Paradox of Vermeer’s ‘social task’: When upgrading translator’s social position contradicts his/her right to reject a commission

Chenglong Zhou (Jagiellonian University, Poland)

„Is it not more constructive to ask ourselves what we as translators can do to try to contribute to an ever more humane life? What can we do? Must we not refuse to translate such texts? Should we not rather pass them over in silence, preferring to leave a gap, rather than actively helping to fill it?“

Hans J. Vermeer. „No state of the art.“ Paper delivered at the conference Translation and translation – des faux amis. Boğaziçi University Istanbul, Department of Translation and Interpreting Studies, 5-8 April 2007, p. 11.

The aim of this research is to pinpoint a contradictory dimension of Vermeer’s “social task” theory.  It consists in the dilemma that upgrading translator’s social position might undermine his/her right to reject commissions. The “social task” theory means to trigger “a better appreciation of the translator’s social position” (Vermeer, 1994: 14). To define the translator’s social task, Vermeer first specifies two levels of the role of texts: the object level, which concerns only the literal meaning, and the meta-level, on which texts could have more functions than a mere transmitting of literal information, such as breaking the silence, and establish communication between strangers. The meta-meaning can be transferred by various expressions, even non-verbal behavior like a silent smile. Based on this division, Vermeer (ibid: 11) defined translator’s social task also on two levels: first, to transform the form and meaning of the message on its object level so that it could fit the intended skopos; secondly, to convey an intended meta-meaning so that the skopos of the communicative act is achieved. In order to convey the meta-meaning, translators could not only use verbalized means, but in some cases also “silent” behavior, because “in certain situations, silence is a meaningful translation of a verbalized part of a source text (ibid)”. This theory not only justifies why sometimes translators could “pass over” some texts silently, “leaving a gap” instead of “actively helping to fill it”, but also requires that translators be “co-responsible for the success of a communicative act” (ibid: 13), because both verbal and non-verbal meanings function to fulfill the translator’s social communicative tasks. Translators shoulder the responsibility to “bring about communication between partners for a given purpose” (ibid: 15), “for otherwise there will be no need for him and his profession will no longer be in demand (ibid: 14)” – “social task” has deprived translator of his/her right to reject any commission now! Therefore, upgrading translator’s social position turns out to have crippled translator’s right to reject. A “more humane life” must include the right to reject – Vermeer’s “social task”  is hence counterproductive.


Vermeer, Hans J. (1994): "Translation today: Old and new problems", in: Translation studies: An interdiscipline, 3-16.