The Paroikos Bible Blog exists as a resource to those interested in Biblical studies and Koine Greek. It is hoped that this blog will simultaneously provide food-for-thought to the reader while pointing him or her in the direction of valuable resources, both in print and on the internet, that will further help his or her studies in the Word.

Feb 6, 2011

Skopos theory in Bible translation, by John R. Himes

John R. Himes is a 30-year veteran missionary to Japan. He is currently working on a new Japanese translation of the Greek New Testament and at point taught Biblical Greek in Japanese to Japanese ministerial students.

Skopos Theory
By John R. Himes

Skopos (σκοπος) is the Greek word for “goal,” occurring in the New Testament only in Phil. 3:14 as “mark” in the KJV. The “skopos theory” of translation was formulated by translation studies scholar Hans Vermeer. In his words, “The word skopos, then, is a technical term for the aim or purpose of a translation” (The Translation Studies Reader, ed. by Lawrence Venuti, 2nd Ed. New York: Routledge, 2004, p. 227). Again, Vermeer says, “The aim of any translational action, and the mode in which it is to be realized, are negotiated with the client who commissions the action. A precise specification of aim and mode is essential for the translator” (ibid). So to a skopos theorist, whether or not the translation achieves its goal is more important than its equivalence (formal, dynamic, optimal, etc.) to the original.

According to Giuseppe Palumbo, “The skopos…is the overriding factor governing either the choices and decisions made during the translation process or the criteria based on which a translation is assessed” (Key Terms in Translation Studies. New York: Continuum, 2009, p. 107). Edwin Gentzler puts it this way: “For most practical purposes, then, the Skopos is not located in either the source or the target text of culture; rather it is negotiated between the client and the translator, with reference to both the source text and receiving audience” (Contemporary Translation Theories, Clevedon: Multilingual Matters, Ltd., 2001, p. 73).

This is the secular theory of translation most likely to resonate with the professional translator, since Vermeer views him or her as the expert. The basic premise of the theory is that the translator should (and usually does) translate according to the purpose of his contract. In the case of a professional in the secular world, this often means that he will translate with the goals given him by the contract he signed, or the goals delineated by his boss, or those given him by his client if he is an independent translator.

In 2010 I was asked to correct an English translation of the information brochure put out by the local water treatment plant. The goal was to take my Japanese client’s work and put it into good, grammatical, smooth English. I wanted it to read like it had been written in English so that the reader was not distracted by what we call Japlish—a mixed up version of English influenced by Japanese syntax and loan words from English. I thus operated with a skopos, a definite goal that did not limit me to strictly literal renderings. Because of this, more than once I did a free rendering of the original text, something I almost never do in translating the Greek New Testament. In skopos theory the tools and methods of the translator depend on his goal. My goal in this case was a faithful yet readable translation of the brochure, so I worked accordingly. As Vermeer writes, “The skopos can also help to determine whether the source text needs to be ‘translated’, ‘paraphrased’ or completely ‘re-edited’” (ibid, p. 237).

This theory has not penetrated much yet into the world of Bible translation scholars. One of the most recent books on Bible translating, Translating the New Testament (ed. by Stanley Porter and Mark Boda, Eerdmans, 2009), does not even mention the theory or Vermeer, even though Porter has a whole chapter on modern theories, “Assessing Translation Theory: Beyond Literal and Dynamic Equivalence.” Surely Porter knows about this theory, since he mentions “the functionalist approach” (p. 128; different from Nida’s functional equivalence), which includes skopos theory. However, he apparently doesn’t see its relevance to Bible translation.

As far as I know Dr. Cristiane Nord, the leading advocate of the theory next to Vermeer himself, is the only scholar writing about skopos theory and Bible translation. I wrote Dr. Nord asking for her article, “Functions of Orality in the Translation of New Testament and Early Christian Texts: a skopos-theoretical perspective.” She graciously answered and sent me not only that article but another as well. She makes a good case with skopos theory for integrity in Bible translation. She writes:

“Translators have to decide beforehand what their translation is intended to mean to the addressed audience – in other words: what kind of communicative function(s) it is aiming at. Since in the case of biblical and apocryphal texts there is a large variety of possible skopoi, translators should be obliged (and given the opportunity, e.g., in a preface) to justify and defend their translational decisions. A team of translators and other experts who do not disclose their identity (like in GNG 1997) can create the false impression of having translated objectively and thus violate their obligation to loyalty with regard to the target readership.” (“Function and Loyalty in Bible Translation,” by Christiane Nord, p. 19; included in the book, Apropos of Ideology. Translation Studies on Ideology – Ideologies in Translation Studies.)

When skopos theory does penetrate the ivory (or maybe just brick) towers of the Bible translation scholars’ world, how will it influence Bible translators? First of all, it should make them consider their goals in a much deeper way. Are they aiming at a tool for evangelism first of all, or a faithful rendering of the original text? Secondly, they ought to be prayerfully thinking about the original Author of the Bible, and how that Author would have them translate. Their view of Biblical inspiration will then shape their methods and what tools they use. Integrity in relation to the original text is a key point. However it happens, the translator should grow simply by being aware of skopos theory.


  1. Interesting to see this kind of thing out on the blogosphere! I'm currently writing my Ph.D. on skopos theory and Bible translation. On a completely separate note, I've just interviewed your academic advisor, Dr Black over at the King's Evangelical Divinity School website.

  2. Thanks for your comment. I read and enjoyed your interview with my advisor; Dr. Black has been a great blessing in my studies and on a personal level.
    My dad and I are both interested in translation theory (my dad's been a missionary to Japan since 1981, and is currently working on a new translation of the New Testament). Looking forward to hearing more about your work and trust that the writing and defense goes smoothly.

  3. If you check my academia.edu profile (click my name), you will find two published papers on precisely this subject. They could both do with work but at least they are available.

    Sadly, I am not working in this area for the moment.

  4. Thanks! My father and I will definitely check those out.

  5. thank u so much this information is very important for me iam search for this informatiom i want to know about all theories of translation i hope to find more about it thank for all who do this work

  6. Thank you for your interest. If you're looking for more resources on translation theory, I can recommend the following books:
    1. Contemporary Translation Theories by Edwin Gentzler (rev. 2nd ed.; Clevedon, GB: Cromwell, 2001)
    2. Key Terms in Translation Studies by Giuseppe Palumbo (London: Continuum, 2009)
    3. Relevance Theory: A Guide to Successful Communication in Translation by Ernst-August Gutt (Dallas: Summer Institute of Linguistics, 1992).

  7. Paul, Exploring Translation Theories by Anthony Pym is also worth reading. It is more accessible than any similar work I know of.