Skopos theory, and the scope of your translations

What am I doing all of this for?

I asked myself this question a lot when I was doing my MA in Translation. It’s not that I wasn’t interested in Translation Theory, I just struggled to see where these theories and ideas fitted in with real-life practice. That’s why after a decade, I’m going back to the books and considering some of the different translation theories, and how they can help me leverage my translation business.

A week writing out complicated translation briefs (in Project Manager mode), has reminded me of Skopos theory. They both link to one important idea: What is the purpose of the translation?

Summarising Skopos theory

In short, Skopos translates from Greek as ‘purpose’. Skopos theory defines a translation’s purpose, and the purpose of the action of translating. It was introduced in the 1970s by a German linguist called Hans J. Vermeer.

Vermeer was motivated to introduce a new theory into translation which set itself apart from the age-old translation debates: free vs faithful, formal vs dynamic, etc.

Essentially, Skopos theory doesn’t just focus on the linguistic side of translation. Vermeer saw and defined translation as producing a target text for a specific purpose, for a specific reader, under specific circumstances.

You can basically ask yourself ‘What is this translation going to be used for? Who is going to read it? In what context are they going to read it?’. If you know the answers to these questions, you’ll have a great foundation for an excellent, purposeful translation.*

*I’m being purposefully brief about the finer details of Skopos theory, and simply highlighting the main concept. I’ll put some good reference materials right at the bottom of this article if you want to read more about it. 👇🏻

Why focus on the purpose of a translation?

If you understand the purpose of a translation, and what it’s going to be used for, you can use this knowledge to help you define your translation methods and strategy.

It’s absolutely essential for a translator to acknowledge why something needs to be translated, and what the target text will be used for, in order to produce a good translation.

That’s why the brief, is so important!**

**In all honesty, sometimes (not for lack of trying) you won’t always receive a proper brief. It’s not always the Project Manager’s fault either. 😩 BUT, if this is the case, it might be helpful for you to consider the above questions, and write some ideas down yourself before getting started.

Putting the theory into practice

Take a step back and consider what you’re translating for. What’s the point? What’s the end goal?

Translation isn’t simply a language transferral from point A to point B.

Skopos theory differs from many of the other traditional theories, because the focus isn’t on the source text, and exactly what the source writer was trying to say. If you apply the theory, then you’re free to deviate from the source, as long as the end result is a translation that’s fit for purpose.

The linguistic choices that you make are defined by purpose. That’s the reason why the result of creative marketing translations can be very different from a user-manual in terms of how far it deviates from the source text.

And the idea that a good translation is judged on the end result of the target text, and how well it fits the target audience, as opposed to how closely and faithfully it sticks to the source text, is actually quite freeing.

Knowledge is power

This is where the translation brief fits in. How I can relate to this theory as a Project Manager, as well as a linguist. You need all of the information available, in order to achieve the best possible result.

In addition to the standard information about word count, language variant, deadline, etc., the perfect translation brief would ideally contain least some of the following information (the more the better!):

  • Register (formal/informal)
  • Tone of voice
  • Customer profiles (great to help linguists understand specific wants and needs)
  • Target market – a broader example of the type of person you will be translating for
  • Information about the brand/organisation
  • Style guide/terminology
  • References and visual context

⭐ Top marks to the clients who send out brand guidelines and TOV information with their job!

Most importantly, and first and foremost, you need to know what the aim, or the PURPOSE of the text is for. This might be something that you need to eek out of the client, or it might be completely obvious. Is it informational? In which case, the information needs to be portrayed accurately and clearly. Is it entertaining? Translator needs to make sure that all concepts and jokes carry across into their language and target market. Is it persuasive? Boost up your translation by using power words that urge your readers to take action, now!

Do you spend a minute assessing the purpose of the target text before you set to work? Tell me how this has helped you in the comments. ✍️

Some other places where you can find more info about Skopos theory:

‘Introducing Translation Studies, Theories and applications’ by Jeremy Munday (Routledge, 2008 edition)

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