Hans Vermeer Skopos Theory of Translation

Hans Vermeer Skopos Theory of Translation

Skopos Theory of translation is not known without Hans Vermeer, a German linguist and one of the influential figures in translation studies worldwide. He is a functionalist and approaches translation from this angle. Hans Vermeer is best known for his Skopos Theory of translation in our world. In this comprehensive article, I tried to introduce and explore the Skopos Theory. This article is a definitive and comprehensive guide that covers pretty much everything related to Skopos Theory and gets updated from time to time as we complete other drafted writings about it.

I tried to make this article as focused and precise as I can and should be a starting point for all those who want to get a comprehensive knowledge of Skopos Theory of translation. Please give me feedback so I can update and improve this article even more.

1. What is Skopos Theory?

Definition of Skopos

Skopos is a Greek word that means “aim” or “purpose”. This word introduced by Hans Vermeer in late 70s as a technical term for the purpose of a translation or action of translating (Or Translational Action). Sometimes Skopos Theory gets called just ‘Skopos translation’ in some articles and blog posts I read.

As I mentioned earlier, Hans Vermeer was a functionalist and approaches translation from this view. He rejects equivalence-based theories of translation and is against paying attention to effects and purposes of the source language. He instead suggests that we should pay attention to target culture and language. According to him, when we translate, we should have a purpose in mind, even before beginning to translate. He suggests that this purpose should define our translation strategy to reach a functionally adequate result, which is TT. In other words, in this framework knowing why an ST is to be translated and what the function of the TT is, are crucial for the translator.

An example of Skopos Theory in action

Let me give you an example of Skopos Theory of translation in action. Suppose that as a translator, I work for several online and offline translation agencies and, as you know, each of them has specific instructions for me and every other translator that works for them. For example, one of them wants me to transliterate proper names into the target language, and the other one doesn’t, one of them gives me more time to work, the other wants everything to be done very quickly, and I should adjust to these conditions, or just reject more works than usual.

Of course, these are some vivid and obvious examples in the business world of the translation industry. These kinds of things collectively are called purpose of translation, so Purpose determines our translation strategy and is a core consideration in translating that shapes my strategy and more specifically, the way I translate! For more advanced and deep investigations of Skopos Theory, check out these great resources:

Before diving more into Skopos Theory of translation, first I want to give you some pre-history about it that I feel are necessary for understanding this theory better.

2. A Brief History Leading unto Skopos Theory of Translation

Skopos didn’t appear overnight in the late 1970s by Hans Vermeer. Some examples or theorists of translation had similar ideas about purpose based translation, but didn’t name their theory ‘Skopos Theory’. Here I used three prominent examples of purpose-driven approaches to translation:

  1. The earliest example I could find was, St. Augustine in the third and fourth century, around 1600 years ago, contemporary with St. Jerome, who was an early Christian theologian. I don’t know if St. Augustine himself ever translated something or not, but he talks about roles of TT readers and their relation to the choice of translation style. In Bible translation, he suggests two kinds of bibles, one for ordinary people which should be plain prose and simple so to enlighten people, and another one for well-educated TT readers, which should use an elegant translation style. St. Jerome himself was the translator of the bible for ordinary people and insists on ‘comprehensibility of the TT’.
  2. The second example is Martin Luther King, an outstanding German translator, who follows St. Jerome in emphasizing the comprehensibility of the TT. He too had ordinary Germans in his mind and adopted their ‘regional dialect’ to translate Bible so that they could get to the core of Bible.
  3. The third one is Eugene Nida. He too is a famous Bible translator and an influential, or the most influential in linguistic approaches to translation. He expresses his emphasis on TT readers like this: when we are asked ‘which translation is superior or better than the other’ we should seek an answer to another question: Best for whom?! As we know, Nida has a general rule of ‘complete naturalness’ and her Dynamic Equivalence orientation shows his emphasis on functionalist (purpose based) approach to translation.

With more development of theories in this field, scholars cannot deny the role of TT readers on translation process, and the more they try to bridge the gap between theory and practice, the more they consider the role of TT in target readers and nowadays target culture as well.

To do so, these theorists relied on some theories from other disciplines which four of them are really prominent. These helped scholars in translation studies, to try to bridge the gap between theory and practice, which is the result of considering TT readers in the equation as well. Namely, these are Action theory, Communication Theory, Reception Theory, and Text Linguistics.

Hans Vermeer was one of these scholars who wanted to bridge the gap between theory and practice of translation. He introduced Skopos Theory based on the theory of action, so before getting into basic concepts and rules of Skopos Theory, we first should know basics about the theory of action or action theory.

Basics of Action Theory

Georg Henrik von Wright defines action as a process of intentionally (at will) bringing about or preventing a change in the world” In which “intentionality is one of its most important features’. According to this theory, “an action, with its intention interpreted from a different perspective, will become a different action”.

To put it simply, when someone does something, he or she has an intention, and this intention can be interpreted from various perspectives differently, which result in completely different kinds of actions. According to this theory, some translation scholars, including Hans Vermeer, realize that translation could also be viewed as a type of human action which has an intention or purpose. And in this view, it is called Translational Action.

In Skopos Theory of translation by Hans Vermeer, like every action, Translational Action has an outcome that is target text and here it is called Translatum.

3. Back to Skopos Theory!

As I mentioned, Skopos means ‘aim’ and ‘purpose’ which defines our translation strategy. Hans Vermeer himself defines Skopos like this:

‘Each text is produced for a given purpose and should serve this purpose. The skopos rule thus reads as follows: translate/interpret/speak/write in a way that enables your text/translation to function in the situation it is used and with the people who want to use it and precisely in the way they want it to function’

In this view, the task of the translator is simple: to justify his or her choice of a particular Skopos (purpose) in a translation. I should make a clarification, in this view, there are no free or faithful translation orientations, Hans Vermeer doesn’t tell us to translate freely or faithfully, because, our Skopos, or our purpose, may require free or faithful translation. For instance, one client may ask you to translate very faithfully, so your purpose as a translator is to translate faithfully for that client, maybe another client wants you to translate just the gist of what has been written in the original. In either case, you respect your purpose and justify your translation strategy for that particular product accordingly.

Translation Commission in Skopos Theory of Translation

Usually, translation is done by assignment. A client needs a text to be translated for a particular purpose and hires a translator for a translation, thus acting as the initiator of the translation process. The initiator is the person who initiates the process of translation because he wants the ST to be translated. The initiator can be anyone, even you yourself as a translator can pick something to translate, then you are both the initiator and the translator.

In an ideal case, the client gives as many details as possible about the purpose; information about timing, setting, and in general, the purpose. This information is important for the translator to accomplish his/her task. Collectively, this information is called Translation brief.

Hans Vermeer talks about this under the heading of Translation Commission and defines it like this:

‘the instruction, given by oneself or by someone else, to carry out a given action – here: to translate’

Vermeer mentions that even when there are no obvious and explicit instructions, we can consider implicit Skopos as well. For example, when translating a technical paper for an architecture company, we implicitly know that we should use technical terminology and this paper should be translated ‘technical’. In his view, a commission comprises the goal and conditions under which we must reach that goal. These conditions are mostly about deadlines and fees. Hans Vermeer mentions that this information should be negotiated between the initiator and the translator in order to come to an understanding of the task, before accepting the job.

Commission and thorough and complete negotiation of information is very important to Vermeer and he pays much attention to it. Because in his view, from the beginning of the history of translation, there is no agreed-upon way or a ‘best way’ to translate. Bu under this concept, and in the context of Skopos, this is now possible because there are clear instructions about what is best for whom.

Arguments against the Skopos theory

Like any theory, there are some objections to Skopos too. Mainly there are two objections, Objection (1) maintains that not all actions have an aim: some have “no aim”. This is claimed to be the case with literary texts. And Objection (2) maintains that not all translations have purposes.

Hans Vermeer argues and gives lots of examples and references to justify that:

‘if a given act of behavior has neither goal nor function nor intention, in its realization, result or manner, then it is not an action in the technical sense of the word. And we cannot claim that literature and in broader sense, Art has no purpose’

In general, he says that every reception or production of a text can at least have one Skopos and every action is guided by a Skopos. now because a translation is an action, it always presupposes a Skopos and is directed by a Skopos.

That was a long article! I’m still working on it and make more references in the future. Meanwhile, what do you think about this whole Skopos theory of translation? Doesn’t that make translators more autonomous than ever? Consider contributing to Dilmanj, and more specifically, improve this article even more or correct me if I’m wrong! Just leave your comment and let me know what you think.

P.S. Header image is clipped from a slideshow by Nicola Thayil

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