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

Objections to skopos theory

It would be naïve to suppose that skopos theory, or any new view for that matter, is so faultless and perfectly formed that opposition to it is impossible or foolish.  This section therefore discusses some of the principle objections to skopos theory.

Objection no. 1: Skopos theory tells us nothing new

Given that the roots of skopos theory are found in previous functionalist theories (Nord [1997] 2007: 9) and theories of action (ibid pp. 11-13), critics have questioned how original it actually is (ibid pp. 114-116).  Similarly, if Bible scholars are already aware of the need for Bible readers to be aware of the purpose and audience for which the translation was designed, we could easily question the need for an entirely new theory based on the same concept.

It is true that translation purpose and cultural issues have already been discussed in connection with Bible translation; however, such discussions (e.g. Harries 2006 and Nord 2005) have actually concluded that the traditional approaches do not give sufficient consideration to either of these areas.  Skopos theory could therefore be seen as an attempt to answer the call for a more integrated approach to Bible translation that foregrounds cultural and purpose-based variables.

The novelty of skopos theory is therefore not located so much in the information it contains but in how this information is organised.  The centre of analysis moves from being semantic equivalence or equivalence in terms of linguistic forms to the purpose of the translation including its intended audience.  In this case, the semantic comparison of the target and source texts turns into the functional analysis of the quality of the translation in terms of its suitability for its purpose.  Discussions over translation strategies are removed from their imagined vacuum and morph into debates over which strategies are most suitable for which purposes.  Lastly, translations are no longer classified according to subjective criteria such as “historical distance” (Fee and Stuart [1994] 2002: 36) but are organised according to their purpose and intended audience.

Thus, if the initial objection is set aside, the possibility for new avenues of research arises as translation theorists and practitioners seek to empirically examine how well a Bible translation has fulfilled its purpose in its target situation.  Strategies and methods borrowed from market research may be of use, allowing new translations to be field tested in focus groups, churches and even non-Christian audiences.  New models of translation could be built integrating skopos theory and discussions of translation techniques, allowing theorists to examine the effects of different purposes on different translations.

Skopos theory also suggests new approaches in Bible translation teaching.  Firstly, it suggests the need for further cross-disciplinary work on the use of non-Biblical translation theories in Bible translation practice.  It also suggests that teachers of Bible translation might benefit from the functionalist teaching approaches outlined by Nord ([1997] 2007: 39-79).  These include a deep analysis of the function(s) of the source text and thoughts on how changes in function may affect translation strategies.  Such approaches may bring welcome balance to some of the current discussions of Bible translation (e.g. Wenham 2003, Fee and Strauss 2007) where target culture and translation purpose are given scant attention.

Objection no. 2: Skopos reduces the status of the source text too far

If it is accepted that skopos theory offers a useful new perspective, discussion must turn to the most pressing danger of its use in Bible translation.  Since shortly after the theory was formalised, with the appearance of Reiss and  Vermeer’s Grundlegung einer allgemeneinen Translationstheorie in 1984, one of the most trenchant criticisms of skopos theory has been that it gives too little respect to the source text (Nord [1997] 2007: 119).  Where equivalence to the source text, in one form or another, was once held up as being the sole purpose of translation8,we now have a situation where we have a multiplicity of purposes with no criteria to allow us to judge one against another (Pym 1997: 91).

Even if we accept for the moment that Nord’s concept of “loyalty” is entirely sufficient to resolve this dilemma, we still find ourselves faced with a situation where the Word of God as written in Greek, Hebrew and Aramaic is reduced to being an “offer of information” (Vermeer 1982 cited in Nord [1997] 2007: 12).  This “offer of information” could then be translated in any way that the translator sees fit in order to fulfil the purpose that has been set for the translation.  Not only does this stretch the traditional conceptual limits of translation to breaking point (Pym 1995: 168) but it fails to take into account the inspired nature of the Word of God.

Any solution to this problem must take into account that more recent accounts of skopos theory have deliberately underlined the importance of source text analysis in translation.  Nord ([1997] 2007: 62) sees three main reasons for detailed source text analysis.

Analysis of the source text guides the translation process in that it provides the basis for decision about (a) the feasibility of the translation assignment, (b) which source-text units are relevant to functional translation, and (c) which translation strategy will lead to a target text meeting the requirements of the translation brief.

To this we might add the necessity of detailed exegesis to help translators determine the textual and theological function of the source text at any given time.  Such exegesis gives translators as much information as possible on the source text to allow them to determine how much of this information must or even can be communicated to allow the translation to function for its target audience.  An example of this is the decision taken by Nord and her husband to use the German verb “setze sich” (sat down) in their translation of Luke 6:20, because their historical research that showed that teachers in New Testament times would often be seated with their disciples stood around them (Nord 2003: 35).

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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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