Culture At Large

It's the thought that counts: Eugene Nida and Bible translation

Nathan Bierma

This summer we lost two giants of biblical studies, each of whom shaped how countless English speakers read the Bible. John Stott was the well-known pastor and scholar who was a figurehead of 20th-century evangelicalism. Less well-known, but arguably even more influential, 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 Nida's own answer to the question will be his legacy, and that is the practice of dynamic equivalence. A dynamic equivalent translation tries to render the meaning of the original text, rather than starting with the exact words and grammatical forms of the original text. A dynamic equivalent translation is a "thought-for-thought" translation, while a formal equivalent translation is a "word-for-word" translation. Nida's approach sounds dangerous - and in fact he was widely criticized - but in fact it's simply good linguistics, since anyone who studies human language - or even anyone who has ever used Google Translate - knows that a mere string of lexical correspondences is a far cry from a meaningful translation.

Nida's rallying cry was that a translation has to sound natural in its new language. He provided a scholarly rubric for what should be considered "natural," but he also explained it plainly: "A dynamic-equivalence translation may be described as one concerning which a bilingual and bicultural person can justifiably say, 'That is just the way we would say it.'"

Before Nida, and long after, many biblical scholars sought to assure English Bible readers that a "literal," "accurate" Bible translation could be easily provided with a word-for-word approach. Nida pointed out that this was a false promise:

Since no two languages are identical, either in the meanings given to corresponding symbols or in the ways in which such symbols are arranged in phrases and sentences, it stands to reason that there can be no absolute correspondence between languages. Hence there can be no fully exact translations.

That's hard to swallow, but it happens to be true. Take a look at a well-known verse, Luke 2:13, in various English translations ranging from word-for-word to thought-for-thought:
And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God ... (KJV).

And suddenly there appeared with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God ... (NASB).

And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God ... (ESV).

Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God ... (NIV).

Suddenly a vast, heavenly army appeared with the angel, praising God ... (NET).

Suddenly, the angel was joined by a vast host of others - the armies of heaven - praising God ... (NLT).

Take the English Standard Version, the current flagship translation for word-for-word translation. Despite being published in 2001, the ESV here preserves one awkward clause ("there was with the angel"), an antiquated word ("multitude") and one ambiguous idiom ("heavenly host"), all in the name of trying to be "accurate." Farther down the list - towards the thought-for-thought end of the spectrum - the syntax is straightened out, the archaisms are removed and generally the result sounds more like an actual speaker of English - just as the original text of Luke sounded like an actual speaker of Greek.

For those of us who believe that God speaks through Scripture and that rhetorical impact is part of what makes Scripture come alive to its hearers, these are huge steps forward. In fact, nearly every new translation in the last 30 years (except those very consciously trying to distinguish themselves in the name of fidelity to older versions), bears the imprint of Nida's ideas about language and Scripture. It's a legacy that bears the witness of Pentecost: language is no longer an obstacle to hearing the word of God.

(Photo of Eugene Nida courtesy of Religion News Service.)

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