The function of a translation

Posted on: June 13, 2019   in: Projects

A common question for translation students when faced with a daunting page is whether they actually need to translate everything on the page. What if some of the text isn’t relevant to what the client needs, can’t we save them some money by being selective. The answer is absolutely, but proceed with caution.

What does the client want

Nearly every question a translator asks me can be answered with the simple question: what does the client want. In translation studies what the client actually wants to do with the document can be called the function of the document, or sometimes the term “skopos” is used in narrower contexts. Personally I like to avoid using any new words unless absolutely necessary, so I will say “function” in this article.

If you need a birth certificate translated for the Home Office, and the translator says “it’s okay, I didn’t need to translate the stuff at the bottom as it was just the legal disclaimer” the Home Office may well say “as far as we know it says that the above details are wrong, call for details”, so they will need every single word in order to do their jobs properly.

In other contexts a lawyer might just want to find what clauses in a particular contract relate to a certain property for example. In that case, the translator could safely mark the other paragraphs as not relevant. In terms of ethics, it’s important we don’t ask people to pay us for things we don’t do, so in that case we would have to ensure we are charging the client appropriately. Sometimes this process is known in the business world as translation abstraction.

The biggest problem of course is that often the client doesn’t know what they want. Here the salesman is responsible for ensuring they have accurately understood the clients requirements, and has asked the right questions to get a good sense of the function.

Different translations for different functions

Could a translation be different depending on the function? Of course it could. In a note written to your wife “popped to shops back soon xxx” might be okay, but in other contexts “I’m away from my desk for a short time please call xxx” might be required. Two extreme examples, but every translation will fall somewhere on this spectrum.

Some readers will be thinking that surely we just match the function of the document. Well yes, that’s partly true, unless the client wants it for another function, but even so, documents don’t have functions written into them, sometimes it’s impossible to know the function of the source without actually asking the writer (sometimes they don’t even know, but let’s not go there!).

A good example I come across is the reading level of the audience. Is the document written for engineers, with engineering training and skills? Or for buyers who have a basic knowledge of engineering? Are there words in the source language which are highly specialist and would require expert knowledge to use, but that are fairly logical and straightforward in the target language. Some words in English which are very technical and would put off a general reader are rather simple to Chinese readers. An example might be intercostal muscle! What’s that? Well it’s the muscles between your ribs. In Chinese it’s easy it’s just called the “ribs – between muscle”.


Translate everything the client needs and no more. Ensure you are on the same page as the client about what they actually need translated. Understanding the function of the translation will help decide which text to include, and should be seen as an essential pre-translation task.