Behind the scenes of literary translation: Can identifying the purpose(s) governing the book market help us better understand the position and role of translator?

Paweł Łapiński (University of Gdańsk, Poland)

 “A translation has three (or even four) fathers.”

Hans J. Vermeer. Die Welt in der wir übersetzen. Heidelberg: TEXTconTEXT Wissenschaft, 1996, p. 247.

The very basic idea of purpose and communicative function of the target text determining the choice of the translation method and strategy is relatively easy adaptable to non-literary translations, where the main factors determining the above-mentioned choice belong to the economic or administrative register. Priority is given to the efficiency of transmission and the rate of understanding among the audience. What is more, the purpose is often clearly defined by the client in a brief and the translator may easily subordinate oneself to it, as his / her work is most often artisanal (technical) and anonymous.

However, this configuration gets far more complicated in the case of literary translation, where the source text is much more autonomous, hence the satisfaction of intertextual coherence is more challenging. The translator acts explicitly as co-author and there are additional players involved in the whole process, namely the author of the source text, the publishing house and sometimes also public institutions of the source country co-financing the publication. Such an accumulation of agents makes it difficult to identify one initiator of the translation process, who, according to the Skopos theory, would be the most accurate to shape the function of the target text. The above-mentioned participants of the editorial process may all be motivated and directed by different purposes, belonging not only to the well-known and predictable economic register but also to the less rational artistic or political ones.

The main aim of the presentation is to analyse, on the example of Polish contemporary literature translated into French, whether the Skopos theory flagship concept of purpose can be applied to assess the quality of literary translation and whether the notion of “skopos adequate” is applicable in this area.


Bourdieu, Pierre (1996): Rules of Art: Genesis and Structure of the Literary Field. Stanford: Stanford University Press.
Casanova, Pascale (2007): The world republic of letters. Cambridge et al.: Harvard University Press.
Heilbron, Johan (1999): “Towards a Sociology of Translation. Book Translations as a Cultural World-System”, in: European Journal of Social Theory 2/4.
Latour, Bruno (2005). Reassembling the social: An introduction to actor-network-theory. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Luhmann, Niklas (1995). Social Systems. Stanford: Stanford University Press.
Vermeer Hans, J., Reiß, Katharina (2013). Towards a general theory of translational action: Skopos theory explained. Manchester: St. Jerome.