What must we think about Eugene Nida?
At the blog, ThinkChristian, Nathan Bierma writes the post “It’s the thought that counts: Eugene Nida and Bible translation”. Here’s a clip:
Less well-known, but arguably even more influential [than John Stott … the well-known pastor and scholar who was a figurehead of 20th-century evangelicalism], was Eugene Nida, who died last month at the age of 96. Nida, a linguist and translator, transformed the way English translators think about the language of the Bible – or, actually, the languages of the Bible and the daunting task of translating Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek into English.
As someone who loves language and linguistics, I appreciate Nida simply for putting linguistics back into the equation for translators and not conceding the turf of translation to scholars concerned first with theology, dooming us to clunky, wooden and archaic translations. Had he simply raised the question of what linguistics has to do with Bible translation, Nida would have made a major impact.
But, at her blog Translationista: Dispatches from the World of Literary Translation, Susan Bernofsky gives a different take on Nida, whom she herself met. Bernofsky posts, “Farewell, Dynamic Equivalencer,” and writes:
And Nida, too – who was ordained as a Baptist minister the same year he completed his PhD in linguistics – was profoundly devoted to communicating the word of God. Nida’s notion of “dynamic equivalence” (a.k.a. functional equivalence) was based on the idea that no two languages correspond exactly to one another and that the translator must therefore be attentive to the goals and strategies of the original text, seeking out phrases and concepts in the target language that will achieve a parallel act of communication. This approach makes sense, particularly if you are, say, a missionary who wishes to import religious concepts into a culture in which they are unfamiliar. Local points of reference are then sought to ease in understanding. The ideals of Nida’s “dynamically equivalent” translation include clarity and naturalness of expression. He is not primarily concerned with literary translation per se.
Now, translation of Nida’s sort stands in direct opposition to the approach advocated by a very different sort of theologian, my hero Friedrich Schleiermacher, and it is Schleiermacher’s ideas (centering around the aim of preserving cultural and linguistic specificity in translation) that have dominated late-twentieth century translation theory, particularly as practiced by leading theorist Lawrence Venuti and his followers (myself included). Just this past winter I attended a lecture by Venuti entitled “The Ruse of Equivalent Effect” at the American Literary Translators Association conference in which he attacked Nida’s ideas using what wound up striking me as a logical fallacy. Venuti argued that an example given by Nida himself to illustrate dynamic equivalence was flawed, and concluded from this that the principle itself had no validity. It’s quite true that the example in question is offensive to our Schleiermacher-schooled sensibilities (Nida praises J.B. Phillips for expressing the notion “greet one another with a holy kiss” in Romans 16:16 as “give one another a hearty handshake all around”). This translation transplants the cultural context of Biblical times to what makes me think of Connecticut in the 1960s. Obviously this is a grievously outdated way of thinking about translation. But at the same time, Nida is right to recognize that this “holy kiss” is something that won’t make sense to modern readers and to conclude from this that the translator must find a way to address this discrepancy. As I see it, there has to be some way to communicate the essence and function of the kiss while also communicating something about the context in which it served as a form of greeting. In short, I don’t believe that one should have to choose between a Nidean and a Schleiermachian approach to translation as mutually exclusive alternatives. Each of these two theorists proposed goals that are important for the translator to keep in mind. Ideally, I would like to achieve such a high level of skill at Schleiermachian translation that my work will also ring true to an adherent of dynamic equivalence.
Then, at my blog, Aristotle’s Feminist Subject, I’ve posted a series on how others think about Nida and his Dynamic Equivalence (or Functional Equivalence) theory. Brief excerpts follow.
In “Dynamic un-Equivalence: Nida v. Pike,” I shared a little how one of my linguistics teachers, Eunice Victoria Pike, (who passed away the same week Nida did) had interacted with him, not always thinking his view was best:
Now that I’ve started you listening to some of the stories, why not listen to a few more “lived issues” in the descriptive linguistics and translation work of Pike? She writes, in her book Words Wanted, of actually working with Nida to check her translation from Greek into Mazatec.
“Dr. Nida sat with the Greek and the Spanish New Testament in front of him, and I with the Mazatec. My job was to look at the Mazatec and give him a quick literal translation into English. He compared what I said with the Greek, asked questions, and agreed or disagreed.
Among other things he pointed out that we had translated a number of Greek metaphors rather than the specific words. One example was found in Acts 14:8. ‘Being a cripple from his mother’s womb’ was the Greek expression, but no Mazatec ever says that. ‘Ever since he was born,’ Dr. Nida suggested. He emphasized the fact that it was the message we were supposed to get across, not just words” (page 96).
It may sound as if Nida’s corrective of Pike was one that she followed absolutely and without questioning. However, if you keep reading, then you do hear in her story some of her reluctance on the very next page:
“We could even apply the suggestions Dr. Nida had made for the Book of Acts. Well — (sigh) — O.K. We would change [to make some revisions]” (page 96)
Her view of language, of translation, is far more robust than his reductive notion is. She saw the Greek in the book of Acts as meaningful, as important to learn from, even for an English reader. Could the Greek letters and words and phrases be reduced to a message? Did it have to merely and so baldly mean simply and only this message: “Ever since he was born”? Doesn’t this translating rob the mother of her biology, of her womb, of her body? And should the Mazatec then literally now equal the English, which only dynamically equaled then the Greek? Do you see the problems that Nida’s reductive either/ or approach causes?
In “Part 2, Dynamic Unequivalence: Nida v. Seidman and Zogbo ,” I shared a little how two others think a lot differently than Nida does. They are Naomi Seidman, author of Faithful Renderings: Jewish-Christian Difference and the Politics of Translation (Afterlives of the Bible), and Lynell Zogbo, who has developed her own philosophy and practice of Hebrew Bible translation starting, at first, with Nida’s theory:
And ironically Nida’s theory, constructed to bring the message of the Bible to all, actually neglects that the Bible is culturally Jewish. The Nida message you should be able to read in your own heart language is this: “[D]ifferences between cultures cause many more severe complications for the [Dynamic Equivalence] translator than do differences in language structure.” So let me translate this for you…. What Nida means is that, by his theory, it’s much easier to dispose of linguistic symbols that get in the way of the communication code than it is to erase dissimilarities between your own culture and that of the Other. If you are Christian, or potentially Christian, then the language symbols of Hebrew or Hebraic Hellene or Judaic Aramaic can be more easily discounted than can the Jewish history or the Culture, perhaps, cultures of the Jews be disregarded. But, nonetheless, and however, one must try, for the sake of the message of the Bible, which is Christian, not Jewish.
[Naomi] Seidman notices how Nida wrote the entry called “Bible translation” for the [1st edition of the] Routledge Encyclopedia of Translation Studies. She notes in particular what he says, in part, and how contrastive it is to the Jewish cultural patterns for the translator, the history, the literature, and the very discourse of the Bible. She pays attention to his message but also to how he encodes his message. His communiqué and also his symbols are important to her. She notes that this way:
… Eugene Nida, the premier linguist and translation consultant of both the American and United Bible Societies, boldly begins his entry with the sentence “The Bible is the holy book of Christianity” and continues by celebrating Bible translating as “arguably the greatest undertaking in interlingual communication in the history of the world.” By contrast, Michael Alpert’s entry for Torah translation suggests that translation among Jewish communities historically had a different function than in non-Jewish communities: “Generally speaking, translations of the Torah have traditionally been read not as texts in their own right but rather as aides to comprehension. . . . Jewish scriptural study is informed less by translation than by the running commentaries of the medieval scholars.”
Nevertheless, Jews could not and did not avoid translation; nor did they always see it as merely adjunct to the Hebrew text. Alpert himself writes that “the first historical report of translation is in the Bible itself,” in the phrase in Nehemiah 8:8 that says that the Jewish exiles who returned from Babylon in the sixth century BCE “read from the book of the law of God clearly, made its sense plain and gave instruction in what was read (NEB); he continues by citing the midrashic reading of this verse, “That is to say, they read the Torah with translation and commentary.” Whether or not we date Jewish translation as early as Alpert and the midrash do, Frederick Greenspahn points out that Jewish biblical translation certainly began even before the Bible had been completed and canonized – the Greek Septuagint, the first extant Bible translation (originally only the Pentateuch), is dated to the third century BCE. (Faithful Renderings pages 14-15)
Seidman has much more to say about Nida pe se. Let us just notice here, nonetheless, how she’s interested in highlighting the record of the histories of Jewish translation of the Bible as a Jewish canon. In contrast, Nida is not. And she notices….
Now we turn to Lynell Zogbo. When the editors of the Routledge Encyclopedia of Translation Studies decided it was time for a new edition, they invited Zogbo to write the entry on Bible translation. Zogbo entitles her entry “Bible, Jewish and Christian.” She starts in this way:
“The Bible, from the Greek biblia, meaning ‘books’, is the sacred text of both Jews and Christians.”
Her section on “History of Bible translation” within her entry begins this way:
The beginnings of Bible translation can be traced back to an incident recounted in the book of Nehemiah (8:5-8) many centuries before the birth of Christ. After living for several decades in exile in Babylon, many Jews no longer spoke or even understood Hebrew. Thus, when the exiles returned to Jerusalem, and Ezra called the people together to listen to the reading of the Law of Moses, the Levite priests had to translate the meaning of the sacred texts into Aramaic so that people could understand. Since that time, Jews and Christians have continued to emphasize the importance of the Scriptures being understood by all believers.
The earliest known written translation of the Bible is the Septuagint, a translation from Hebrew into Greek of the Old Testament texts, carried out primarily for Greek-speaking Jews living in the Graeco-Roman diaspora. . . . Although this translation and its interpretations of the Hebrew text have been criticized since its inception, . . . the Septuagint retains considerable influence on questions of interpretation and textual matters, and its study continues to shed light on the principles of translation used in the ancient world. However, in the second century CD, Jewish scholars – Aquila, Theodotion, and Symmachus – produced new translations and/ or revised versions of the Septuagint, . . . . The Targum, literally ‘translation’, is a kind of running paraphrase of and commentary on the Hebrew text in Aramaic, originating from before the time of Christ but still read publicly in synagogues around the world today.
Notice the Jewish centrality in the Bible and in the translation of the Bible and in its history that Zogbo highlights in her entry for the second edition Routledge Encyclopedia of Translation Studies. This in contrast to Nida’s entry. It’s almost as if Zogbo talked with Seidman, and listened.
In “pt 3, Dynamic unEquivalence: Nida v. Barnstone,” I looked at what Willis Barnstone says about Nida’s theory. I was quoting from Barnstone’s book, The Poetics of Translation: History, Theory, Practice, and then showed how differently Nida and Barnstone translated the same bit from the Greek New Testament. Barnstone gives a “A literary literal rendering of a Jewish prayer.” Nida says that “stifles a translator’s creativity and obstructs a reader’s [not necessarily ‘Semitic way’ of] comprehension.” My outline for the post went as follows:
Barnstone’s issues with Nida include two that I’d like to highlight here. The first is that Nida’s linguistics operates on the binary principle of a sort of reductive “linguistics v. literature,” and especially literature that is part and parcel of cultural patterns and the arts. The second issue is that Nida’s “form v. message” message is an unnecessarily simplistic binary.
In “Part 4, Dynamic UnEquivalence: Nida v. Jin (and Gayle),” I considered what Jin Di thought of Nida after collaborating with him over the years. Jin, of course, is perhaps best known in the USA for his translation of James Joyce’s Ulysses into Chinese. But as I said in the post, I think he wants me, and you too, to know that he’s moved on from Nida. This last post was some personal for me, not because I ever worked with or even met Dr. Nida but because two of his followers interacted with me personally in public post-post comments and privately by email. One claims I’ve misunderstood and mis-characterized Dynamic Equivalence theorists and practitioners, and the other thinks about Nida’s theory the way I do:
We really must remember Dynamic Equivalence as a great influence on the thinking about and missionary work in Christian Bible translation, and we must remember Eugene Nida; and yet in the practice and in theory of Bible translation we will do well to move on.
So, what do you think of Eugene Nida?