The function or purpose of a translation

Posted on: June 13, 2019   in: Certified Translations

The function or purpose of a translation

What is the function of a document and why does it matter? 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?

When a reviewer looks at a huge translation and wonders what exactly they should be doing during the review process. Obviously, if time was unlimited, we could check for everything, but how do we prioritise?

To answer these questions, we need to consider the function of the target document. What is it actually for? What does the client want to do with it? Will other translators, linguists or reviewers be working on the document? There’s no point all looking at grammar and looking for oxford commas while no one checks to see if the actual target text has been correctly conveyed.

Understanding the function of a document gives us a good insight into the so-called “purpose of the translation”. While these concepts may seem very abstract, they can help a good translator make good choices, especially when working as part of a larger team, or when having conversations with clients.

Let’s start with a practical answer, then move into a slightly more theoretical discussion.

Clients get what they 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. I would avoid using that term with clients though – keep it practical.

For example, let’s imagine you need a birth certificate translated for the Home Office. The translator sees that there are lots of small disclaimers at the bottom of the page, and feels they can save some time by omitting it – “it’s okay, I didn’t need to translate the stuff at the bottom as it was just the legal disclaimer”.

Well, we all know what will happen, the Home Office will say “as far as we know it says that the above details are wrong, call for details“, so we will need every single word”.

On the other hand, what if, for example, a lawyer needs to understand a new clause added to a contract they are working on.  In that case, the translator could safely mark the other paragraphs as not relevant.

Ethical considerations

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”. I personally hate that term for reasons I will discuss one day.

The biggest problem of course is that often the client doesn’t know what they want.

For that reason, the salesman (which may also be the translator) 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.

With the function, we can determine the purpose of the translation.

For example:

Function – Apply for wedding certificate with Home Office

Purpose – Ensure translation meets Home Office requirements

Actions – Someone needs to research Home Office requirements and translate accordingly.

Or example 2:

Function – Understand new clause added to sales contract by Chinese client

Purpose – Ensure translation fits with existing understanding of contract and conveys only new information

Actions – Start by aligning old file, or otherwise ensure old terms are used consistently; translate only the required clause

Different translations for different functions

There is no such thing as a good translation. There are just translations that meet their purpose and translations that do not meet their purpose. So can a translation of say one sentence be different depending on the function of the document? Absolutely. In fact, a sign of a good translator is that the translation matches the function correctly. When translators don’t know or understand they function, they tend to translate more literally or abstractly than required.

Let’s look at the two examples above. In example one, we are creating a translation for an application to the Home Office for a wedding certificate. Does the home office have any special requirements with regards to foreign names? Do they insist that names are written first name, surname or vice-versa? Do they insist that surnames are capitalized? These questions will impact on the translation just of the names of the people getting married. Wang Cheng or Cheng Wang or Cheng, WANG? Does it have to match the way the name is written in the person’s passport?

Just keep the same functions?

Some readers will be thinking that 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”.

In the past, I had a client who wanted an English translation of a Chinese contract. That’s fine, but when I spoke to them I realized they intended to use this English translation as a legally binding contract in England, so the concepts within had to match the English legal system. If you think a little bit you’ll realize that what they really needed was an English lawyer. I explained and eventually gave them a literal translation which they took to their lawyer to use a basis to write a new contract.

How to adapt the workflow to the function or purpose

So we always start our translation by ensuring we have an idea of the function and the purpose. If the client needs the document for a purpose we know we cannot achieve, we need to warn them in advance.

Clients can be reluctant to explain as they tend to think that the written document itself contains all the required information. In fact, that’s far from the case. My approach is often to have a rambling conversation and gradually build up an idea of what they need. I’ve used questionnaires in the past, but I find again that clients don’t really understand what you are asking for and give unhelpful answers.

Once we’ve discussed and understand the function, we can determine the purpose of the translation, and now we are ready to start.

ISO17100 and the proceeding BS 15038 both talked about the reviewer being the next person responsible for looking at the function/purpose.

Here’s a summary of what it says:

Translator (needs to know and understand function/purpose)

Reviser (same)

Reviewer (when they review, the main goal is to ensure that the purpose is being met; get that done first!)

Proof-reader (doesn’t care about the function, just looks for typos, etc)

In my experience, many agencies don’t understand the difference between the last three processes, and will mix them up. It also works as a really powerful tool when one person does more than one tasks. You could start the revision by looking for transfer errors mainly, ignoring typos or “how it sounds” etc. Then the next pass if the review where we just ask if we are meeting the purpose of the translation. Finally do the proofreading where we put on our librarian glasses and look for misplaced apostrophes etc.


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.

In my own experience about 1/3 of the problems I have had with clients come from misunderstandings about function/purpose, which manifest as what clients see as errors, but are in fact not “errors” in the strictest sense.