Purpose in Practice: what do you want to do with your translation?

What is translation purpose? Most common definitions would agree that the purpose of translation is to “convey the original tone and intent of a message, taking into account cultural and regional differences between source and target languages” (Globalization and Localization Association), but how does this reflect the relationship between translator and client in practice?

“Skopos” is a Greek word for “aim” or “purpose” that was introduced into translation theory in the 1970s by Hans Vermeer. This went on to become the technical term for translation purpose and the act of translating for that purpose. It refers to the understanding that each text is produced for a given purpose and as such should be translated in a way that enables it to function in the situation in which it is used, with the people who want to use and in the way they intend it to function. Translators create texts for clients who may be around the corner, in the same city or on the other side of the world, but these clients are not always good at communicating with translators in terms of explaining what they want or need when asking for a translation (sometimes they don’t actually know themselves!).

So in terms of translation purpose, the most important and basic question it seems is: what is it that you want to do with your translation? The second most important aspect to consider is how will a translator help you achieve your purpose?

Translation Purpose

There are a myriad of reasons why someone can commission a translation. For example, if you want to respond to a request for proposal put out by a foreign company, you will need a translator with strong legal skills and an understanding of the technical aspects of your industry. On the other hand, if you have a sales brochure that you want to translate so that it can be used at an overseas trade show, you will need a translator who can write good copy in the target language and who will be able to advise on other elements such as appropriate images to use, style and format. Perhaps you are planning to expand into a new market and want to translate your website into another language. In this case, you will need a translator who understands your product as well as web design and user experience, but who can also advise you on culturally sensitive or linguistic issues that may need to be addressed. Whatever it is you need from your translation, you should tell your translator before giving them the job. Exchanges between authors and translators can fine tune nuance and style and result in a translation that flows like the original and fulfils its purpose. They are facilitators of purpose in practice.

Purpose in Interpreting

Let’s not forget about interpreting. Purpose is just as important when looking at what is it that you want to do through interpreting. In general, if you are organising a conference for a group of people with several languages, you will require a pair of conference interpreters for each language combination. This is because a conference interpreting is an intense job for interpreters and working in pairs allows them to switch every 30 minutes. Alternatively, if you are welcoming a delegation from abroad into your organisation, you will need a business interpreter who is fluent in both your language and that of the delegation and who also has some knowledge about your sector of business activity. Last but not least, if you find yourself in need of assistance in the justice system, you will need an interpreter who is familiar working in police and court setting, who not only knows how to use legal vocabulary perfectly, but who also understands the processes and conventions involved. Interpreters prepare and research their assignments in collaboration with the client in order to understand subject matter and relevant terminology. They are themselves present in the communicative context of a conference or meeting and as such can be viewed as active partners in communication.

Final thoughts

So the responsibility for translation purpose in practice lies both with the translator and the client. The translator must clearly articulate their areas of expertise and specialisations, and from a client’s perspective, properly communicating purpose might actually save you money in the translation process. Should the purpose not be taken into account, the resulting translation may not be functionally successful and actually end up hindering instead of helping communication. Translation purpose