Some people cringe when they hear the term theory. Theories should be complicated, shouldn’t they? When you add linguistics or even translation to that list, some might even run away. But that shouldn’t be the case, particularly with the Skopos theory of translation.

So how can you, in brief, define Skopos Theory? In one sentence, it represents “the idea that translating and interpreting should primarily take into account the function of both the source and target text.” Basically, the way you translate a certain text determines how you will approach the process of translating that text.

In general, according to this theory, that should apply to practically any text that needs a translation. It could be a novel, a poem collection, or a ‘how-to’ manual. Of course, things are not that simple, and every theory has its limits. In this case, so does the Skopos Theory.

According to one research paper, Skopos theory has its defined field. It is “ applicable for non-literary translation

like localization, technical documents, scientific texts, commercial and legal documents. It gives a dynamic heterogeneous approach to translation. It has freed the target text from the traditionally imposed notions of the source language text. It is one of the functional theories which values a target text based on the elements of the target culture, target readers, and the goals of the agencies. Elements of target text are determined by the Skopos of the translation of the same.”

But let us look at the details of the Skopos theory in more detail.

The origins of the Skopos theory and its basics

Bartelby notes that this theory belongs among German functionalist translation theories. Actually, as Benjamins points out, most of these functionalist theories derive from the Skopos theory itself.

Bartelby (above) defines the Skopos theory in more detail. “ The theory focuses on the aim or purpose in translation activity. This means “how to translate”, should be decided by “why to translate”. In addition, the theory also pays attention to the addressee of translation as “to translate means to produce a target text in a target setting for a target purpose and target addressees in target circumstance.”

So when and where did the Skopos theory come from? This theory first appeared in an article published by linguist Hans Josef Vermeer in the German Journal Lebende Sprachen, 1978.

Skopos is a Greek word defined as “purpose”. It is a technical term, coined by Hans Vermeer, that represents the aim of a translation. Paul Kussmaul 1illustrates Skopos theory as “the functional approach has a great affinity with Skopos theory.

The function of a translation depends on the knowledge, expectations, values, and norms of the target readers, who are again influenced by the situation they are in and by the culture. These factors determine whether the function of the source text or passages in the source text can be preserved or have to be modified or even changed.”

According to Vermeer, there are three possible types of purposes:

  • a general-purpose;
  • a communicative purpose; and
  • the purpose of a translation strategy approach.

Let us look at these three points in more detail.

More on the basics

Firstly, a general-purpose that a translator strives for, such as translating as a source of professional income. Secondly, a communicative purpose of a target text in a target circumstance, such as to instruct the audience. Thirdly, the purpose of a translation strategy or approach, such as to exhibit the structural traits of the source language.

In the case of the term ‘skopos’ in skopos theory, it refers to the second type of purpose. The theory treats the source text as an “offer of information in a target culture” and this view is seen as a consequence of constructivist comprehension theories.

“A clearer execution of the translational action—translation as a human action that thus possesses intention —can be achieved through the identification of its purpose. Consequently, this generates a translatum—the target text (outcome) of a source text” (same source).

“ Vermeer came up with the Skopos theory so to bridge the gap between practice and theory that existed in the previously widespread and commonplace Equivalence Theory.” In brief, this theory states that “equivalence-oriented translation as a procedure which ‘replicates the same situation as in the original, whilst using completely different wording’ “.

Vermeer sought another method of translation that would go beyond looking only at the linguistics level and consequently move translation forward. From “the eternal dilemmas of free vs. faithful translation, dynamic vs. formal equivalence, good interpreters vs. slavish translators, and so on”. He saw these as problems existing in past translation theories. Vermeer said 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. So let’s look somewhere else.“

skopos theory

Translation brief and the Skopos theory

According to the above sources, the key goal of a translator is to follow the client’s translation brief. Using this brief he is supposed to “interpret the purpose of the translation and employ strategies to act in accordance to the purpose.”

Here, the client should provide “as many details as possible about the purpose.” He should explain the addressees, time, place, occasion, and medium of the intended communication and the function the text should have. When the client presents this information, in writing or orally, he explains the translation brief.

However, there are situations when the client does not explicitly provide the detailed translation commission. This could probably occur “due to the unfamiliarity with intercultural communication.” Then, the translator ought to negotiate and provide directions on whether he needs to translate the source text and what the target text needs to look like to achieve the purpose. And “that purpose is the skopos.”

The way in which Vermeer viewed the culture, in general, has a lot to do with what now goes under the name of localization. According to Vermeer, the translator should use her/his existing culture-specific knowledge of the source culture. “Whether this “comparison” takes an insider or outsider perspective hinges on whether the translator is translating into or from their own language and culture.”

This means that modifications when transferring from source text to target text are appropriate in certain contexts. This so long the transferred element possesses the same amount of conventionality in the target culture as the original did in the source culture (same source). So, it turns out, Skopos Theory is more target-oriented, the cultural aspects of the source and target languages play important roles.

Directives and Rules

As this theory developed, six main directives and three rules came to the fore. The six directives should be:

  1.  Skopos determines its translatum.
  2. It is an offer of information in a target culture and language concerning an offer of information in a source culture and source language.
  3. A translatum does not initiate an offer of information in a clearly reversible way.
  4. It must be internally coherent.
  5. A translatum must be coherent with the source text.
  6. The five rules above stand in hierarchical order, with the Skopos rule predominating.

Based on these, thee main rules according to Skopos theory emerge:

  1. The Skopos rule – Each text should have 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 a specific situation and with the people who want to use it and precisely in the way they want it to function.
  2. The Coherence rule – A translation should be acceptable in the sense that it is coherent with the receivers’ situation.
  3. The Fidelity rule – The TT, target text, should bear some kind of relationship with the corresponding ST, source text.

Each of the lower-level rules is subordinate to the one that precedes it.

Two possible applications of the Skopos theory in translation

So how does the Skopos theory work in real translation situations? We can look at that through its application in legal translation and advertising translation.

The above source defines Legal translation as “the translation of legal and interlingual information.” There, the translator should translate the text should be done so that it is of good use for the purpose and audience that it is intended for, In this case, that is the legal audience. Legal texts must be precise in the definition of terms and the demarcation of their limits. “There is a need to be explicit in expressions and the transfer of information to avoid misunderstandings on crucial matters such as contracts, which can, in turn, prevent unnecessary lawsuits.”

Legal translation is culture-dependent. There may be specific conventions or concepts that are culture-bound and only exist in the source culture and not the target culture. Hence, Skopos Theory helps to set a standard for translators for the preservation of elements in their transfer from source to target text. Via the Skopos rule and the Coherence rule, the requirement that the target text is coherent for the target text receivers will help to inform translators on adjusting the degree of preservation they want. This is done so that this coherence is there.

“Advertising translation focuses on preserving the persuasive aspect of an advertisement and adjusting it to suit the target market and culture in a translational action. With Skopos Theory, translation no longer focuses solely on the source text. It also considers the skopos or purpose of the translation. In advertising translation, the Skopos rule plays an important role. As skopos determines the target text, the translator has to consider the culture and context of the audience. He also has to possess a thorough knowledge of the advertised product.”

Concluding Remarks

While the Skopos theory of translation obviously falls into general linguistics, it has a very pragmatic goal at its heart. It can guide the translator to his goal. It can also give him guidance on which languages he should focus on, and also which translator’s tools he might need to use during any given translation.

In general, the bulk of the texts BunnyStudio translators usually work or fall under the guidelines set by the Skopos theory.

  1. Kussmaul, P. (1997). Training the translator. Amsterdam: John Benjamins Publishing Co. ISBN 9781556196904