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

Thus, while equivalence to the linguistic form of the source text may not be seen as important in skopos theory, it would be a mistake to see this as a danger to accurate Bible translation.  On the contrary, if we add the notion of “loyalty” to the need for exegesis and source text analysis, we have a powerful heuristic for determining the acceptability of any given translation purpose.  No purpose is acceptable if it means being disloyal to the original intended purpose of the Word of God or of the particular section of it under discussion (following Nord [1997] 2007: 125).  Creating a translation for use with new believers could be justified in that it would help with the fulfilment of Christ’s command in Matthew 28: 28-20.  Similarly, translating an entire version specifically aimed at helping personal or theological study could be justified by 2 Timothy 3: 16-17.  On the other hand, translating the Scriptures in such a way as to attempt to induce racist views of the Jews or to defend sectarian theological opinions would be disallowed.  In both cases, there is no backing for this purpose neither in Scripture itself nor in any responsible exegesis.

Interestingly enough, this approach would also question the value of translations confessing “loyalty” to previous translations in the same language.  Given the lack of any possible justification, outside of subjective opinions over what constitutes a “faithful” or “beautiful” translation, such translation purposes would be subject to severe questioning under skopos theory.  It would seem that, while skopos theory would open the door to new translation purposes, it is likely to close the door to others.  For this reason, the validity of any given translation purpose must remain a matter of theological debate.  In this case, the theory is not enough in itself to solve the issue but once again points to how discussions from other fields can be integrated into the debate.

Objection 3: Opting for one Bible translation purpose is too simplifying

No matter how hard translation theorists such as Hatim and Mason ([1997] 2005: vii, 1, 111-126) and Nord (2003) might try to argue that translation theory and its associated disciplines work equally well in any domain, there will always be dissenting voices arguing that the Bible is different.  One of the areas in which it would seem to most differ from many of the texts analysed in translation theory is that it is not a single text, produced at a given moment in time and in a given culture but a collection of 66 texts written and collected over thousands of years.  A quick glance in any Bible commentary will assure the reader that each book was written with a different purpose and audience in mind.  Dissenters could therefore argue, with some justification, that the attempt to translate the Bible for a single purpose or audience is far too simplifying.

It is entirely plausible to think in such terms.  To translate Nahum’s prophecies against Nineveh as predictions of the downfall of any modern city would betray the translator’s loyalty to both the prophet and the audience of the translation.  On the other hand, to take the practicality of the book of James and translate it in such a way that the reader spends all his or her time studying the grammar of his instructions would be equally disloyal.  It once again becomes necessary for translators to carry out a detailed exegesis of the text at hand in order to try to discover the intentions of the writer at each stage.

However, it would be a mistake to interpret this duty as nullifying the idea of an overall translation purpose.  The very fact that almost all Bible translations include the purpose for their work in the preface should be enough to prove this point.  Similarly, we have seen that even theorists coming from the point of view of traditional theories realise the importance of translation purpose.  Therefore, we must conclude that while translators have a duty to be aware of and integrate the intentions of the original authors into their work, in practice the way that this is done is determined by the purpose of the translation as a whole.

Objection 4: Skopos theory is skewed towards “functionally equivalent” translation

In theory, there should be no question of skopos theory favouring one translation strategy over another as the central tenet of skopos theory is that translators will choose their translation strategies and techniques according to the purpose of the translation (Nord 2002: 33).  Nord’s schema of possible text-wide translation strategies (Nord [1997] 2007: 48, 51) comes close to confirming this assumption. She lists four strategies that prioritise the documentation of features of the source culture and three that prioritise the function of the text as an “instrument for target-culture communicative interaction” (ibid p. 51).

However, it would be equally easy to assume that the very orientation of skopos theory towards purposes as they are determined in the target culture (e.g. Nord [1997] 2007: 115) will necessarily tend towards the production of functionally equivalent translations.  In many of the examples of purposes suggested earlier in this article, some form of deviation from the formal elements and order of the source text will be necessary in order to make the translation function for the target readership.  In the example of the translation of CVs, it was suggested that additions would be necessary in order for the CV to help get someone a new job.  In the example of the translation of the word “denarius,” it was suggested that, in most cases, some kind of explanatory phrase or modern monetary equivalent would be more useful than retaining the original term without any changes.

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Category: In Depth

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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