Equivalence and skopos: ‘transferring’ these key concepts of translation theory to SLA and foreign language learning

    Translation theory: focusing on the notions of equivalence and skopos and how they can be ‘associated’ with second language learning and teaching.

    For Bassnett (2002:27), translation is not only a ‘form of communication’, but also a ‘continuity’, ensuring the ‘survival of a text’, by ‘effectively becoming its after-life, a new original in another language’. Translating is seen as ‘an act of both inter-cultural and inter-temporal communication’. Forming an integral part of this process, the translator is an actively involved participant, whose task is to combine theory and practice in order to create a new TL text, taking into consideration the needs of each translation piece, its cultural background, its context and the TL readership. Having this in mind, we can easily associate the basic concepts underlying a translator’s work with the learning of a foreign language and the process in our learners’ minds while acquiring new knowledge and trying to produce it. Our students are also active participants who try to combine theory and practice in order to speak or write in the foreign language.

    The translator needs to ‘bridge’ the gap between the SL and TL cultures and their respective linguistic backgrounds, while at the same time transfer the message of the original text across the language barrier into a different context so that it is read, understood and in the end assessed by the TL audience. In the same way, our EFL learners are also constantly trying to bridge the gap between their L1 background, their linguistic knowledge and the new information they acquire on the rules that underlie the TL. They try to combine effectively all these pieces of information in order to convey meaning in the foreign language and at the same time be understood by the TL native speakers.

    Viewing the translator as primarily a ‘communicative’ being, Hatim and Mason consider ‘coherence’, ‘balance’, ‘efficiency’ and ‘effectiveness’ as the most crucial factors in the translator’s task that determine the success of his finished product. In his/her task to create a new piece of written language based on the content and information of a text in another language, the understanding of notions such as skopos and equivalence is crucial. Since our learners are also communicative beings who want to successfully produce coherent  and effective pieces of spoken and written word in a foreign language, it is useful to examine how these notions of skopos and equivalence can relate to SLA and foreign language learning.


    For Catford (1965), Translation Theory should define ‘the nature and conditions of translation equivalence’, with equivalence being the ‘basis on which source language (SL) textual material is replaced by target language (TL) textual material’. Translation is viewed as a ‘science’ in which ‘one is handling terms of art that have an accepted equivalent and terms where one has to find the nearest possible equivalent’. The translator is thus like a scientist trying to come up with a new equation by deducing meaning from the SL elements and reproducing it into the TL form. According to Koller, the translator should produce the same effect on his own readers as the SL author produced on the original audience. It is this effect that our EFL learners are also aiming at, that is to be able to speak and write in a language other than their mother tongue by imitating the native speakers of that language and by achieving to get their message across and be easily understood by their target audience.

     The practicing translator should not only be linguistically aware of these different types of equivalence, but also be able to recognise them and choose the appropriate one, depending on the purpose and type of the translation task. In the same way, our focus as language educators should thus be to train our learners to be linguistically aware of the rules that underlie the target language and how they can effectively choose and apply these rules (based on the specific context/ situation) when speaking or writing in the TL.


   Translation in Skopos theory ‘is the production of a functionally appropriate target text based on an existing source text and the relationship between the two texts is specified according to the skopos of the translation’. In the functional approach of Skopos, the attention is shifted from ‘the source text as such’ and the purpose which was assigned to it by its author to the ‘prospective function or Skopos of the target text as determined by the initiator’s, i.e. client’s needs’. Within the Skopos framework, the translator needs to create a target text that will be easily comprehended by the TL readership and will apply to their situation, their needs, their cultural and contextual background as well as the situation for which the text was created.

    Being considered as a fundamental principle of Skopos Theory, ‘audience design’ determines ‘which translation strategy’ should be put into practice in each occasion based on the ‘overall purpose’ of the text and the way ‘it is intended to be received’ by the TL readership (Hatim:2001). In a class of trainee translators, Orel stresses out the need of analysing ‘existing translations’ of a text, so that students can identify with the TL reader and come to an understanding of the ‘needs and expectations of the target audience’.

   In a similar way as the one described above, one of our main aims EFL teachers should be that of guiding our students to discovering now only new knowledge but also the ‘skopos’ behind each TL text, the reasons it was written and the intended audience for which it was produced. Likewise, our learners need to be trained to become skilful discoverers of their TL audiences’ needs and to try to use the appropriate lexis and vocabulary based on the context/situation they are in and their audiences’ expectations.

    On the whole, Skopos theory has brought into focus ‘the functional aspects of translation’ and ‘the explanation of translation decisions’. Translation is a creative process, in which translators are not merely transferring a text from one language to another, but are viewed as active participants and ‘target text authors’, whose creativeness and ‘expertise’ has released them from ‘the limitations and restrictions imposed by a narrowly defined concept of loyalty to the source text alone’. And just like the translators, our foreign language students are also ‘creative artists’ and intercultural mediators. It is therefore in the teachers’ hands to be able to multiply their intrinsic motivation, to lower their inhibitions and to be able to guide them to a successful path of language learning in which the students are not merely viewed as recipients of new knowledge but as active participants and target text creators who are willing and motivated to transfer their linguistic skills and thoughts to a newly acquired language in a successful and creative way.


Baker, M. Routledge Encyclopedia of Translation Studies. London: Routledge, 1997.

Bell, R.T. Translation and Translating: Theory and Practice. London: Longman, 1991.

Bassnett, S. Translation Studies. London: Routledge, 2002.

Hatim, B. and Mason, I. The Translator as Communicator. London; New York: Routledge, 1996.

Hatim, B. Teaching and Researching Translation. Harlow, England; New York: Longman, 2001.

Munday, J. Introducing Translation Studies: Theories and Applications. London: Routledge, 2001.

Venuti, L.  The Translation Studies Reader. New York: Routledge, 2004.

Published by Joanna Nifli

ELT teacher and freelance translator with work experience at the United Nations and the European Parliament. Holder of an MA in Teaching English as a Foreign Language (MA TEFL), the Cambridge CELTA and an MA in Applied Translation Studies from the University of Leeds. Interested in innovative pedagogies in language education, TESOL, teacher training, applied linguistics and related topics

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