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Skopoi of a Translator: Assessing Vermeer’s Skopos Theory

Deepti Bhardwaj

In an essay titled ‘What does it Mean to Translate’ Hans J. Vermeer (1987) explores the structural, semantic and stylistic problems of translation. He asks, ‘Why does one translate a text?’(p. 28) and asserts, ‘Linguistics alone won’t help us. Firstly, because translating is not merely and not even primarily a linguistic process. Secondly, because linguistics has not yet put the right questions to tackle our problems. So let’s look somewhere else.’ (p.29) The present paper will explore Vermeer’s skopos theory and the second half of the paper will use Vermeer’s skopos theory to analyse the skopos of some translations from Hindi into English and English into Hindi.

Vermeer finds the translator an expert who knows the best way to project the source text in the target language. His translational action is not only dependent on the source text but on his understanding and his purpose to translate in a given situation. Vermeer developed the skopos theory as an approach to translation in Germany in the late 1970s. The word skopos in Greek stands for ‘purpose’, ‘goal’ ‘target’ or ‘aim’. This theory marks a general shift from the predominantly linguistic approaches and moves towards a ‘more functionally and socioculturally oriented concept of translation’ (Baker, 1998, p. 235). Vermeer’s skopos theory presented in 1978 stands on the premise that ‘human interaction (and its sub category: translation) is determined by its purpose (skopos), and therefore it is a function of its purpose…The skopos of a translation is determined by the function which the target text is interned to fulfil’ (Nord,2005, p. 26). This implies that the source text and the source text recipient do not have a very significant role to play in the determination of the target text. Instead, it is the purpose of the translation and the intention of the translator/commission to present it to an originally unintended readership which fixes its translation process.

Vermeer explicates the theory by firstly clarifying the basic assumptions. Skopos theory is not valid just for ‘complete actions’ but it also applies to parts of texts. The text is not an indivisible whole and hence has numerous skopoi within it. Considering that the source text is a result of the source culture it is not expected to possess any knowledge of the target culture. Therefore, mere ‘trans- coding’ or ‘transposing’ of the source text into the target language cannot result in an appropriate ‘translatum’ (translated text). In turn, it is the translator’s job to make it compatible with the target culture. His role is to establish ‘intercultural communication’.

Since the source text is oriented towards the source culture and the target text towards the target culture, according to Vermeer (2000), the two texts might or might not converge ‘… source and target texts may diverge from each other quite considerably, not only in the formulation and distribution of the content but also as regards the goals which are set for each, and in terms of which the arrangement of the content is in fact determined’ (p. 229). Therefore, there is always a degree of ‘intertextual coherence’ between the translatum and the source text which might vary according to the skopos.

Basil Hatim(2001) defines ‘intertextual coherence’ as the translator’s basic ability to comprehend the source text and to engage with the skopos it is intended to have in the target language (p. 75). The fidelity rule according to skopos theory merely maintains that ‘some’ relationship should exist between the source and the target text having the skopos and the ‘intertextual coherence’ basis satisfied.

Vermeer (2000) cites two major possible interrelated objections that exist/will arise against the skopos theory and provides counter arguments to them. The first objection is that not all actions have an aim; but Vermeer argues that any action by definition has an aim. ‘Aim’ or skopos must be ‘potentially specifiable’; for him every translational action- process, result and mode have a goal, a function and an intention to fulfill. The second possible objection is that every translation activity might not have a purpose or intention; that goal oriented translation would limit the range of interpretation of the target text, and the translator does not have a specific addressee in mind. Vermeer hcounter argues that a translational action has a much wider conception of the translator’s task including matters of ethics and translator’s accountability. And therefore, notions like ‘translator’s fidelity’ also provide a skopos to a translator. A translation might aim to protect the breadth of interpretations of the source text in the target text too as one of its skopoi.‘

‘The realizability of a commission depends on the circumstances of the target culture, not on the source culture…on relation between the target culture and the source text’(Vermeer, 2000. p. 235). Therefore the commission actually decides the skopos of a translation, not freely falling for impulses but directed towards a well defined goal. Hence, this challenges the conventionally validated view that translations should be literal and ‘loyal’ to the source text. It is this skopos which determines if a text should be ‘translated’, ‘paraphrased’ or completely ‘re-edited’ (p. 237).

In this manner, the theory debunks the concept of ‘equivalence’ that has demanded precedence over any other idea in translation procedures. Equivalence stands for a relationship between a source text and a target text making them directly related to each other in a way that the target text is seen as an outcome of translating the source text. In Nord’s (2005) words it is ‘the greatest possible correspondence between source text and target text’ (p. 25).This concept is used by translators to produce the same ‘meaning’, ‘effect’ or ‘value’ as the source text. Though, no concrete definition has come up for this concept it is generally equated with fidelity. However, skopos theory, functionalist in essence ‘dethrones the source text itself’. This theory as already pointed out does not rely on the only premise that ‘equivalence’ depends on. Yet, as Nord suggests and one can see achievement of ‘equivalence’ can be one of the skopoi of a translational action. ‘Fidelity is not the criterion but a mere adequacy with regard to the skopos’ (Nord, 2005, p. 27).

I would now illustrate skopos theory with practical instances. Let me take the example of Ruth Vanita’s translation of short stories by Hindi writer, Pandey Bechain Sharma ‘Ugra’. Ruth Vanita has very often taken up same-sex love as a central thematic concern; and her work recurringly raises the issue of homosexuality.

Ugra’s stories pertaining to same sex love came up during the Indian nationalist movement for independence. Ugra’s narrator seems to be against same sex relationships, but he never wins any argument against it. Ugra was heavily criticised for bringing up such a subject to the literary world in a language which was going to become the national language of India. His discussions about gender, masculinity, sexuality, obscenity, censorship and Section 377, along with nationalist concerns are just as relevant today.

Ruth Vanita and Saleem Kidwai (2000) traced the history of modern homophobia as it developed in nineteenth century India. Vanita’s intention is to use Ugra’s stories and the discussions around them as examples of homophobia. As a translator she decides her area, namely the stories that discuss gay relationships. Her skopos makes her extra sensitive to some nuances of the stories. She mentions in the translator’s note that ‘problems arose especially with regard to Sanskrit, Perso Urdu and regional language terms for sexual preferences such as batuk prem, laundebazi, paalatpanthi, and idiomatic turns of phrase, particularly when they involve puns and wordplay, such as Ugra’s use of his own pen-name or that of the journal Matvala as adjectives within the text’ (Vanita, 2006, p. x). Vanita liberally uses Indian English words, translates literally, provides approximations, works hard to retain the poetic quality of some verses, and provides endnotes to explain untranslatable difficult metaphoric words. However, she confesses that dhwani of some words cannot be produced in the target language. Her aim is to draw our attention to what was a problematic aspect of literary and historic period of Hindi writing, and continues to be so. From a work written during the nationalist period, she makes her case against homophobia and strengthens her point about Indian discussions of homosexuality. She adheres to her political position while choosing the subject and to a large extent in her technique of translation.

Moving on, let me now discuss an English canonical text translated into Hindi, Amrit Rai’s translation of Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Amrit Rai’s Bhumika (Introduction) to the translation expresses his unhappiness with the available translations of Shakespeare’s plays. Rai holds Shakespeare’s ideas and emotions in such high value that for him any languagewhich can retain them in translation actually proves its own efficiency and capability. For him translation is a creative process and he encounters two major problems in translating Hamlet. The first is the appropriate understanding of the text and its translation in such a way that the complexity of the original does not get lost. Secondly it should never be forgotten that Shakespeare wrote these plays for performance and if that gets affected then the translation does not mean anything (Rai, 1965, p.7).

Rai is a propagator of the Hindi language and has such faith in it that he does not pine for word to word translation of the play but translates it into simple day to day Hindi which gives it the naturalness of Shakespeare’s thoughts. He aims to maintain detailed intricacies of expressions and emotions in his prose translation, accepting the problems of rendering the works into verse. His intention is to capture the essence; this translation is actually a panegyric to Hindi which is true, secular, receptive to new words and is lively. He concentrates on the emotions of the characters and presents them in the target language to prove its vitality and vast vocabulary independent of the source text at least linguistically. The translator’s declaration of his intention serves as examples which very well illustrates skopos theory’s point that the translator’s decision making power has precedence over the source text.

The paper has tried to argue that any translation cannot be understood, analysed and critiqued merely on the basis of the ‘linguistic’ equivalence between the source and the target texts. It takes a lot more in the process of translation and the study of a translation should also look outside a mere comparison between the original and the new version. With the above mentioned examples we find translations a lot more than mere linguistic and mechanical re-coding of a text in a target language. Translations are intimate works of art which involve absolute attention of the translator in what (choice of texts) and how to translate. The skopos theory of translation brings the translator in the perspective. It helps us gather the human link between two languages and thereforecultures. With this theory in mind a reader of translation would be more conscious of the two diverging texts and the respective separate ideological standpoints of the author and the translator.


Hatim, Basil. (2001). Teaching and researching translation.London: Pearson.

Nord, Christiane. (2005). Text analysis in translation: Theory,methodology and didactic application of a model for translation oriented text analysis. New York: Rodopi.

Rai, Amrit. (1965). Bhumika. In W. Shakespeare, Hamlet (A.Rai, Trans.). Allahabad: Sarjana Prakashan.

Vanita, Ruth. (2006). Introduction. In Pandey Bechan Sharma ‘Ugra’ Chocolate and other writings on male- male desire. (R. Vanita, Trans.) Delhi: Oxford University Press.

---and Saleem Kidwai (Eds.) (2000). Same-Sex love in India:Readings from literature and history. London: Palgrave Macmillan.

Vermeer, Hans J. (2000). Skopos and commission in translational action. In L.Venuti (Ed.) Translation studies reader(pp. 227-238)New York: Routledge.

---. (1987). What does it mean to translate. In Gideon Toury (Ed.), Translation across cultures (pp.25-33). New Delhi: Bhari Publications Pvt. Ltd.

Deepti Bhardwaj

Deepti Bhardwaj is currently teaching at Ram Lal Anand College and is also pursuing her Ph.D from the Department of English, University of Delhi. She is an Indian Literature and Culture enthusiast.