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

“Loyalty,” of course, does not entirely erase the differences that will arise when translators of different theological perspectives translate the Word – what one translator will see as remaining “loyal” to the authors of the Word, another might see as a distortion.  In this case, neither the view that the “client,” in this case the publisher, is always right nor the idea that “professionalism” is enough of a basis on which to make a decision (Pym 1997: 79-82) can provide an adequate basis for judging between different views.  However, it must be admitted that there is simply no research into the operations of loyalty in any translation.  It is seen as a philosophical and ethical concept rather than one that can be empirically measured (Nord [1997] 2007: 125). Until further research is done into its operation, researchers can only suggest possible routes in the pursuit of a solution to this dilemma.  One approach worth pursuing would be to recommend that Bible translators find colleagues of differing theological viewpoints to check their work.  Another would be for theologians, translation scholars and Bible translators to work together on the preparation of professional guidelines akin to those that professional associations require their members to sign.6

The “intercultural” element of skopos theory emphasizes that the act of translating the Bible involves building a bridge between the world of the Biblical writers and the world of today. One solution is to try to make the “otherness” of the Biblical worlds “accessible” to modern readers (Nord 2005).  Another option among many is to keep “historical distance” in some places and not in others (see Fee and Stuart [1993] 2002: 35-42).  Where previous scholars have tried to set up one approach as an ideal for all translations, skopos theory would yet again insist that the ideal approach is dependent on the purpose of the translation and is limited by the translator’s loyalty.

Skopos theory and traditional paradigms

The central argument of this article has been that skopos theory should become the new standard theory for the discussion of Bible translations.  However, any discussion on this point must acknowledge that it could be argued that this theory and those underlying the “free vs. literal” debate seek to define and discuss entirely different problems.  With its emphasis on the purpose of the translation, skopos theory compares the translation to the purpose for which it was written.  The traditional models, on the other hand, have only ever sought to compare the target text with the source text.  Most discussions over Bible translations in general and translation choice in particular centre on how translators handle short portions of text (e.g. Fee and Stuart 2002: 36-42, Strauss 2004 and Fee and Strauss 2007: 45-110).  Traditionalists may say that this shows that the traditional approaches are at their best in discussions concerning the linguistic aspects of translation. Hence, to expect analysis performed using this mode to include situational variables is to stretch the framework over an area it was never meant to cover.

Such an argument does have some support.  When Fee and Strauss (2007: 25-34) talk of “formal equivalence” and “functional equivalence,” they imagine equivalence in specifically linguistic terms.  It is then perfectly logical that they should cite evidence from grammar (ibid p. 28) or comparative linguistics (ibid p. 25) to justify their views.  Such a model, however, tends to pull discussions of translation further and further out of the reach of all but the most dedicated scholars.  In order to choose a Bible translation, a believer would need a strong grounding in linguistics, theology and preferably one or more of the biblical languages.  This leaves us with the sad fact that the only people qualified to choose a Bible translation would be those who translated the version in the first place and those who are likely to translate the next version.

The other problem with this model is that, when it comes to the kinds of fine-grain analysis that is required by such a purely linguistic approach to translation, the model turns out to be nothing but a blunt instrument.  In the example of the “denarius” stated above, the only translation solution that could be labelled “formal equivalence” is the transliteration of the name itself with no additions.  All other possibilities will therefore be filed under “functional equivalence.”  Given that language-specific rules of grammar may often prevent anything approaching formal equivalence (Bühler 1990: 31), the traditional models prove insufficient for even purely linguistic analysis.7

When it comes to helping people choose a translation, skopos theory seems to offer us a far more stable foundation than the traditional models.  Decisions concerning which translation should be used for which purpose must be based on a theory that is centred on translation purpose.  After all, if both translators and readers begin with purpose in mind, it is perfectly logical that those analysing or recommending translations should too.  The principle that people should look for the translation with the purpose which most closely matches their purpose in using it is also far simpler and potentially less controversial than any attempt to argue the case for a universally ideal approach, especially since the existence of such an approach is doubtful anyway (Ellingworth 2004: 352)

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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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