Monday, August 29, 2011

Eugene Nida's Legacy

Last week, Eugene Nida passed away at the age of 96. Many have never heard of Nida but anyone who has read a modern Bible translation has been influenced by his work.

What is the best way to translate the Bible? Some argue that one should make the translation as literal—or as close to the original text—as possible. This means preserving the original language word order and sentence structure as closely as possible. The resulting translation is often hard to read, but close to the original language. This type of translation philosophy is called “formal equivalence.”

Nida argued for a type of translation he called “dynamic equivalence.” He believed that one should attempt to aim for a “thought-by-thought” translation. Phrases and idioms in the original language should even sometimes be changed to make the most sense in the culture of the people who are receiving the text.

Morgan Feddes, reflecting on his passing in Christianity Today, writes:
In his work, Nida emphasized the importance of cultural context—both the cultural context of Bible and the cultural context of the language into which the Bible is being translated. One example he liked to use was the parable of the sheep and the goats in Matthew 25, where the sheep represent those who have done the Lord's will, and the goats are those who haven't. "Look out, because in most of Africa, sheep are regarded as very bad animals!" he said in his 2002 interview. "The translator, of course, cannot change all the sheep into goats and the goats into sheep. But you've got to have footnotes to explain the cultural difference. Otherwise, you're going to give an entirely wrong impression."
As I think about the influence of dynamic equivalence on Bible translation, I see both positives and negatives.  Positively, it forces us to think realistically about the changing nature of language. Idioms, phrases, and definitions of words are constantly evolving. Bible translation should recognize that.

I also appreciate the way in which dynamic equivalence strives for clarity in communication. Our goal in coming to God’s Word should not just be to know that our translation is right but also that it is understandable.

Finally, I appreciate the philosophy’s emphasis on application. God’s Word is not lifeless but living and active.

On the other hand, I do have some concerns with translations that rely too heavily upon the dynamic equivalence philosophy. First, in an attempt for greater readibilty in English, dynamic translations can distort the actual meaning of the text. For example, compare the NIV (a somewhat dynamic translation) with the ESV (a more formal equivalence translation).

"Humble yourselves, therefore, under God’s mighty hand, that he may lift you up in due time. Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you." (1 Peter 5:6-7, NIV)

"Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you, casting all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you." (1 Peter 5:6-7, ESV)
The NIV has created two sentences and two separate commands: “Humble yourselves” and “cast all your anxiety.” The ESV, however, correctly translates the passage to show us that there is only one command: “Humble yourselves” and one of the ways we obey that command is by casting our anxieties upon God.

Second, the attempt for greater clarity can mar the intricacies of Scripture. As Robert Thomas argues, if Paul wrote an epistle that was a “10” in terms of complexities in syntax and argumentation, have we translated it faithfully if we make the reading level a “3” or “4”?

Finally, by having Bible translators make interpretive decisions for us, we limit the possibilities. As Thomas writes:

Which interpretation is right in 1 Thess. 4:4, the one which says that Paul speaks of control over one’s own body, as in the JB, NEB, NIV, PME, or the one that says he speaks of taking a wife in marriage, as in the LB, RSV, and GNB? Or should the translator shun the responsibility of making a choice, as is done in the KJV, the NKJV, and the NASB?
I believe that the more formal translations are more faithful to the text and help us understand the Word more accurately.  Dynamic translations, however, can be helpful in allowing us to understand the force of some texts.  All good translations involve a certain amount of interpretation and Nida helped us understand how to think more carefully about what is being communicated in a translation...and that's a good thing.

The words of the KJV translators in the preface to their monumental work are a fitting conclusion to this discussion on the nature of translation:

“To those who point out defects in [the translators works], they answer that perfection is never attainable by man, but the word of God may be recognized in the very meanest translation of the Bible, just as the king’s speech addressed to Parliament remains the king’s speech when translated into other languages than that in which it was spoken, even if it be not translated word for word, and even if some of the renderings are capable of improvement. To those who complain that [the translators] have introduces so many changes in relation to the older English version, they answer by expressing surprise that revision and correction should be imputes as faults. The whole history of Bible translation in any language, they say, is a history of repeated revision and correction.”

1 comment:

Anonymous said...


...and that is why we should all learn Greek and Hebrew. :)