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What must we think about Eugene Nida?

September 15, 2011

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?

12 Comments leave one →
  1. September 16, 2011 5:22 am

    If Bernofsky thinks that “give one another a hearty handshake all around” is an example of dynamic equivalence, she has not understood the theory. Just because Nida approved of this rendering that doesn’t make it dynamic equivalence. It is transculturation – a change not just in the language used to refer to something but in the thing, or in this case action, referred to. The “from his mother’s womb” example is borderline, depending on whether this is understood as a real reference to a body part or, as Nida apparently understood it, simply as an idiom. So the danger I see in your whole discussion is that it uses unrepresentative marginal examples of dynamic equivalence as the basis for a generally negative evaluation of the whole theory.

  2. September 16, 2011 9:07 am

    Thanks, Peter, for raising your two important issues here: 1) whether what Nida approved is actually illustrative of his own DE theory; and 2) whether my discussion, likewise, gives examples that are actually central representations of DE.

    On 2), I can see how dangerous it might be if I myself were the one conjecturing here. However, although on the whole my evaluation of DE is in fact generally negative, you may notice the effort I’ve taken to quote Nida directly. In cases where I cannot, then I directly quote others who have interacted with him on his own points and his own examples of DE, as they also quote him. The real danger is that Nida’s DE theory requires that the translator decide which particular Hebrew and Greek structures carry “the message” and which must not. Any insights into the emics of Jewish history and culture that a word or a sound or some English-unusual syntax might provide must be ignored for the sake of the a-Semitic “good news.” What Nida often says, and sometimes what he fails to say (as Seidman suggests), illustrates the danger rather profoundly.

    On 1), then, please notice what Nida says is exemplary and illustrative of DE:

    a) In Nida’s 1964 Toward a Science of Translating with Special Reference to Principles and Procedures involved in Bible Translating, Nida himself admits: “A translation of dynamic equivalence . . . does not insist that he [i.e., the receptor, or reader or listener] understand the cultural patterns of the source language context in order to comprehend the message.” And he goes on: “Of course, there are varying degrees of such dynamic-equivalence translations.” Then in the very next sentence he does praise the Phillips translation as exemplary, in this way:

    One of the modern English translations, which, perhaps more than any other, seeks for equivalent effect [i.e., the effect sought by the DE translator] is J. B. Phillips’ rendering of the New Testament. In Romans 16:16 he quite naturally translates “greet one another with a holy kiss” as “give one another a hearty handshake all around.” (pages 159-160)

    b) In Nida’s 1984 On Translation: with Special Reference to Chinese and English, Nida with his co-author Jin Di, again brings up the Phillips’ translation as exemplary, now adding to the list of illustrative DE Bibles the 1966 TEV:

    In Romans 16:16 he [Phillips] has translated “give one another a hearty handshake all around,” rather than employing a literal rendering such as “greet one another with a holy kiss.” One can well understand the reason for such actualizing, since the phrase ‘holy kiss’ is likely to be misunderstood. . . . The Greek term rendered here ‘holy’ has nothing to do with personal sanctity, but rather refers to the kind of greeting which would be typical of the Christian community of believers. It is precisely for that reason that Today’s English Version employs the translation “greet one another with a brotherly kiss.”

    Notice Nida’s and Jin’s discussion of the personal nothing-to-do-with-“holy”-or-“sanctity” greeting as, not Jewish at all, but as typically Christian.

    Jin, of course, later rejects Nida’s DE on the very basis of the problems he finds with Romans 16:16 in the Phillips and in the TEV. The disagreement actually ends their relationship, in 1987, because, according to Jin, Nida won’t discuss their difference of opinion. Jin publicizes this history in his 2006 updated and annotated second edition of On Translation.

    c) In Nida’s 1998 entry “Bible translation” for the Routledge Encyclopedia of Translation Studies (first edition), Nida again praises the Phillips and the TEV as important (although not in this context making clear its for the underlying DE theory):

    Perhaps the most significant break with tradition in translating the Bible [i.e., break from structural or form or literal equivalence] was the contribution of J. B. Phillips in his Letters to Young Churches (1952), followed by Today’s English Version (1966, 1976), and The Living Bible (1971), which was much appreciated for its style but severely criticized for its exegesis (pages 23-24).

    d) Nida, in the same encyclopedia entry, seems to struggle more with the Hebraic Hellene for sanctity (as in Matthew’s translation of Jesus’ prayer). Nida offers a DE solution to his problem when he himself writes:

    Since the relevance of a message is not in the formal features of a text but in its semantic content, some measure of freedom is required if the target audience is to understand the biblical text. The heavy weight of tradition, however, often stifles a translator’s creativity and obstructs a reader’s comprehension. For example, most English-speakers have no idea what Hallowed be thy name (the first petition of the Lord’s Prayer, Matthew 6:9) really means. The Greek text can be translated literally [1] as “Sanctified be thy name”, in which “name” is a Semitic way of avoiding a direct reference to God, and “sanctified” must refer not to the character of God, but to the manner in which He is recognized by people as being truly God. Accordingly, it is more relevantly rendered [2] as May all people realize that you are God or Help us to honour you as God or even as Help us to honour your name. (page 26)

    Here Nida (by DE theory) tells readers what Matthew 6:9 must really mean. And the meaning has nothing to do with any particularly Jewish understandings of the holiness and sanctity of HaShem.

    e) Nida opposes Eunice Pike’s initial Mazatec rendering of the Greek in Acts as too literal, when he suggests: “Ever since he was born,” which is “the message we were supposed to get across, not just words.” Nida perhaps thinking of Luke’s Greek as merely an idiom requires her not to give any credence to, as you put it, “whether this is understood as a real reference to a body part.” Even if it were an idiom, what might the words mean for a Jewish mother? Pike, as I hoped to show in my post, was convinced (at least at another time working with women on their language) of the value of word composites and compounds, saying:

    That little incident helped me to see that the original meaning of word parts (like cloth) can be lost when the broader meaning of the compound has become well established

    To be fair to the issues you raise, perhaps I am not considering the whole of DE theory. And to be fair to us all (as Wayne Leman and Ernst Wendland have noted to me), Nida’s DE evolved a good bit during his lifetime even taking on a life of its own beyond its creator. I am particularly interested in and concerned about the specific issue of how DE becomes a tool for Christian missionary Bible translations that eradicates the Jewish and even the target-language peoples’ cultures. The quotations from Nida himself seem to illustrate this as both a potential and real danger. (But, please, do know that I’m quite open to correction of errors and that I really do want to be fair.)

  3. ERNST WENDLAND permalink
    September 16, 2011 11:44 pm

    As mentioned in a preceding comment, DE Bible translation as developed by Nida has “evolved” in some UBS circles over the years and has been (completely, well almost) transformed into the cognitive “frames of reference” approach. This inclusive methodology recognizes that no translation, whether FE or FC, is sufficient unto itself. Rather, it must be supplemented by various paratextual tools, such as, section headings, cross references, glossary entries, illustrations, maps, diagrams, and explanatory-descriptive notes. The last mentioned in particular provides a way of supplying vital information about the biblical text (vocabulary, structure, genre, etc.) and situational context (customs, history, geography, etc.) in order to prevent as much as possible of this background from being “eradicated” from the minds of contemporary readers of the translation. This is not a perfect solution (must still be complemented by the preaching-teaching ministry of the church), but at least it helps bridge the gap between the biblical text and world and that of today’s receptors (or consumers).

  4. September 17, 2011 9:40 am

    This is not a perfect solution (must still be complemented by the preaching-teaching ministry of the church), but at least it helps bridge the gap between the biblical text and world and that of today’s receptors (or consumers).

    Thank you very much, Ernst! When you mention the complement of preaching-teaching ministry, this could and must also be a ministry of not just the church but also the synagogue and the seminary. Sounds a bit like how Lynell Zogbo describes the function of the Targum. Is there an English Bible that has been produced by “the cognitive ‘frames of reference’ approach” you describe (as an evolution of DE)? How would it translate, say, Romans 16:16?

  5. ERNST WENDLAND permalink
    September 17, 2011 10:22 am

    Sorry, my initial “frame of reference” was too narrow–indeed, not only church, but also synagogue/seminary/cathedral/ wherever… My point was (is) that probably no translation per se can do justice to a passage like Romans 16:16 (and many others like it in the Scriptures), though such an evaluation would depend also on what sort of interpretive frames of reference its primary readership/audience bring to such a text. For example, how biblically literate (or the opposite) are they? In any case, an expository footnote is probably necessary–for a formal correspondence version, to explain the significance of “kissing” in an early Christian setting; for a functional equivalence version, to reveal the actual cultural symbolic form (“kissing”) of the original text that lies behind, for example, the “warm greeting” (CEV) of a contemporary translation. Thus, any version needs to be adequately “contextualized” in view of its primary target audience. Perhaps that is a cop-out in a way–any English translation will do, as long as it has enough well-conceived and worded footnotes, etc. to supplement the text. On the other hand, perhaps it is simply an honest recognition that we cannot achieve all that we would like to achieve within the text of a translation itself. So-called “study Bibles” can help, but only if readers can understand and apply the notes and other paratextual resources provided. On the other hand, what can we do to provide a corresponding audio (+/- visual) frame of reference for non-readers?

  6. September 18, 2011 8:37 am

    For example, how biblically literate (or the opposite) are they? In any case, an expository footnote is probably necessary–for a formal correspondence version, to explain the significance of “kissing” in an early Christian setting; for a functional equivalence version, to reveal the actual cultural symbolic form (“kissing”) of the original text that lies behind, for example, the “warm greeting” (CEV) of a contemporary translation.

    This is a good proposal, Ernst. But if we were teaching the Odyssey or To Kill a Mockingbird using a translation for those readers who were entirely unfamiliar with the epic or the novel, then wouldn’t we want to flip around the location of the explanations? In other words, isn’t it of more value to the readers of the translation to see a footnote that explains the Jewish holy kiss in the text of the original readers as something like hearty handshakes in churches today for the contemporary readers? Why erase the culture from the text and explain it in footnotes when the text could retain its culture and readers get the perhaps-near function of that culture in the notes?

  7. ERNST WENDLAND permalink
    September 18, 2011 9:16 am

    It all depends on the primary target audience (readership), Kurk. For most English readers of the Scriptures, perhaps, you may be right–though I would still advise a lot of pre-project research of the readership that you are trying to reach with the Word. I don’t think that we can make blanket, across-the-board decisions in such major cases of procedure: ALWAYS do this for EVERY English translation. It all depends on the particular project in view–that is, its translation “brief” (job description) and “Skopos” (principal communicative goal).
    Here in SE Africa where in many cultures the public “kissing” of adults is not traditionally practiced, I’d much rather put the intended meaning in the text and try perhaps to explain the original custom in a footnote. And even then it depends on the type of version you are producing; in the case of a translation that cannot, for economic reasons, allow a lot of footnotes, the one for Romans 16:16 might well get left out. I must hasten to add that it would not be up to me as a translation consultant to make this decision. Rather, that would be left up to the mother-tongue translation team along with the project’s editorial committee.

  8. September 19, 2011 1:56 pm

    How much zeal did Nida have for his own theory? Did he advocate, for example, that Catullus should be translated according to his theory of dynamic equivalence? What happens to Catullus’s hendecasyllabic meter in dynamic equivalence?

    Or is dynamic equivalence a theory for Bible translations only? Perhaps Nida felt that Catullus would be read by more sophisticated readers, while the Bible should be accessible to everyone? If that is the case, it is certainly ironic that Catullus is treated with a respect not accorded to the Bible.


  1. Whose Mockingbird? A Parable for [DE] Translators of the Bible « BLT
  2. Dynamic unEquivalence: Nida v. Buber and Rosenzweig (per Bellos) « BLT
  3. Happy Bloomsday! « BLT
  4. On misunderstanding the kiss, the handshake, the warm greeting between a man and a woman | BLT

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