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The End of an Era? Does Skopos Theory Spell the End of the “Free vs. Literal” Paradigm? by Jonathan Downie


While most discussion of Bible translations take place around the traditional “free vs. literal” debate, modern, non-Biblical translation theory has become suspicious of such easy dichotomies (e.g. Pym 1997: 39).  Many translation scholars now tend to examine translations based on the purpose for which they were written.1 This article will examine skopos theory, one of the most well-known purpose-based translation theories, in more depth and will discuss the potential objections to using it to examine and analyse Bible translations.  This theory has been chosen as it is the only purpose-based translation theory so far to have been applied to Bible translation.  I will argue for this theory to become the prevailing theory for examining entire Bible translations while the use of the more traditional terminology would then be restricted to the description of small-scale translation decisions, if used at all.

Skopos theory explained

In skopos theory, translation is seen as “an intentional, interpersonal, partly verbal intercultural interaction based on a source text” (Nord [1997] 2007: 18). To fully examine this theory, we must first examine the core notion of translation as an ‘intentional’ activity.

Nord admits that viewing translation as “intentional” or “purposeful” seems to be self-evident (ibid p. 1).  After all, the very act of doing anything implies intent or purpose (Sire 1988: 103, 227 [note 21]).  However, to view translation specifically as an “intentional” activity means that the translation itself must be judged according to how well it fulfilled its purpose (Schäffner 1997: 2).  This is the basis that forms the skopos rule, which is as follows:

[To] translate/interpret/speak/write in a way that enables your text/translation to function in the situation in which it is used and with the people who want to use it and precisely the way they want it to function. (Nord [1997] 2007: 29, translating Vermeer 1989: 20)

How this rule operates can be demonstrated from professional practice.  A translator working on a CV that is to be submitted to an employer in a target culture2 will deliberately translate in such a way that the CV will function in that culture.  This may involve seeking target culture equivalents for qualifications mentioned, converting job titles into recognisable target language titles or even changing the grammatical class of words.  In my own work, one of the most frequent changes made to such documents is to change nouns into verbs given the preference in English-language CVs for action verbs (as shown in Yate [1993] 2003: 59-61).

Judging the success of a translation on how well it fulfilled the “intention” for which it was written means that its relation to the source text will necessarily become a secondary concern.  The translation strategy chosen and therefore the relation between the two texts will be determined by the intention of the translation (Nord [1997] 2007: 32).  In CVs, this would lead the translator to weigh up strategies for handling the use of target culture equivalents of qualifications – e.g. adding them next to the source culture term, using footnotes or replacing the source term completely.  In Bible translation this might mean weighing up strategies for handling source language terms for which there is no real target culture equivalent (see Fee and Stuart [1993] 2002: 37, 38 for examples).

This view tends to reduce the tendency for any particular translation strategy to be seen as an “ideal.”  While there may be some occasions and intentions that call for the strategy Fee and Strauss (2007: 28) call “formal equivalence;” others will call for “functional equivalence.”  Rather than choosing one of these two, or indeed any other option, for purely theological or linguistic reasons, the translator will make his or her choice based on which is more likely to serve the purpose of the text (Nord 2002: 33; 2003: 34).  This view forms an alternative to the more traditional theories, which have caused so much debate in the past.  In fact, many skopos theorists see it is a real opportunity to solve the debates over “free vs. faithful translation, dynamic vs. formal equivalence, good interpreters vs. slavish translators, and so on” (Nord [1997] 2007: 29).

This challenges the traditional supremacy of the source text as the sole basis on which translations must be assessed.  While, Hans Vermeer, one of the originators of skopos theory, stated that there must be a relationship between the source and target text (Nord [1997] 2007: 32); he also claimed to have “dethroned” the source text as an unchangeable and unchanging basis of comparison (ibid p. 37).  Some theorists feel that this could easily lead to any and all translation purposes being seen as acceptable, even if they are incompatible with the apparent purpose of the source text (ibid p. 124; Pym 1997: 91).  Following this principle, there would be nothing inherently wrong with changing universities mentioned on a CV to UK equivalents (“Oxford” for “Sorbonne,” for example) or changing all references to places in the Bible to equivalents in modern-day USA, as one Bible translator is reported to have done (Fee and Strauss 2007: 33).

In both cases, such changes, while possibly being defensible as “equivalents” on a purely cultural level, are very likely to mislead the reader.  If, for instance, the writer of a CV attended “Sorbonne” but the translator uses “Oxford,” the client could be accused of lying if the prospective employer decides to verify their claim.  Similarly, no matter how familiar US cities are to US Bible readers, the fact is that Jesus was born in Bethlehem, not Boston.  Skopos theory therefore lacked logical and ethical limits to what could be seen as acceptable translation practice (Pym 1997: 91).

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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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