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Contributions of Functionalist Approaches to Translation


The 1980s saw the birth of a number of approaches to Translation Studies (TS henceforth) collectively termed functionalist, which brought about a paradigm shift in the system. This essay examines the strengths and weaknesses as well as the contributions of these functionalist approaches to the field of TS. Structurally, the essay starts with a brief historical overview of the approaches to translation before the advent of functionalist approaches. Then it discusses the major functionalist approaches, highlighting their major postulations and the criticisms against them, which will then be followed by a general summary of the various contributions of the various strands of functionalism.


Over the years, scholars have approached the discipline of Translation Studies from various angles largely depending on ‘the dominant philosophy of the time and/or underlying conceptions of the nature of translation and how the translated text will be used’ (Schaeffner 2001: c5). However, one dilemma that has prevailed over the centuries is the decision on the best method of translating a text. This dilemma of the best method of translating is an age-old one. Jerome (395/2004: 24) expresses this dilemma thus:

It is difficult, when following the lines of another, not to overshoot somewhere and arduous, when something is well put in another language, to preserve this same beauty in translation…if I translate word by word, it sounds absurd; it out of necessity I alter something in the order or diction, I will seem to have abandoned the task of a translator.

However, Jerome and indeed many other translator of his time end up not translating ‘word by word. He quotes Cicero as observing that in his translation of Plato’s Protagoras and Xenophone’s Oeconomicus, that he kept their ‘meanings but with their forms – their figures, so to speak – in words adapted to our idiom’ (395/2004: 23). He adds that ‘except for the case of Sacred Scriptures, where the very order of the words is a mystery – I render not word for word, but sense for sense’ (395/2004: 25) so as not to sound absurd in the target language.

These scholars, including others like Nicolas Perrot D’Ablancourt (1640/2004), Martin Luther (1530) and John Dryden (1680/2004), may not be seen as translations scholars per se since they all had their respective vocations and translation was what they did in the passing. However, their views and comments formed the bedrock on which the field of translation studies was to be built.

Linguistic-based approaches

The argument over word by word or sense for sense translation prevailed over the centuries up till the 20th century when Jakobson (1959/2004) introduced the term ‘equivalence’ in the literature and Nida (1964/2004) expands it by distinguishing between formal and dynamic equivalence. While formal equivalence aims at matching the message in the receptor language as closely as possible to the different elements in the source language, including the form and content, dynamic equivalence ‘aims at complete naturalness of expression, and tries to relate the receptor to modes of behaviour relevant within the context of his own culture’ (Nida 1964/2004: 156). According to Nida, the purposes of the translator to a large extent determine whether the translator should aim at formal equivalence or dynamic equivalence.

One observes that these scholars are concerned with the correspondence between the target language and the source language and these approaches were thus collectively called ‘linguistic approaches’ to translation. According to Saldanha (2009: 148), the term linguistic approaches to translation studies is used to refer to ‘theoretical models that represent translation and/ or interpreting as a (primarily) linguistic process and are therefore informed mainly by linguistic theory’. Translation studies was subsumed under applied linguistics and thus studied with methods developed in linguistics (Schaeffner 2001: 6). Other scholars that contributed to research in this area are Catford (1965) and House (1977/1981). Translation was seen as a transfer of information from one language to another, as an activity that affects just the two languages involved. Thus scholars were concerned with prescribing methods of translating from one language to the other in order to reproduce in the target language a message that is equivalent to that of the source text. One such prescription was Vinay and Dabelnet’s (1958/2994) seven methods or procedures for translation: borrowing, calque, literal translation, transposition, modulation, equivalence and adaptation. The first three they call direct translations as they involve transposing the source language message element by element, while the last four they call oblique because they involve an upsetting of the syntactic order of the source language.

One major shortcoming of linguistic approaches is that they do not take cognisance of the contribution of the context in which an expression is used to the understanding of the whole message or text. Schaeffner (2001: 8 – 9) observes that

Studies conducted within a linguistic-based approach to translation concentrated on the systematic relations between units of the language systems, but often abstracted from aspects of their contextual use. A chosen TL-form may well be correct according to the rules of the language system, but this does not necessarily mean that the text as a whole appropriately fulfils its communicative function in the TL situation and culture.

Working on the translation of the Bible, Nida’s distinction between formal and dynamic equivalence introduced aspects of sociolinguistics and culture into translation studies. He says that any discussion of equivalence, whether formal or dynamic, must consider types of relatedness ‘determined by the linguistic and cultural distance between the codes used to convey the message’ (1964/2004: 157). He declares that a natural translation or dynamic equivalence ‘involves two principal areas of adaptation, namely, grammar and lexicon’ (2004: 163). However, his theory has been criticised for being restricted in application and scope as it appears to be meant mainly for Bible translations and to focus on just lexical and syntactic correspondence. A few years later, Koller (1979: 215f) proposes five categorisation of the concept of equivalence namely: textralinguistic facts/state of affairs (denotative equivalence); form of verbalisation, including connotations, style and (connotative equivalence); text norms and language norms (text-normative equivalence); TL-text audience (pragmatic equivalence); and specific aesthetic, formal , characteristic features of text (formal-aesthetic equivalence) (quoted in Schaeffner 2001: 9)

This too receives a lot of criticisms which apparently inform its review by the author over the years. Pym (1997: 1) observes that four editions of Koller’s book Einfuhrung in die Ubersetzungswissenschaft (Introduction to Translation Studies/Science) has been published as at 1995, with an article summarising the main points appearing in English in Target. Indeed the concept of equivalence was (and still is) highly controversial even to this day.

Textlinguistic approaches

In reaction to the apparent rather restricted linguistic scope of these approaches, some scholars then argue for a text-linguistic or pragmatic approach to translation, whereby the whole text is seen as the unit of meaning and translation, as against the lexicon and grammar which was the focus of linguistic approaches. Katharina Reiss’s (1971/2004) text-typology is seminal in this respect, being about the first to introduce into TS a ‘consideration of the communicative purpose of translation’ (Munday 2008: 74). According to Reiss, the communicative function of a text in its source culture determines its function in the target culture and how it will be translated. She classifies text-type into informative (communicates content), expressive (communicates artistically organised content) and operative (communicates content with a persuasive character) (Reiss 1971/2004: 171). In her view, a text that is adjudged ‘informative’ should be translated in such a way that the same content in the source text is transferred into the target text; an expressive text should retain the ‘artistic and creative’ features of the source text in the target text; while an operative source text should inform a target text with a similar or analogous effect on the target audience. In situations where a text exhibits features of more than one text-type, the translator should concern themselves with foregrounding the overriding text-type and back-grounding the rest if the need so arises. Reiss does a lot to stress the importance of text-variety or genre in translation studies. She observes that genre conventions are culture specific and the translator should consider the distinctions in genre conventions across culture ‘so as not to endanger the functional equivalence of the TL text by naively adopting SL conventions’ (1971/2004: 173). Neubert (1985) and its sequel co-authored with Gregory Shreve (1992) have done a lot to emphasise the importance of genre analysis in translation studies. In the preface to Translation as Text, they observe the decline in influence of linguistics in translation studies and the movement towards interdisciplinarity:

Translation studies has abandoned its single-minded concern with strictly linguistic issues. It has been invigorated by new ideas from other disciplines. Translation scholars no longer hesitate to adopt new ideas from information science, cognitive science, and psychology. (Neubert and Shreve 1992: vii)

Scholars that favour this approach focus a lot on setting up prototypes of genres, or as Corbett (2009: 291) puts it, these scholars ‘focused on the descriptions of highly predictable, ritual, transactional texts, many of which seem banal in nature’ like Swales (1990) on reprint requests and Eggins (1994) on recipes. Thus scholars tried to identify parallel texts across languages and cultures by doing a systematic comparison of genre exemplars in both the source culture and the target culture (Schaeffner 2001: 11). Schaeffner also notes elsewhere that ‘[g[enre conventions are determined by culture and, thus, prone to constant change’ (2000: 222). This enables the translator to adapt the text to the conventions of the receptor or target culture. Thus scholars operating within a text-linguistic approach to translation believe that a translation goes beyond language to cultural considerations.


The second half of the 20th century witnessed some paradigm shift in translation studies, especially with the publication in German of Katharina Reiss and Hans Vermeer’s Foundation for a General Theory of Translation and Justa Holz-Manttari’s Translatorial Action: Theory and Method, both in 1984. These set the pace for what is later known as functionalist approaches to translation, approaches that see translation as ‘a communicative action carried out by an expert in intercultural communication (the translator), playing the role of a text producer and aiming at some communicative purpose’ (Nord 2001: 151). Functionalist approaches generally believe that the function of a text in the target culture determines the method of translation. They are said to have developed in opposition to the equivalence paradigm of the linguistic-based approaches which see the source text as what determines the nature of the target text. Using the communication scheme of SOURCE-PATH-GOAL, they accentuate the importance of the target text as the goal of the translational process. One of the major proponents, Vermeer (1987: 29) declares that linguistics alone is not effective because translation itself is not merely nor primarily a linguistic process, and that linguistics ‘has not yet formulated the right questions to tackle our problems’ (cited in Nord 1997: 10). Quite a good number of translation scholars subscribe to functionalism like Vermeer (1978, 1989, 1996; Reiss and Vermeer 1984, 1991; Nord 1997, 2005; Holz-Manttari 1984, 1993; Honig 1997; Honig and Kussmaul 1982, 1996; among many others. Following are some of the major strands of functionalism.


The most popular among the functionalist approaches, skopos theory was developed in Germany by Hans Vermeer in 1978 in dissatisfaction with the linguistic-based approaches to translation. He sees translation as an action governed by a skopos from Greek meaning purpose or aim. This purpose now determines how the translation is done. Vermeer argues that the source text is produced for a situation in the source culture which may not be the same in the target culture. It then follows that the translation should be produced to suit the purpose for which it is needed in the target culture: ‘the source text is oriented towards, and is in any case bound to, the source culture. The target text…is oriented towards the target culture, and it is this which ultimately defines its adequacy’ (Vermeer 1989/2004: 229). Reiss and Vermeer jointly published Translatorial Action: Theory and Method in 1984 to give what has been described as the general translation theory, ‘sufficiently general…, and sufficiently complex, to cover a multitude of individual cases’ (Schaeffner 1998: 236). They see a text as an offer of information and translation as an offer of information existing in a particular language and culture to members of another culture in their language. They hold that the needs of the target text receivers determine the specification of the skopos and the selection made from information offered in the source text (Schaeffner 1998: 236). Thus translation goes beyond linguistic considerations to also encompass cultural issues.

The question then arises: Who determines the skopos? According to Vermeer (1989/2004: 236), the skopos is ‘defined by the commission and if necessary adjusted by the translator’. Nord (1997:30) adds that the skopos is embedded in the translation brief, which means that the person initiating the translation invariably decides what the skopos is. She agrees with Vermeer that the skopos is often negotiated between the client and the translator.

The skopos of a text in the source culture might be the same as the skopos of the translation in the target culture, but that is just one of the different purposes for which a text might be needed in a different culture as the purpose in the target culture might be different. Reiss and Vermeer (1984) call the situation where the source text function is the same as the target text function functional constancy, while for the other situation where both texts have different functions they say the text has undergone a change of function.

Vermeer also gives two further rules: coherence rule and fidelity rule. Coherence rule stipulates that the target text must be sufficiently coherent for the target audience to understand given their assumed background knowledge and situational circumstances while the fidelity rule focuses on the intertextual relationship between the source text and the target text (Schaeffner 1998: 236). The nature of this intertextual coherence between the source text and target is however determined by the skopos.

The theory of translatorial action

This theory, proposed by Holz-Manttari, draws a lot from action theory and communication theory. An action is generally seen as doing something intentionally, and communication basically means transferring information from one entity to another. Holz-Mantarri’s theory then sees translation as transferring information embedded in one culture to receivers in another culture, and the translator is the expert saddled with the responsibility of this information transfer. Using concepts from communication theory, Holz-Mantarri identifies the players in the translatorial process: the initiator, the person in need of the translation; the commissioner, the person that contacts the translator; the source text producer or author; the target text producer, the translator or translation agency; the target text user, teachers for example; and the target text recipient, for example students in a target user’s class. She does a lot to emphasise the role played by these participants in the translational process.

The need for a translation arises in situations where there is information in a particular culture that members of another culture do not have access to as a result of the cultural differences among the communities, or as Nord (1997: 17) puts it,

situations where differences in verbal and non-verbal behaviour, expectations, knowledge and perspectives are such that there is not enough common ground for the sender and receiver to communicate effectively by themselves.

Translation then is a process of intercultural communication aimed at producing a text ‘capable of functioning appropriately in specific situations and contexts of use’ (Schaeffner 1998: 3). And since the focus is on producing functionally adequate texts, the target text should then conform to the genre conventions of the target culture. This makes the translator the expert in translatorial action, who determines what is suitable for the translatorial text operation and ensures the information is transmitted satisfactorily.

One interesting aspect of this theory is the introduction of new terminologies into the literature. For example, instead of text, Holz-Mantarri prefers Botschaftstrager, message carrier, a concept that broadens the traditional concept of text to include non-verbal aspects of communication thereby ‘doing justice to the complexity of communicative processes’ (Martin de Leon 2008: 7). Other changes include Botschaftstragerproduktion for text production and translatorisches Handeln for translate or translation.

The principle of the necessary degree of precision

This principle was developed by Honig and Kusmaul to provide a more detailed account of translation relevant decision-making processes as against the ‘framework’ theory’ of translation (Honig 1997: 10). One of the outcomes of functionalist approaches is that the translator can give more information in the translation if the skopos requires that. An instance is making clear in a target text what is not so clear in the source text. However, it is not clear to what extent the translator can exercise this liberty. To this end, the principle stipulates that ‘what is necessary depends on the function of the translation’ (Honig 1997: 10). Honig illustrates this in this rather long quote:

the term ‘public school’ implies such a large amount of culture-specific knowledge that it is impossible to render its meaning ‘completely’ in a translation. Within a functionalist approach, however, the function of a word in its specific context determines to what degree the cultural meaning should be made explicit. In a sentence such as (my emphasis):

(2a) In Parliament he fought for equality, but he sent his son to Eton.

the translation will have to be different from translating the identical term ‘Eton’ in the sentence:

(3a) When his father died his mother could not afford to sent him to Eton any more.

The following translations would be sufficiently detailed:

(2b) Im Parlament kampfte er fur Chancengleichheit, aber seinen eigenen Sohn schickte er auf eine der englischen Eliteschulen. (one of the English elite schools)

(3b) Als sein Vater starb, konnte seine Mutter es sich nicht mehr leisten, ihn auf eine der teuren Privatschulen zu schicken (one of the expensive private schools).

Of course, there is more factual knowledge implied in the terms ‘Eton’ or ‘public school’ than expressed in the translation, but the translation mentions everything that is important within the context of the sentence, in other words, the translation is semantically precise enough. (1997: 11)

Here the translator does not aim at an exact or perfect target text, but a text that is sufficiently good enough for the situation. The translator provides as much (or less) information as the readers need as determined by the skopos.

Christiane Nord

Christiane Nord is one of the major proponents of functionalism. She agrees with Vermeer that the situation under which a target text is produced is different from that of the source text in terms of time, place (except for simultaneous interpreting), and sometimes medium. Thus the meaning of a text is found beyond the linguistic code, in the extratextual situation. In fact, she even stresses that meaning interpretation depends a lot on the personal experience of the text user:

A text is made meaningful by its receiver for its receiver. Different receivers (or even the same receiver at different times) find different meanings in the same linguistic material offered by the text. We might even say that a ‘text’ is as many texts as there are receivers of it. (2001: 152)

Nord however has some reservations for the unrestricted freedom Reiss and Vermeer, and Holz-Manttari have given the translator to produce a target text of whatever form so long as it conforms to the skopos as directed by the client. To check this, she introduces the concept of loyalty which she defines as the responsibility translators have towards their partners:

translators, in their role as mediators between two cultures, have a special responsibility with regard to their partners, i.e. the source text author, the client or commissioner of the translation, and the target text receivers, and towards themselves, precisely in those cases where there are differing views as to what a ‘good’ translation is or should be. (Nord 2006: 33).

Nord thus contends that the skopos is not the only determining factor in translation, that loyalty is necessary. Loyalty commits the translator bilaterally to the source text and target text situations: not to falsify the source text author’s intentions (Nord 2005:32) and fulfilling the expectations of the target audience or explaining in a footnote or preface how they arrived at a particular meaning. Loyalty is different from fidelity or equivalence in that the latter refer to the linguistic or stylistic similarity between the source and the target texts, regardless of the communicative intentions involved while the former refers to an interpersonal relationship between the translator and their partners (2001: 185).

Christiane Nord also elaborates on the possible range of functions a target text may have, different from that or those of the source text. She first distinguishes between documentary translation and instrumental translation. Documentary translation is such that ‘aims at producing in the target language a kind of document of (certain aspects of) a communicative interaction in which a source-culture sender communicates with a source-culture audience via the source text under source-culture conditions’ (1997: 138); instrumental translation, on the other hand, aims at producing in the target language an instrument for a new communicative interaction between the source-culture sender and the target-culture audience. A documentary translation usually results in a target text with a meta-textual function or ‘secondary level’ function according to House (1977). An instrumental translation may have the same range of functions as the source text, whereby it is said to be equifunctional; but if there are differences in the functions of both texts, the case is said to be heterofunctional. Nord also talks about homologous translation, also called ‘creative transposition’ (Bassnet 2002: 24), where the target text represent the same degree of originality as the original in relation to the respective culture-specific corpora of texts.

One other seminal input of Nord’s into functionalism is her call for an elaborate analysis of the source text before translation proper. Unlike Vermeer and Holz-Manttari who almost make the source text so invisible, Nord rather gives some attention to it since it is the provider of the offer of information that forms the basis for the offer of information formulated in the target text. She argues that the pre-translation analysis of the source text helps in deciding on whether the translation project is feasible in the first place, which source text units are relevant to a functional translation, and which strategy will best produce a target text that meets the requirements of the brief (Nord 1997: 62). Nord goes further to identify and categorise the kind of problems a translator might encounter – pragmatic, convention-related, interlingual and text-specific – and also steps to follow in the translational process. Schaeffner (2001) has done a critical review of Nord’s postulations (and indeed other functionalist approaches) and their applicability in practical translation.


Expectedly, functionalist approaches have received a lot of criticism, especially from scholars of the linguistic-based approaches, one of which is the definition of translation. Critics of skopos theory argue that not all target texts based on a source text can be called translations, that skopos theory makes no distinction between a real translation and adaptation or what Koller (1995) calls nontranslation. They argue that the supposed dethronement of the source text and focus on the target text (Newmark 1991; Schreitmuller 1994) subverts the intrinsic meaning of the translation. Pym (1997) argues in this light and supports Koller (1995) in upholding equivalence and calling on functionalists to distinguish between translation and nontranslation. However, functionalists view translation from a broader perspective, as ‘any translational action where a source text is transferred into a target culture and language’ Nord 1997: 141). They see the linguistic-based definition as being restrictive and in need of expansion.

Linked to this is the supposed dethronement of the source text and emphasis on the skopos as the determining factor of how the translation is done. It is then argued that functionalism gives translators the freedom to produce any kind of target text and call it a translation. Pym (1991), for instance, accuses functionalists of producing ‘mercenary experts able to fight under the flag of any purpose able to pay them’ (1991: 2). Nord responds to this by introducing the concept of loyalty, which restricts the liberty of the translator as they are now expected to be loyal to the source text author as well as other partners in the translational process. She also insists on an elaborate source text analysis before translation for a better understanding of both the source text and source culture which will then engender some high level coherence between the source text and the target text.

One other controversy surrounding functionalism is the myriad of terminologies introduced and used differently, especially those by Holz-Manttarri. Indeed many of these criticisms still go on to this day. However, despite the various controversies surrounding the development and thrust of functionalist approaches, their contributions to the study of translation are remarkable.


One major contribution of this approach is that, according to Nord (1997: 29), it addresses the ‘eternal dilemmas of free vs faithful translations, dynamic vs formal equivalence, good interpreters vs slavish translators, and so on’. Thus a translation may be free of faithful or ‘anything between these two extremes’ depending on its skopos or the purpose for which it is needed. The translator no longer has to always go back to the source text to solve translational problems, rather they base their translation on the function of the text in the target culture.

Functionalist approaches liberate translation from theories that impose linguistic rules upon every decision (Pym 2010: 56). They recognise that the translation process involves more than languages involved and requires the consideration of these extra-textual and extra-linguistic factors for its actualisation. Thus they introduce the cultural dimension to translation studies and break the unnecessary recourse to the ‘authority’ of the source text. While linguistics-based approaches may be said to be retrospective in that they look back at the source text as the model for the target text, functionalist approaches are seen as prospective in that they look forward to the function of the text in the target culture as the major determining factor for how the translation will be done. A retrospective translation operates a bottom-up process, works from source language elements and transfers the text sentence by sentence, or phrase by phrase. But a prospective translation operates a top-down process, starting on the pragmatic level by deciding on the intended function of the translation and asking for specific text-typological conventions, and for addressees’ background knowledge and their communicative needs ( Ouyang 2009: 104).

Functionalist approaches are flexible and general enough to account for a wide range of translational situations. Talking about the theory of skopos theory for example, Schaeffner (2001: 15) observes that ‘[t]his theory is presented as being sufficiently general to cover a multitude of individual cases, i.e. to be independent of individual languages, cultures, subject domains, text types and genres’. Interestingly, the consideration of extra-textual factors in the translational process accentuates the multidisciplinary nature of translation studies. The introduction of text-typology and considerations of genre-conventions introduces elements of pragmatics, text-linguistics and culture studies into the discourse. So also is the belief that a text does not have a stable intrinsic meaning, but that meaning is affected by the subjective translator as well as by the cultural, historical, ideological and historical circumstances surrounding the production of the text (Schaeffner 2001: 12).

Tied to the quality of flexibility mentioned above is functionalism’s apparent accommodation of the shortcomings of some other translation theories. For example, Baker (2007) criticises the polysystem theory (Even-Zohar 1990) and Toury’s (1995) theory of norms for encouraging analysts to focus on repeated, abstract, systematic behaviour and privileging strong patterns of socialization into that behaviour and for glossing over the numerous individual and group attempts at undermining dominant patterns and prevailing political and social dogma (Baker 2007: 152). She also expressed some dissatisfaction with Venuti’s dichotomies of foreignizing and domesticating strategies (Venuti 1993, 1995), also called minoritizing and majoritizing strategies (Venuti 1998), for, inter alia, reducing ‘the intricate means by which a translator negotiates his or her way around various aspects of a text into a more-or-less straightforward choice of foreignizing versus domesticating strategy’ (Baker 2007: 152). However, these criticisms have been adequately taken care of by functionalist approaches whose methodology would not be seen as been that straitjacketed, with no room for flexibility. By their very nature, functionalist approaches bridge the gap between mere theorising and the practice of translation, as they suggest practical ways of going about translational problems.

Before the advent of functionalist approaches, the translator is rarely noticed. Emphasis was on the source text and its supposed equivalent, the target text. No attention is paid to the identity or status of the translator in the translational process. On the one hand, the translator is seen as not being original, as merely performing a ‘technical stunt’ (Honig 1985: 13) of transferring an original author’s ideas into a different language. On the other hand, the translator’s identity is hidden when they produce texts that sound so fluent in the target culture as it they wer


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