culture. In the absence of an appropriate brief, the translator could utilise a more dynamic approach to their work, focussing on the target rather than the source and evolving the Skopos themselves. For instance, given their linguistic and cultural knowledge, they can choose technical terms that are suitable for the target audience rather than providing literal meaning. They are able to replace idioms with more suitable phrases to provide a functional equivalence.

Global societies are continually evolving, and Skopos Theory enables translators to reflect this in their outputs. They can consider new aspects of culture and society in evolving both their translation strategy for a project and in choosing the right words or phrases to communicate the original meaning.

What are the criticisms of Skopos Theory?

Skopos Theory

This theory clearly invests translators with greater responsibility. They will necessarily be working to more flexible guidelines, the success of the output will be dependent on their cultural knowledge and linguistic levels. There is, therefore, greater scope for a translator to diverge too greatly from the primary meaning of the source text or to misinterpret the aim of the original material. In addition, human translators will always lend their own subjective bias to any work.

As Skopos Theory prioritises the target text over the source text, the linguistic and stylistic qualities of the original may be lost. This could be important in certain cases and not in others. Where the artistic properties of the source text are important, it may be inappropriate to adopt Skopos Theory. When the finer linguistic points of the source text are not retained, the resulting output could be more of an adaptation than a translation. This might be exactly what is required with marketing material but not with literary works.

There are ethical concerns with Skopos Theory given the fact that it effectively promotes a proactive approach to translation and prioritises the target text. Translated material can significantly impact its audience by influencing their perception of an idea, a product or a concept. According to Polysystem Theory, translated texts also affect native literature just as they are influenced by it.

What is Polysystem Theory?

Polysystem Theory is a hypothesis introduced by cultural researcher Itamar Even-Zohar in 1970. He described the body of literature produced by any culture as:

“a heterogeneous, hierarchised conglomerate (or system) of systems which interact to bring about an ongoing, dynamic process of evolution within the polysystem as a whole”

The theory has greatly influenced translation studies. Even-Zohar believed that the various forms of human communication such as language, literature and ideology overlap and influence each other to inspire change. They should not be viewed in isolation but rather as connected aspects of an entire system of communication.

Translated texts join the polysystem of a culture and exert their influence on it. Translations can introduce new genres and ideas to cultures in which they did not previously exist. Even-Zohar’s theory explains the dynamics of this process and has greatly influenced both cultural research and translation studies.

Polysystem Theory raises many of the same ethical questions that surround Skopos Theory. To what extent should a translator adapt source material rather than merely translate it? When should the linguistic attributes of the original be preserved and when should they be overlooked in favour of functionality? Could the application of Skopos Theory unduly minimise the impact of the target text on a polysystem, as the specific aim of the source material is so often to introduce new concepts?

Beyond words

It is clearer than ever that the role of the translator is a complex one and can extend far beyond substituting words. The correct approach to translation is a matter of debate and is now studied intensively. In truth, no single linguistic process or approach to translation could be appropriate for all projects. Perhaps the most important skill that any translator could posses is the ability to discern the extent to which Skopos Theory should be applied. The best methodology to adopt can vary not just between projects but between sentences.

Skopos Theory

#languageandcontext #languagefocus #translation #translationtheory

James Myatt

7 min read

Nov 11, 2021



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