Faithful versus functional translation, a never-ending debate
Away from intellectual discussions of the loyalty issue in translation and the limits of the functional approach to translation, translators in the field have to deal with this issue as part of their career, depending on how clients, or bosses, stand regarding this issue.
Some translation offices see that adding or taking out words from the original text as a deficiency in the translated text, even if the idea is well expressed in the final product. Academically, we are referring to the famous Skopos Theory, or the theory of purpose, which represents the school supporting functional translation as a one-size-fits-all. The founder of this theory, German scholar Hans Vermeer, explains that “Each text is produced for 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 function in the situation it is used and with the people who want to use it and precisely in the way they want it to function.”
The theory has its critics. Scholar Christiane Nord says the “radical” Skopos‐theory has faced criticism “for allowing the end to justify the means in the translation process, which would make this theory inappropriate to the translation of texts — such as literary or biblical — that are largely determined by the author’s personal intention.”
Vermeer and other functionalists look at the text in the source language as an “offer of information” that consists of multi-variables (time, place, medium, addressees). When the translator tackles this text, he or she is “guided by the variables of the new situation of reception.”
In this context emerges the complex issue of expectations. According to Nord, some recipients of the translated text expect the target text to reflect the originality of the source text, and some would insist that the formal features of the text to be mirrored in the translation. Other cultures might accept translations that deviate from the original “but are comprehensible, readable texts.”
The dilemma lies in the fact that the translator is a mediator between three sides: the original text, and maybe its author, the client and the target audience. Certainly, if the expectations of the three parties clash, the translator is caught in the crossfire.
Academic debates set aside, experienced translators know what to do in this situation. First of all, do not hit the text without trying to fathom your client’s expectations, either by communicating directly with them or by having a close look at previous translated texts already approved by them. Negotiate when the type of the source text dictates some kind of deviation from the original text that might be seen as unfaithful. Flexibility in choosing the best approach to translation is key to delivering the optimal quality translation. And after all, in a business environment, priority is undoubtedly given to clients if they insist on what they expect from the translation you do for them.