Translating Publicity Texts in the Light of the Skopos Theory: Problems and Suggestions
The present paper aims to explore the activity of translating Chinese publicity texts into English within the framework of the skopos theory, with special reference to Shaoxing mingshi culture-related texts. First, the basic principles of the skopos theory are outlined, followed by a discussion of their application in translating publicity texts. An attempt is then made to analyze four types of translation errors prevalent in English translations of publicity texts by drawing on Nord's functional model. The paper concludes with some suggestions to solve the problems.
As an effective promotion tool, publicity refers to "news or information about a product, service, or idea that is published on behalf of a sponsor but is not paid for by the sponsor" (Stanley 1982:245). It is also conveniently interpreted, from a marketing perspective, as the deliberate attempt to manage the public's perception of a subject, which includes people (e.g. politicians and performing artists), goods and services, organizations of all kinds, and works of art or entertainment1. Since publicity texts serve a function or purpose quite different from that of literary texts, they are often defined as "pragmatic" or "non-literary" texts (Reiss 1989:106). The past two decades have seen a dramatic increase in market demand for non-literary translation worldwide, which has led to intense research activities in the field.
2.1 A brief outline of the skopos theory
The skopos theory was developed in Germany in the late 1970s. Since it reflects a general shift from linguistic and formal translation theories to a more functionally and socio-culturally oriented concept of translation, it has become "a welcome addition to translation studies" (Gentzler 2001:71). Initially formulated by Reiss in the 1970s, the theory was enunciated by Vermeer in the 1980s, and was further developed in the 1990s by Nord, one of its most important second-generation scholars. The basic principles of the skopos theory are summarized as follows:
Any form of translational action, including translation itself, may be conceived as a "purposeful activity" (Nord 1997:12). The action should observe the "skopos rule," which postulates that the form of a target text (TT), including translation strategies and methods adopted, should above all be determined by the purpose or skopos that the TT is intended to fulfill in the target context; that is, "the end justifies the means" (Reiss and Vermeer 1984:101). Every translation presupposes a commission and is carried out according to a skopos or commission, which is largely determined by the commissioner or client--a person, a group, or an institution. The skopos of the TT and the mode in which it is to be realized are negotiated between the commissioner and the translator. The translator as the "expert" in translational action is responsible for the final translation (Vermeer 2000:221-230). Translation is the production of a functionally appropriate TT based on a source text (ST). While the translator is entitled to decide what role an ST plays in the translation process, the decisive factor is the precisely specified skopos. The ST is only one constituent of the commission and an "offer of information."
2.2 The application of the skopos theory in translating publicity texts
In 1984, Reiss and Vermeer co-authored Grundlegung einer allgemeinen Translationstheorie ("Groundwork for a General Theory of Translation"), in which they aimed to formulate a general translation theory. However, as argued by Schäffner (1998:238) and Snell-Hornby (1990:84), what purports to be a "general" theory is in fact only valid for non-literary texts. This is because literary texts are considered either to have no specific purpose or to be far more complex functionally and stylistically2. In this section, we will look at how well the skopos theory applies to the translation of publicity texts.
Reiss (1989) links the three language functions proposed by Bühler in 1934 to text types and suggests specific translation methods according to the text type. In Reiss's text typology, publicity texts, which include brochures, product descriptions, news releases and articles, official documents, tourist writings, etc, fall into the category of "pragmatic" or "non-literary" texts. This is because, unlike typical literary texts such as poems, plays, and novels which are predominantly expressive, "pragmatic" texts perform chiefly the informative function; of course some of these texts may also fulfill the operative function by attempting to appeal to or persuade their readers to act in a certain way. Reiss (2000) accordingly suggests that the TT of a pragmatic text should transmit the full conceptual content of the ST and produce the intended response in the target audience, as well. One weakness of Reiss's text type approach, however, is that the translation method employed depends more heavily on socio-cultural pressures or constraints which are aptly incorporated in the skopos theory.
First, the skopos theory specifies the decisive factors in the translation process. As discussed above, the skopos/purpose of TT determines translation strategies and methods, but "one of the most important factors determining the purpose of a translation is the addressee" (Nord 1997:12). It follows that only when the target readers are defined can we specify the skopos of the TT, which in turn determines translation strategies and methods. Take, as an example, the University of Heidelberg's 600th anniversary brochure (see Nord 1997:60-62). The TT of the brochure is targeted at visitors to Heidelberg and other people interested in the university and academic life, hence the TT's skopos is to provide information about university events (informative) and promote its international image and reputation (operative). Given the specified target addressees and skopos of the TT, the translator can employ translation strategies freely insofar as the information on the anniversary events is fully transmitted in the TT.
Second, the skopos theory recognizes the importance of translation commission and the crucial role played by the commissioner/client. "Every translation presupposes a commission" which is largely determined by the client; and the commission "should explicitly or implicitly contain a statement of skopos in order to be carried out at all" (Vermeer 2000:228). Accordingly, the Heidelberg brochure can not or will not be translated unless the client gives a commission that specifies the skopos of the translation and the relevant conditions for performing the task (including deadline and fee).
Lastly, the theory calls for redefining the relationship between ST and TT. Since a publicity text is "content-focused" rather than "form-focused" (Reiss 2000), the translator should transmit the ST's conceptual content and does not have to preserve the ST's linguistic form or original style insofar as the TT fulfills its intended skopos or function. That is, the ST-TT relationship is specified by the skopos of the translation. On the other hand, a source text is usually written originally for a source-culture situation, and in most cases its author lacks the necessary knowledge of the target culture and its texts (Vermeer 2000:222). Consequently, the content, form or skopos of the ST may not suit the target context and the target addressees with their culture-specific world knowledge, expectations and communicative needs (Nord 1997:12). Where the TT's skopos disagrees with that of the ST, the translator should not stick to the ST; rather he/she should produce a functionally appropriate TT based on the ST.
3.1 Mingshi culture-related texts and translation brief
In this section common translation errors in English translations of Chinese publicity texts will be examined and the underlying causes analyzed from a functionalist perspective3. The error analysis is based on Nord's functional classification of translation errors, with examples taken from the English translations of Shaoxing mingshi culture-related texts. Both the Chinese texts and their English translations are available on the Internet4. These texts mainly provide information about mingshi 名士 [illustrious personages] in Shaoxing, a historic city and cultural showcase in the eastern coastal province of Zhejiang Province, China. They are conceived as typical publicity texts because, from a marketing perspective, the client attempts to use the subject (i.e. mingshi) as a product or brand for purposes of publicity. Since every translation presupposes a commission, we need to specify the commission involving the translation of these texts before any translation errors can be examined.
According to Nord (1997:59-62), "translation brief" (which refers almost to the same thing as "commission") should contain information about the intended text function, the target audience, the medium for text transmission, etc. The translation brief concerned can be formalized as follows:
This translation brief allows us to establish the following general requirements for the TT: (1) Since most of the target audience presumably lacks source culture-specific knowledge, i.e. knowledge about Chinese history and Shaoxing's local culture, the translator should provide relevant background knowledge in the TT; (2) Information about the subject should have priority over other information in the TT, i.e. less important information can be edited and irrelevant or redundant information can be condensed or deleted; and (3) The circulation of the text on the Internet requires that it should be as easy to read and concise as possible since few web surfers will bother to read a lengthy and dense text.
3.2 Translation errors and underlying causes
Nord (1997:73-75) defines "translation error" in terms of the purpose of the translation process and product: "a failure to carry out the instructions implied in the translation brief"; or more specifically, "If the purpose of a translation is to achieve a particular function for the target addressee, anything that obstructs the achievement of this purpose is a translation error." This broad definition is then followed by a functional model of translation errors which are classified into four categories (Nord 1997:75-78). Nord's model, which applies particularly to non-literary translation, is a challenge to the traditional criterion for evaluating mistakes in literary translations, i.e. anything in the TT that is not "faithful" to the ST is deemed as a translation mistake; Wilss (1982:201), for example, describes a translation error as "an offence against a norm in a linguistic contact situation." Obviously, a functionalist perspective allows us to identify many translation errors which would not be considered as such according to the traditional approach. In the following we will analyze four types of translation errors based on this model and the translation brief specified above, with the underlying causes discussed.
3.2.1 Pragmatic translation errors
Pragmatic translation errors are caused by "inadequate solutions to pragmatic translation problems such as a lack of receiver orientation." The consequences of such errors are serious because target audiences tend not to realize that they are getting irrelevant or insignificant information. However, it is not very difficult to solve pragmatic translation problems "once they have been identified as problems." Normally they can be identified only by a competent person comparing the ST with its TTs in the light of the translation brief (Nord 1997:75-76).
Pragmatic translation errors often crop up in the following two situations:
(a) Where insignificant, redundant or irrelevant information in the ST is not condensed or removed. For example:
TT: Throughout history, Shaoxing has been the home of great talents, having turned out a great number of statesmen, thinkers, men of letters, artists and scientists. The early ones include Gou Jian, Wang Chong, Wang Xizhi, Lu You, Xu Wei and so on, and the more recent ones include Qiu Jin, Cai Yuanpei, Lu Xun, Ma Yinchu, Zhu Kezhen and many others. The multitude of her talents is rare throughout China's history.
Seeing a string of Chinese names in here, the target readers cannot miss the message that Shaoxing is home to a multitude of mingshi 名士, so the underlined sentence beginning with rencai 人才 can be cut out in the translation if economy of language is to be achieved. Moreover, there is no need to specify yuanzhe 遠者 [the earlier ones] and jinzhe近者 [the more recent ones] since they make little difference to the target audience, which knows little about Chinese history. Finally, great talents 人才is redundant information as it is represented by more specific terms such as statesmen 政治家, thinkers 思想家, etc. A functionally appropriate TT free of pragmatic translation errors would be like this:
Throughout the ages Shaoxing has turned out many a statesman, thinker, writer, artist and scientist. Among the most famous are Gou Jian, Wang Chong, Wang Xizhi, Lu You, Xu Wei, Qiu Jin, Cai Yuanpei, Lu Xun, Ma Yinchu, and Zhu Kezhen.
(b) Where significant, relevant or potentially important but implied information in the ST is condensed or removed as shown in the following example:
TT: "Wine Cups Floating Along the Stream" in Orchid Pavilion with long bamboos. Ponds and terrace in Sheng Garden, where Lu You mournfully chanted the poem "Chai Tou Feng." The Green Vine Study of Xu Wei. Hundred Grass Garden of Luxun. Everywhere one may enjoy oneself very much, dazzled and fascinated.
The underlined sentence in the above example (esp. jiji duo shi 濟濟多士 and chengjiu 成就 and zongji 蹤跡 they left behind) is potentially communicative to target readers because it gives essential information about the subjects. This important message, however, is erased in the TT for no justified reason. Also cut out is cultural information about Jiezhu si 戒珠寺, Tishan qiao 題扇橋 and Lanting xiuxi 蘭亭修禊, all of which introduces the readers to Wang Xizhi. Furthermore, since the subjects referred to here--Wang Xizhi, Lu You, Xu Wei and Lu Xun--are assumed to be strange to the target readers, the translator should include relevant background information in the translation so as to bridge the "information gap" for the target readers5.
The obvious reason for these pragmatic errors is that the translators fail to distinguish ST audiences from TT audiences with their different culture-specific world knowledge, expectations and communicative needs. Nord (1991b:52) rightly maintains that the importance of the audience is frequently neglected in translation practice and that "the adaptation of precisely these elements is of particular importance."
3.2.2 Cultural translation errors
Cultural translation errors are related to the question of whether or not source-culture conventions should be adapted to target-culture standards (Nord 1997:77). Since the skopos theory is basically a "target text-oriented paradigm" (Toury 1995:25) and "'adaptation' of the source text to target-culture standards is a procedure that is part of the daily routine of every professional translator" (Nord 1991b:28), such errors usually refer to the cases where the TT conflicts with the target-culture customs and conventions. As a result, the target readers might find the transmitted message incomprehensible or unacceptable, which prevents the TT from achieving its intended skopos and function.
TT: Shaoxing is one of China's first authorized historical and cultural cities and excellent tourist cities. It is also a national model city in terms of environmental protection, a national sanitary city, a national garden-like city, and a national city advanced in the building of cultural and ideological progress. Its historical culture, landscapes and light textile industry are known far and near.
In the above example, the underlined parts are packed with high-sounding formulaic expressions. Natural and sometimes even "pleasing" as they may sound to the Chinese ear, these Chinese culture-specific clichés, if rendered literally, can be perceived as farcical and pretentious by the target audiences steeped in a vastly disparate cultural context (see Ding, 2002:46). The translator's failure to adapt these high-sounding phrases to the target-culture customs causes the following cultural translation errors: (1) the "faithful" translation of the formulaic language creates a strong sense of monotony and pretentiousness, and an English audience might find it repulsive; (2) the added word "authorized" will render target readers perplexed as the concept "被批准為" (approved, sanctioned, or authorized) reflects the contemporary Chinese institutional culture; (3) the collocation a national ... city (國家...城市) appears outlandish to target addressees as this strictly literal rendering does not conform to standard English usage6; (4) the gerundial phrase building of cultural and ideological progress (創建文明) makes virtually no sense to native speakers of English.
It is interesting to note that publicity texts written originally in English can produce better effects by employing plain language and specific instances. They serve as good examples for translators of publicity texts to follow. Below is the opening paragraph of an Internet release about Lancaster:
Lancaster, as a historic city, offers much in the way of cultural entertainment and is often referred to as the 'Cultural Capital' of Lancashire. The city is fortunate to have retained many fine examples of Georgian architecture. Lancaster Castle, The Priory Church of St. Mary and the Edwardian Ashton Memorial are among many sites of historical importance. (Wikipedia)
Cultural translation errors are due to the translator's "inadequate decision with regard to reproduction or adaptation of culture-specific conventions" (Nord 1997:75). This "inadequate decision" is often attributable to fact that the translator ignores the culture-specific knowledge, needs and expectations of the target audience, which in turn results from an insufficient awareness of the TT's function or skopos.
3.2.3 Linguistic translation errors
Linguistic translation errors are caused by "an inadequate translation when the focus is on language structures" (Nord 1997:75). They represent deviations from standard target-language paradigms and usages. Since errors of this category are legion in English translations of Chinese publicity texts, it might be useful to distinguish "elementary" translation errors from "higher-level" ones. The former refer to glaring mistakes in terms of spelling, punctuation marks, choice of words, word order, etc. and the latter to complex ones involving sentence structure, logic, tense, and voice. The following instance suffices to show what "elementary" errors are and how rampant they are:
TT: The Orchid Pavilion Calligraphy Festival is a alligraphy activity for memorizing the "Orchid Pavilion Preface" of calligrapher Wang Xizhi in those years. The activities mainly include calling on sadu, Zigzaging Water Flowing With Cups Of Wine, alligraphy show and so on.
The above rendering is plagued by the following "elementary" translation errors: (1) misspellings: Zigzaging (zigzagging), alligraphy (calligraphy); (2) improper use of words or phrases: activity (event), memorizing (commemorating), of calligrapher (by calligrapher), in those years (in the Eastern Jin period [317-420]); (3) unnecessary words: mainly, and so on; (4) incomprehensible expression: calling on sadu (jinsheng 晉聖? [pay homage to the Sage of Calligraphy]); (5) improper word order: calligrapher Wang Xizhi (Wang Xizhi, the Sage of Calligraphy who lived in the Eastern Jin period), Zigzaging Water Flowing With Cups Of Wine (drinking in succession from a cup floating down the curving stream); and (6) the removed xiuxi 修禊 (celebrate the Water Festival to wash away the evil spirits).
The following example, which contains a "higher-level" translation error, can be even more disturbing to target readers:
TT: Among the 40 Chinese celebrities erected as statues below the China Century Monument in Beijing, four came from Shaoxing and they are Wang Xizhi, Cai Yuanpei, Lu Xun and Ma Yinchu.
Obviously, the worst problem with the above translation is the logical error in the underlined participial phrase celebrities erected as statues. Judging by logic and common sense, the verb erect should take statues rather than celebrities as its object. However, the English sentence structure conveys the message unmistakably that these historic figures are erected as statues at the Beijing-based China Century Monument! This must be appalling to the target audience.
Linguistic translation errors are in most cases "due to deficiencies in the translator's source- or target-language competence" (Nord 1997:77). However, such errors may also be made by translators who are linguistically competent but show low ethical standards7. Nord (1997:78) argues that for students with poor language abilities translating becomes "an instrument for foreign-language learning, with the focus on linguistic correctness rather than communicative or functional appropriateness"; therefore, it is important that a person should have attained adequate language proficiency before embarking on a translator's career.
3.2.4 Text-specific translation errors
Text-specific translation errors arise from text-specific translation problems and can usually be evaluated from a functional or pragmatic perspective (Nord 1997:76). As discussed above, a publicity text differs from the other text types because its function is primarily informative. Therefore, the intended informative function should be achieved and given priority over the other functions in the translation. Otherwise, it will not be evaluated as a "good" translation for not being "functional" or "adequate to the purpose" (Nord 1997:73), hence a text-specific translation error.
TT1：No wonder late Chairman Mao Zedong, in one of his poems, praised Shaoxing as hometown to celebrities.
TT2：For this, the late chairman Mao Zedong praised Shaoxing with the following words: "Jian Lake and the Terrace of Yue State, home of celebrities."
It can be argued that TT2 is much better than TT1 because the formal features of the original verse are retained in TT2. However, so far as the achievement of the intended purpose is concerned, TT1 is reasonably good (except for poor diction: hometown should be home, celebrities should be illustrious personages) while TT2 has a text-specific translation error. Here Mao Zedong employs metonymy by which Jianhu and yuetai 鑒湖越台 is substituted for Shaoxing. So the place name Shaoxing as used in TT1 is adequate enough to serve the purpose. The producer of TT2, however, ignores the skopos/function of the translation and gives a "faithful" reproduction of the original verse, without evaluating the formidable barriers Jian Lake 鑒湖 and Terrace of Yue State 越台 as source culture-specific items may constitute to the target readers.
To sum up, four types of translation errors can be identified in English translations of mingshi culture-related texts. Generally speaking, the underlying cause for pragmatic, cultural and text-specific translation errors is that the translator is not fully aware of the TT's skopos and/or the target readers and thus fails to produce a functionally appropriate translation. In many cases, however, the commissioner who does not specify the translation brief should be blamed for the translator's failure to produce such a translation. As for linguistic translation errors, the blame certainly lies with the translators who need to improve their bilingual abilities and ethical standards. Yet it can still be argued that their clients should be held at least partly responsible: they found the wrong person and did not get an expert to proofread and revise the translation.
Traditional translation theory tends to maintain that the translator should take sole responsibility for any translation mistakes. The skopos theory, however, suggests that this traditional view on translation mistakes does the translator an injustice and that the problem of translation errors and its solutions should be explored by considering all parties concerned. That is, apart from the translator, the commissioner and even the general public should also contribute to better translation quality. Below are three possible approaches to the existing problems haunting China's translation community:
Promote the general public's understanding of translational action. Whilst in today's China translating has become part of our daily life, the general public--including individuals, groups and institutions using translations--does not know much about translation and the translator's job and often cannot distinguish good translations from bad ones (see Wang 1994:55; Liu 1998:46-47). Consequently, the translator is often "invisible" to the public, and excellent translators tend to be mistreated (e.g. underpaid) while poor translators are not penalized. To address this problem, a translation awareness-building program should be launched nationwide. The program will help people better understand translatorial action and better evaluate translations. This will create a favorable macro-environment contributing to the improvement of translation quality.
Foster a strong sense of cooperation in the translation clients. The skopos theory posits that the client should work closely with the translator by specifying the translation brief, defining the skopos of TT, and providing relevant materials. However, many clients know little about the nature of translational action and are not fully aware of the importance of working closely with the translator (see Zhang 1995:37-38; Ding 2002:46)8. This can affect the way the translator determines translation strategies, which in turn could give rise to translation errors. A strong sense of cooperation is even more important in cases where the client defines the skopos wrongly or improperly. In such cases, the translator, if consulted by the willing client, should make argumentative suggestions (Vermeer 2000:229). To promote communication and cooperation between clients and translators, one important move is to organize "commissioner and translator" workshops. Translation Studies scholars and veteran translators will be invited to give theme talks or keynote presentations which are to be attended by translators, clients and the general public interested in such events. A more convenient way of making clients into competent commissioners is that professional bodies like the Translators' Association of China issue circulars and newsletters to potential clients. Such printed matter will be specially designed to prepare clients for commissioning translation tasks.
Enhance translators' awareness of skopos, bilingual abilities and ethical standards. The skopos theory recognizes the translator as both the expert and the TT's ultimate producer directly responsible for the final product (Vermeer, 2000:231). As analyzed above, pragmatic, cultural and text-specific translation errors are often due to translators' poor awareness of the TT's skopos and its target readers, whereas linguistic ones are generally attributable to the translator's inadequate linguistic abilities and/or low ethical standards. Given the various translation errors they have made, many translators are not worthy of the title "expert" and should in fact be placed on a probationary period. To raise the overall quality of practitioners and turn out high-caliber translators, it is suggested that a National Accreditation Authority for Translators should be established in China, in imitation of the Australian government's NAATI--National Accreditation Authority for Translators and Interpreters. This government agency aims to establish and maintain translation standards throughout the country. Apart from accreditation of translators, it can run various workshops for candidates wishing to obtain accreditation and provide tailor-made training programs for practicing translators. Such programs will be specially designed to enhance translators' awareness of skopos, bilingual abilities and ethical standards.
This paper has attempted to elaborate on the following points: the skopos theory lends itself particularly well to translating non-literary texts; publicity texts perform primarily an informative function with a secondary operative function; pragmatic, cultural and text-specific translation errors are often due to the translators' poor awareness of the TT's skopos and its target readers, whereas linguistic ones are generally attributable to the translator's inadequate linguistic abilities and/or low ethical standards; in many cases the client or commissioner should be held partly responsible for translation errors; three approaches, which involve the general public, the commissioner, and the translator respectively, might help resolve the existing problems.
Although the findings need to be further substantiated by looking at more data in terms of publicity texts, it is hoped that this study can make people rethink pragmatic translation and translator training as well. On the other hand, the skopos theory itself opens avenues for further investigation and its potential "has yet to be exploited" (Snell-Hornby 1990:85). Specifically, the various ways in which the skopos theory can guide and benefit the translation community, including clients and practicing translators, should be investigated more deeply and extensively.
2 Functionalists do not accept that the skopos theory does not work in literary translation. Nord (1997), for example, devotes one chapter of her book to discussing the application of functionalism in literary translation. However, Schäffner (1998:238) still claims that "a number of points need rethinking before the theory can be made fully applicable to this genre." Gentzler (2001:73) also recognizes that the theory lends itself particularly well to translating business texts and political writings.
3 Fan (2005), drawing on the skopos theory, investigates functional, cultural, and linguistic translation errors in the English versions of the web profiles of some leading Chinese universities. His paper is so far one of the few relevant studies in China.
4 The websites are not provided in the present paper as interested readers can easily find them by searching through Google. Besides, all the examples, both the original and the translation, are cited exactly as they appear on the Internet without any modification by the author.
5 See Wang (2005) for a discussion of possible ways to solve part of the problem.
6 To tackle the special problem in rendering such high-sounding language, Zhou (2003:59-60) proposes that the translator should adopt the strategy of domesticating translation and convey the message with the use of plain language. Ding (2002:44) laments the widespread use of "rigid literalism" in translating Chinese publicity texts. Wang (1994:54) also warns against "mechanical word-for-word translation" of publicity texts and suggests that a "creative and interpretative translation" be adopted to handle Chinese culture-specific items.
7 Tang (2002:54), for example, argues that in certain cases "elementary" translation errors are simply due to the translator's professional irresponsibility and low ethical standards.
8 Hence, Vermeer (2000:229) calls for a "change of attitude" among translators and clients: detailed information about the skopos should always be given so that the translator can carry out a commission.
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Published - April 2009
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