An Introduction to Skopos Theory

Skopos theory shaped the way translators work by detaching from the source text and focusing on the target purpose and audience.

Mónica Cabral • March 18, 2020
Mónica Cabral • March 18, 2020
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The concept of “translation” goes way back in history, featuring in discussions of Cicero and Horace, in the first century BCE. However, at this time it was seen as a mere means to learn new languages and read foreign texts.

It was not until the 1950s and 60s that people began adopting a more systematic and scientific approach to the study of translation, viewing it from a linguistic-oriented point of view. From these approaches, some stood out, including Vinay’s and Darbelnet’s contrastive approach to translation, which defined several translation strategies and methodologies, and Eugene Nida’s dynamic-equivalence theory.

Then, in the 1970’s Germany, a linguist by the name of Hans J. Vermeer broke the linguist-oriented trend by introducing the skopos theory, the first known functional approach to translation, which defends that every translation has a purpose, which would consequently determine the strategies the translator should adopt.

Historical Context of the Skopos Theory

Before translation was perceived as a functional act, the quality of a translation was assessed based on “equivalence” and how faithful the translation was to the source text. Although it is indeed important to comply with these criteria to a certain extent, that doesn’t mean neglecting other aspects.

With the skopos theory, Vermeer argues that each translation is an action with a purpose, and he introduces other equally relevant aspects to consider while assessing the quality of a translation, such as the relationship between the source and the target text, the role of the translator, translation standards and strategies, among others.

Skopos Theory In a Nutshell

Skopostheorie derives from the Greek word skopos, which means “aim” or “purpose”. Vermeer believes that, according to action theory, every action has a purpose. Translation is an action, therefore it has to have a purpose. The purpose of each translation is determined by a commission, a set of instructions given by the requester regarding the translation (such as its goal, target audience, etc.), which Christiane Nord refers to as translation brief.

The skopos of a translation, i.e. its purpose, will determine the entire translation process and the different methods and strategies to adopt depending on the situation, in order to produce a functionally adequate text, i.e. the target text.

With the skopos theory, Vermeer contests the traditional equivalence-based theories, dethroning the source text, as well as its effects on the reader and the purpose and intentions of the source text writer as the decisive factors in a translation. Instead, he puts the skopos of the translation action in the center of the process.

Nevertheless, the skopos theory isn’t limited to the ideas of Hans J. Vermeer.

Katharina Reiss: Translation Criticism

In 1971, Katharina Reiss, a German linguist and translation scholar, wrote a book called Possibilities and Limits of Translation Criticism. Although her views were still intertwined with the previous equivalence-based ones, Reiss created a model of translation criticism based on the functional relation between the source and the target text. She states that an ideal translation would be one “in which the aim in the TL (target language) is equivalence as regards the conceptual content, linguistic form and communicative function of a SL (source language)” (Reiss, 1989).

However, Reiss also acknowledges that equivalence may not be possible in some cases, nor even desirable. To explain this, Reiss relies on the translation brief, asserting that there are some exceptional cases when equivalence should not be followed. Examples of this are when the target text has a different purpose than the one of the source text (e.g. translating a Shakespeare’s play for a Spanish class) or when the target audience differs in both texts (e.g. translating a classic for children) (Nord, 1997).

Hans J. Vermeer: purpose and target audience

Going further than Reiss, Vermeer completely refuses the equivalence-based theories, stating that “linguistics alone won’t help us. First, because translating is not merely and not even primarily a linguistic process. Secondly, because linguistics has not yet formulated the right questions to tackle our problems.” (Vermeer, 1987).

He uses the action theory to reiterate that linguists alone can’t solve all translation problems. The action theory defends that every action has a purpose. Translation is unarguably an action, therefore it has to have a purpose. Voilà, the Skopos theory is born.

For Vermeer, the main aspect that determines the purpose of a translation is the target audience. This includes their culture-specific knowledge, their knowledge of the world, their expectations and their communicative needs. Therefore, we can say that every translation has a specific audience since, according to Vermeer, to translate means “to produce a text in a target setting for a target purpose and target addressees in target circumstances” (Vermeer, 1987).

Reading that sentence, we can see that Vermeer completely excludes the source text as a key factor because, for him, the source text is merely a “source of information” that is then transformed into a “source of information” in the target language.

Justa Holz-Manttari: Translational Action

In 1981, Justa Holz-Manttari, a German-born Finnish translation scholar, introduced the concept of “translational action”. This theory is based on the action theory, and its main goal is to cover all forms of intercultural transfer.

Holz-Manttari describes translation as a complex action that, similarly to the ideas of Vermeer, is meant to achieve a specific purpose. Moreover, this theory focuses on the analysis of the participants (initiator, translator, target audience), their role and the conditions in which their activities take place. In a nutshell, the purpose of this theory is to transfer a message to another language, overcoming cultural and language barriers through message transmitters produced by experts (it is understood that the translators are the experts).

Christiane Nord: Loyalty Principle

Although Nord acknowledges the skopos theory as being valid, in her book Translating as a Purposeful Activity she also stresses two flaws:

  • One is that the purpose of a translation will never satisfy all its readers, because they will probably have different expectations.

  • The other is that the skopos theory doesn’t have boundaries. Since the source text and the target text can have different purposes, if the latter is contrary or incompatible with the source author’s intentions, then there would be no restrictions to the translation, giving the translator the possibility to do whatever they want.

To try and overcome this, Nord came up with the “loyalty principle” of skopos theory, which states that translators must have, to some extent, a responsibility towards their partners when assigned a translation. In other words, the translator should be loyal to the author by making sure he doesn’t produce a target text that falsifies or is against the author’s intentions, ensuring some degree of compatibility and faithfulness between the two (Nord, 1997).

Basic Rules of Skopos Theory

In 1984, Vermeer and Reiss join forces to try and create a general translation theory for all texts, by combining Vermeer’s skopos theory and Reiss’ functional text-type model. This results in six basic underlying “rules” of their joint theory (Munday, 2001).

These rules are:

  • The target text is determined by its skopos.

  • The target text is an offer of information in a target language and culture based on an offer of information in a source language and culture.

  • The target text doesn’t initiate an offer of information in a clearly reversible way. In other words, the purpose of the target text in the target culture may not be the same as the purpose of the source text in the source culture.

  • The target text must be internally coherent. In short, the target text has to be translated in a way that makes sense to its target audience, taking into account their circumstances, needs and knowledge.

  • The target text must be coherent with the source text. Going back to the loyalty principle, the target text cannot alter the intentions of the source text author.

  • The five rules above stand in hierarchical order, with the Skopos rule predominating. This means that assuring that the target text is faithful to the source text should be the least significant aspect a translator should consider. On the other hand, it is crucial that the target text fulfils its purpose.

Criticism of Skopos Theory

Although the skopos theory received a lot of praise and it certainly shaped the way translators work still to this day, there were still some fingers pointed at it. The main criticisms focused on the theory’s theoretical foundations as well as its applicability, from which we can highlight the following, retrieved from Nord’s book Translating as a Purposeful Activity:

The Concept of "Intentionality"

Some critics argue that not all actions have an intention, namely works of art, where they include literary texts. To refute this, Vermeer claims that, indeed, an action itself does not have a purpose. However, they are interpreted as being purposeful by someone (e.g. the participants – author, translator or target audience).

The Concept of "Translation Purpose" and "Receiver-Orientation"

This second criticism is linked with the first one. Critics claim that not every translation can be interpreted as purposeful, because:

  1. The translator doesn’t have any specific purpose in mind when translating.

  2. A specific purpose would limit and/or restrict the range of translation methods and strategies, thus limiting the range of possible interpretations of the target text in comparison to those of the source text (Newmark, 1990).

  3. The translator has no specific target audience in mind when translating the source text.

The Concept of "Culture-Specificity"

This criticism argues that, in this theory, cultures are confronted as holistic systems, highlighting the points of contact between two cultures. However, the skopos theory doesn’t mention any dominance of target-culture forms of behavior by translators, which can be an impairment when dealing with cultural conflicts.

The Role of the Translator

Critics claim that, because the translation purpose is defined by the translation brief, the initiator is telling the translator how to translate, thus making the translator a mere “mercenary expert” (Pym, 1996).

However, the translation brief only gives the translator the initiator’s needs in regards to the communicative action they aim with the target text. The actual translation methods and strategies to adopt during the translation process are entirely a decision of the translator, since they are the translation experts.

The Status of the Source Text

Critics argue that functionalist approaches change, and sometimes betray, the original text. They also claim that, by taking into account the needs and expectations of the target audience, the translator is detaching completely from the source text.

To answer this, Nord states that a text is a product of many variables of the situation in which it has been produced (such as time, place, audience), therefore the way the translator and/or the target audience will interpret the text will also depend on the circumstances of the situation in which they receive it.

Concluding

Before functional approaches to translation, and more specifically the skopos theory, translation consisted of a loyal reproduction of the source text in a target language, based on principles of equivalence.

The most revolutionary aspect about these new approaches was that the source text was no longer the king of the translation, something translators had to worship. Now, the translator was allowed and encouraged to take into consideration, and privilege, other important aspects, namely the purpose of the translation, and its target audience, who the text is intended for, bearing in mind their circumstances.

In my point of view, the skopos theory posed as a huge improvement for translation studies, since it shifted the focus of the translation process, enabling the translator to overcome cultural barriers. This translated into more natural-sounding and cultural-appropriate texts, with no comprehension constraints, that people can actually connect with, and feel like they are reading something that was written specifically for them.

References

Munday, J. (2001). Introducing Translation Studies, theories and applications. London and New York: Routledge

Newmark, P. (1990). The Curse of Dogma in Translation Studies. Lebende Sprachen, 35(3).

Nord, C. (1997). Translation as a Purposeful Activity. Manchester, England: St. Jerome Publishing.

Pym, A. (1996). Material Text Transfer as a Key to the Purposes of Translation, in Albrecht Neubert, Gregory Shreve and Klaus Gommlich (eds), Basic Issues in Translation Studies. Proceedings of the Fifth International Conference Kent Forum on Translation Studies II, Kent, Ohio: Institute of Applied Linguistics.

Reiss, K. (1986). Ortega y Gasset, die Sprachwissenschaft und das Übersetzen. Babel, 32(4).

Vermeer, H. (1987). Starting to unask what translatology is about. Target, 10(1).

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Mónica Cabral
Mónica Cabral

English and Spanish to Portuguese translator and co-founder of Alumiar Elísio. Currently attending a master's degree in Specialized Translation.

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