The Skopos Theory

The Skopos Theory | One Hour Translation

The Skopos Theory of translation stresses the purpose of the source and target texts over the sacredness of the source.

I often encounter people who engage me in conversation about translation work, and they are usually fairly surprised to learn how complex the work is. Most people assume you are simply re-writing in a different language, and while they can almost always appreciate how difficult and mentally-challenging that is, they don’t realize how philosophically empty that concept is.

Language is a fundamental building block of society and civilisation, after all. Without language we would have nothing, and as a result of this primal nature translation services is very much engaged in taking one of the most fundamental aspects of existence and transforming it. It shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone that there is a lot of ongoing philosophical work being done in the sphere of translation, trying to deepen our understanding of how translation is accomplished and the role it serves in society itself.

One of the most important concepts in modern translation work is encapsulated in the Skopos Theory, which states that translation is not simply an act of linguistic transference, but rather an application of purpose.

The Purpose of Translation

The theory makes perfect sense if you take a moment to consider it. The source text of a translation project, whether it’s a user manual, an advertisement, or a novel, was written with a purpose in mind: To instruct, to persuade, or to entertain in these cases. They weren’t written in a vacuum where language is crafted just for the sake of crafting it – and thus translations of those texts must also be approached with purpose.

That purpose then informs the tools and techniques used. You approach the target text with that purpose, and all of your linguistic choices are made because of this effect you’re trying to achieve. This is why user manuals aren’t written in the same style as novels: Their purposes are different, and so the entire linguistic approach of their creation must be distinct.

Application of Purpose

This theory goes against what was once a tenet of translation work: That the source text was sacred. The idea that you had to preserve aspects of the source text in your translation work persisted for a very long time in translation history, and it’s understandable: The source text was thought to be the only way to judge the translation. If you didn’t stick to what the source text did, how could you ever know whether the translation was successful?

The answer, Skopos tells us, is whether or not the target text accomplishes the same purpose. If you achieve the same purpose in your target text, you’ve succeeded.

The end result? The source text is no longer sacred. As a translator you’re free to deviate from it as long as your deviations go towards achieving the purpose of the source text in your target text. It’s a much more sensible and more successful approach to the whole operation, and makes reviewing and testing translations much easier.