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

Applying skopos theory to Bible translations

No scholar could pretend that examining the purpose of Bible translations is entirely new.  Fee and Strauss (2007: 119-120) have already noted the first decision to be made by translators is to determine the intended audience for their translation.  However, given the relatively late placement of this comment, the reader must assume that, in their view, considerations of purpose and audience design must take second place to discussions over translation approach.

This seems contradictory.  If they say “the first, and most critical, decision made by translators…has to do with the audience intended for their translation” (Fee and Strauss 2007: 119) then the meagre attention given to the analysis of this issue at the end of the book disproportionately influences the weight of their argument.  If the translator must first decide on the intended audience, then those discussing Bible translations should also start with the question of the audience design and translation purpose.  To begin at the end, so to speak, suggests that somehow translation approaches such as “formal equivalence” or “functional equivalence” (ibid p. 25-34) can be discussed as translation strategies independently of issues of translation purpose, audience design or even cultural expectations.  It really cannot be stressed enough that such a view is dubious at best (see Taylor 1997: 76-77 for examples of this in action).

Given the emphasis in skopos theory on the intention or purpose of the translation, applying it to Bible translation requires the reader or scholar to be able to determine the purpose for which the translation was written.  As I wrote elsewhere, in most cases the prefaces of Bible translations do normally contain the requisite information for this task.  This information should therefore form the basis of the analysis of any translation.

To take an example that I have already used4, the preface New King James Version clearly illustrates the translators’ wish to stay as closely as possible to the rhythm and phrasing of the original Authorised Version (NKJV 1982: xxxv).  The success or otherwise of this translation should therefore be primarily measured against its similarity to this text.  Conversely, it would be foolish to use the same standard to describe the success or failure of The Message in fulfilling its skopos.  Here the translator has clearly stated that his purpose was to translate in a way that would sound as if the Word was originally written or preached to his church (Peterson 2003: lii; Strauss 2004: xvi).  He also stated clearly that his translation was not aimed at scholars but at helping people who may have become disenchanted with the Word to read it in a new light (Peterson 2003: li).

In this case, skopos theory serves to encourage readers to measure translations against the known and explicit standard set by their translators5.  This avoids the pitfalls of the more traditional accounts of translations where scholars could attempt to establish a translation rule without clearly defining why this should be the case.  In the case of Fee and Strauss (2007: 36), for example, this manifests itself in recommendations that in all translations, the epistles should “read like first-century letters” (ibid p. 37).  In the case of Wenham’s review of Ryken (Wenham 2003: 77, 78) this is shown in the implicit assertion that the Bible must read like a work of great literature and that linguistic tricks can and should be reproduced in all translations.

Both cases assume that the scholar’s subjective preference is or should be a universal truth.  There is little reason to expect non-academic readers of the Bible to notice or be interested in the forms and conventions of a first-century letter.  Neither is it justifiable to insist that the Bible should read like one of the literary classics when there is little in the Word itself to justify such a view.  While these scholars may have found issues that are of great importance to some audiences, it is going too far to set them up as universal principles of translation.  Instead, skopos theory would require that the importance of these views would depend on the purpose of the translation, including its intended audience.  The principles and resulting strategies pertinent to translations aimed at Bible scholars or academics in training will not necessarily be the same as those required in translations aimed at someone whose knowledge of the source language and culture is more limited and vice versa.  Similarly, many of the requirements of a translation aimed at lovers of classic English prose will be significantly different to those of a translation aimed at lovers of ancient history.

The “interpersonal” elements of skopos theory, including Nord’s addition of “loyalty,” encourage readers to trust Bible translators, no matter which of the traditional views they might favour.  In this view, the translator’s responsibility towards God, the writers of the Bible and their target audience is given centre stage.  Unlike the traditional paradigms, which have proven to be insufficient to prevent translations from clearly distorting the meaning of Scripture (Fee and Stuart [1993] 2002: 43), loyalty shuts the door to sectarian and unorthodox interpretations.  In the framework of loyalty, attempts to create a translation that denies or reduces the deity of Christ, for instance, are absolutely excluded as justifiable translation purposes.

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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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