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

To solve this weakness, Christiane Nord added the variable of “loyalty” to skopos theory.  “Loyalty” here is taken to mean the translator’s commitment both to the clients and text producers they work with and to the culture in which they work (Nord [1997] 2007: 125).  This addition introduces an “interpersonal” aspect to skopos theory as translators are seen as having responsibilities towards all their communicative partners.  This also answers Pym’s criticism (Pym 1997: 92-3) that skopos theory reduces the role of the translator to that of a service provider who exists to fulfil others’ purposes, with no ethical space of their own.  With the addition of the notion of “loyalty” the translator is now ethically and professionally responsible to either observe the expectations their partners have of their work or to tell them why these expectations have not been met.  Nord explains how this works in the following terms.

Normally, since authors are not experts in translation, they are likely to insist on a faithful rendering of the source text’s surface structures. Only if they trust the translator’s loyalty will they consent to any changes of adaptations needed to make the translation work in the target culture. And this confidence would again strengthen the translator’s prestige as a responsible and trustworthy partner. (Nord [1997] 2007: 125)

This trust in the translator’s “loyalty” to their communicative partners in translation is therefore seen as empowering the translator to ensure that the text achieves its given purpose.  It also imposes on the translator a duty to remain loyal to the original author of the source text by ensuring that the intentions of the target text are in line with those of the original author (Nord [1997] 2007: 125).  In the case of Bible translation, Nord feels that the translator’s loyalty is to the authors of the Bible and to those who will read the Word, rather than to previous translations or ‘”faithfulness” (whatever that may be) to nouns, verbs, and adjectives.’ (Nord 2008: personal communication).

This idea of “loyalty” also introduces the “intercultural” (Nord [1997] 2007: 18) dynamic to skopos theory.  This notion is likely to become most necessary when there is a disagreement between the source and target culture as to what a good translation is.  In this case, the translator is expected to act as a mediator between the two cultures (ibid p. 125).  This may take the form of the translator explaining to a publisher that a translation is likely to be politically unpopular if done correctly or reducing the forcefulness of an expression in order to ensure that the source text producer is not discredited (ibid p. 127).  In both cases, the translator must take into account the difference in how various cultures perceive translation and the likely reaction of the target audience.

The “intercultural” aspect encourages translation problems to be examined in the light of cultural issues.  A good example of this is the problem of what to do with the word “denarius” in Jesus’ parable of the workmen in the field (Matthew 20: 1-16).  It may be right to insist that this be seen as “the average wage of a day laborer” (Fee and Strauss 2007: 94) however, there still remains a two-fold translation problem.  Firstly, people who work in steady employment today tend to be paid weekly or monthly and not daily, so the phrase “normal daily wage” as used in the NLT translation of verse 2 is possibly unclear.  Secondly, if translators try to avoid this by picking a particular amount of money, they run the risk of either inflation or irrelevant comparisons making a mockery of their work.  There is simply no real equivalent available.  The choice here is therefore not between a good solution and a bad one but between several solutions that each have their own strengths and weaknesses.

Once again, the translator will choose their solution according to the purpose of their translation, including its intended audience (Taylor 1997: 76-77).  A translation prepared for new believers in the UK might call for the use of an explanatory phrase or even a very rough monetary equivalent; a translator working in a culture where bartering is more common might prefer the option of exchanging “denarius” for a more common method of payment.  Conversely, a translation prepared in a culture where daily pay is very common could very easily contain the phrase “the normal daily rate” with no problem.  The key here is that it is not so much the word itself that is the problem but its use in the particular culture in question.  In this context Harries’ (2006: 59) appeal for a study of language use gains even more impetus as translators are very like to inadvertently choose unsuitable solutions if they do not have such information.

This “intercultural” element in turn leads into the final consideration; that of translation being a “partly verbal” interaction.  In this case, it is the word “partly” that carries the greatest weight.  In skopos theory, translation is not simply about the exchange of word A in language X for word B in language Y.  Instead, this theory, much like the theories of Hatim and Mason ([1997] 2003), sees translation as essentially about communication (Nord [1997] 2007: 10, 11, 16, 17; 2003: 34).  This agrees with Strauss’ assertion that translation is primarily about communicating meaning rather than reproducing form (Strauss 2004: xx).  The centre of any analysis should therefore be how the meaning of the text has been communicated.3

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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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