Translations are Meant to Work: the World of Skopos Theory

For years, academics and professionals alike have been mulling over a single, simple question. What makes a good translation? And, while no-one has managed to formulate an answer that everyone will accept, a few German theorists have come up with a definition that will make a lot of sense to professionals. It goes like this:

A translation should function in the situation in which it is used and with the people who want to use it and precisely the way they want it to function.

(Christiane Nord, Translation as a Purposeful Activity [1997] 2007: 29, translating Vermeer)

If we strip out the academese from that, we could rewrite it in these simple terms: translations are meant to work. Simple isn’t it? In the world of commercial translation, noone ever translates for the sake of it. We translate because someone out there has decided that they want a document in a certain language for a certain purpose. If we want them to hire us again, we’d better make sure that our work fulfils the purpose they had for it in the first place.

Now, that might be painfully obvious for some professionals but it is still a useful thought. When we find ourselves agonising between two or three options for a word or phrase, knowing that someone will expect the document to be able to DO something might help us make the right decision. A dictionary might give us ideas as to our options and WHEN each is used but only the purpose of the document can tell you which will work HERE.

Similarly, how easy is it, when using our favourite CAT tools, to get distracted by fuzzy matches, segmentation and glossary suggestions? Before we know it, we can easily lose sight of the fact that the project we are working on is much more than a bunch of neatly segmented sentences. At some point, someone is going to need to USE this document to help them do something they couldn’t do without it. If we take a step back and look at our work from that angle, we will find ourselves in a much better position to assess the quality of our work and the results of our decisions.

Lastly, knowing that translations are done for a purpose can help us explain our decisions to clients. Rather than just throwing out some old chestnut like “that’s how we say that in English” we can explain that our solution is more likely to get them the result they want. Speaking in their terms and showing a real interest in creating a successful product, we are far more likely to make and keep solid relationships with the people who are kind enough to pay our fees.

So there you have it, translations are meant to work. If we remember that then we are likely to find ourselves in a position where we have more translations to work on.


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