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Using the Right Bible Translation? A professional translator’s perspective on translation choice, by Jonathan Downie

Skopos Theory — Translation for a Purpose

Unlike traditional theories of Bible translation that concentrate on how translators deal with individual words and individual sentences5, skopos theory deals with the translation as a whole. In skopos theory, the purpose of the translation, including its intended audience, as detailed in the translator’s brief, is seen as the key to understanding individual translation decisions (Nord 2001: 27-29). Every translation decision is therefore seen as an attempt to create a text that will fulfil the purpose stated in this brief (Nord 2002: 39; Molina and Albir 2002: 58; Williams 1989: 20). The only translation theorist to have applied this theory to Bible translation6 states:

the translator’s decisions in the translation process should be (and usually are) guided by the communicative function or functions the target text is intended to achieve for its receivers in the target situation. (Nord 2003: 34)

Skopos theory is therefore the first translation theory to include non-linguistic factors, such as the views of those paying for the translation and the needs of those reading the translation, and to show how these are likely to affect the translation itself (Sunwoo 2007: 2). Rather than concentrating on the translator’s individual linguistic decisions, skopos theory sees these as a motivated result of the translators’ concern that their translations be acceptable to their target audience for a particular purpose (Sunwoo 2007: 12, 14, 16; Williams 1989: 22ff). Like Fee and Stuart’s view, this suggests that there are times when a literal translation is helpful and times when a free translation is to be preferred. The more significant point is that, unlike traditional theories, it suggests that the reasons for these decisions can be found as much in the brief set for the translation as they can in grammatical or historical problems in the original text (Nord 2002: 33, 34, 39).

While making a translation that is appropriate for a particular audience has been discussed by biblical translation theorists (cf. Fee and Strauss 2007: 40-41) it is often seen as a question of style rather than of translation itself (e.g. ibid p. 119). In skopos theory on the other hand, the target audience is seen as one of the first considerations for a translator (Nord 2005: 871).

Obviously, just as the traditional theories of Bible translation need examples for illustration, skopos theory is meaningless without examples of how this works in practice (Sunwoo 2007: 1). It is also necessary to look closely at how relevant this change in perspective towards translation actually is for church leaders. In order to respond to both of these needs we will now take a look at the purposes given for four common Bible translations and then suggest why this is relevant when choosing a Bible translation for a particular use in ministry.

Skopos Applied — Four Translations Examined

The first translation we will examine is the New King James version. Conceived as being a “continuation of the labours” (NKJV 1982: xxxiii) of the translators of the Authorised Version, the NKJV positions itself as being as much a modernisation of a previous work as it is a translation in its own right. The translators of the NKJV also aimed to make it possible to follow the “thought flow” (ibid, xxxv) of the original King James version in their version, which suggests that in this case the translators’ “loyalty,” in the sense it is used by Nord (2002: 32)7 is as much to the King James Version as it is to the original text. This view is given further credence when we consider that the theological and doctrinal terms in the King James Version have been carried over to the New King James without question (NKJV 1982: xxxv).

Armed with the knowledge of the skopos behind the New King James Version we can now proceed to make suggestions as to how this will affect the translators’ decision-making process and find out how much this is supported in the translation itself. The first and most obvious suggestion is that there should be a clear similarity between the New King James Version and the King James Version. A quick test of this would be to take a portion of scripture in both versions and look for similarities in translation. Here, for example, is Romans 8:28-30 in both versions:

KJV: And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose. For whom he did foreknow, he also did predestinate to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brethren. Moreover whom he did predestinate, them he also called: and whom he called, them he also justified: and whom he justified, them he also glorified.

NKJV: And we know that all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to His purpose. For whom He foreknew, He also predestined to be conformed to the image of His Son, that He might be the firstborn among many brethren. Moreover whom He predestined, these He also called; whom He called, these He also justified; and whom He justified, these He also glorified.

In this case we can see that, with the exception of a few changes in spelling and pronoun use, these two translations do indeed show a remarkable degree of similarity. Sentence structure, grammar and even the terms used are almost identical. Given the almost four hundred year gap between the two versions, traditional views of Bible translation are insufficient to account for this. With understanding of the Biblical languages continuing to grow, the increase in the availability of earlier manuscripts in the original languages (Wallace 2004: xxvi, xxvii; cf. also Fee and Stuart 2002: 32-34ff) as well as the changes in English grammar and word use that have taken place over the past four centuries, we would expect a new translation, even one translated using the same approaches towards the original texts as the New King James Version to differ much more from the KJV than we see here.

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Category: Biblical Studies, Pneuma Review, Summer 2009

About the Author: Jonathan Downie is a conference interpreter, preacher and church interpreting researcher living in Edinburgh, Scotland. He is married with two children and is committed to helping churches reach out to their surrounding multilingual communities using interpreting.

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