A Bridge Too Far

Most of the time, when we describe a good translation, we refer to the concept of fidelity. We believe the target text should be true to the source, respecting its style as well as the things it describes. However, at times, translators run the risk of over-egging the pudding, so to speak. The source text is translated so literally that the target text is difficult to comprehend. Thus, the translation’s function is not achieved. It’s times like this we must ask, “do we need faithful or effective translations?”

Let us take for example instructive texts, such as user’s manuals or cookbooks. English cookbooks tend to be more detailed than cookbooks in Spanish, laden with a lot of information that the Spanish reader takes for granted. Given a faithful translation of an English cookbook, a Spanish person would probably feel slighted and stop reading.

Something similar happens to copywriting. Imagine once again how an advertisement written for British audiences would fare in Spain. Most likely, a lot of references would be lost, and so the advertisement would lose its impact. Sales of the product would be less than expected, and the translator would have failed his mission.

Some Theory

In 1978, the linguist, Hans Vermeer, introduced for the first time the theory of skopos. Skopos is a word of greek origin (σκοπός) meaning “purpose”. The theory upholds that both translators and interpreters must keep in mind, above all other things, the function of the words they are translating. If, for example, the purpose of a piece is to sell a product, the target language should be adapted to achieve the same impact in the target audience.

This concept is not limited to language; it also comprises the customs, world views and preferences represented in this language.

Perhaps the importance of skopos is most evident in translations of movies, especially when children are the target audience. The purpose of dubbing is making sure children the world over are just as entertained as the children who speak the original language. And while perhaps a complete makeover of the soundtrack is uncalled for, a lot of it -word play, jokes, register- will have to be adjusted. Professionals tasked with translating this kind of material must really have the knack for it.

The Goal

To answer the question that set off this discussion, I dare say that, as a general rule for translations, effectiveness is more important than faithfulness. Of course, we would never change the meaning of the source text, but rather adapt anything that may be lost in translation. Preserving the author’s intent is always our first priority.