Dynamic Equivalence re-visited

With the news of Eugene Nida’s passing, it’s worth revisiting the single biggest contribution of his thinking to the field of Bible translation.

Nida proposed that the basis of translation should be to replicate the meaning of the original and not necessarily the wording.

. . . [wikipedia’s definition, not Nida’s own, goes here in Rich Rhodes’s BBB post; and then he continues] . . .

The idea of translating “the thought” behind a text rather than something more literally reflecting the wording of the original has been controversial since the time Nida first proposed it — not helped by an unfortunate choice of name. Presumably the dynamic part refers to the fact that more natural sounding translations are more emotionally engaging. Witness the popularity of The Message. Nida, himself, moved toward a more neutral terminology in response to controversy, re-labeling his approach function equivalence.

To many of us in the linguistics business the uproar makes little sense. After all, simultaneous translators translate functional equivalents all the time. Ditto the translators who deal with government and business documents. Anyone who seriously attempted a formal equivalence translation in such contexts would be fired by the end of the day.

And ditto, BTW, literary translators. Where there are bilinguals around to judge, it’s the meaning of the text, not its form that is the bottom line in the translation business. Literary translators get bonus points if they can find ways to mimic the form without sacrificing the meaning.

Why, then, did Nida get all the flak?

In large part, I’d say, because functional equivalence is really, really hard to define. . . .

[read the rest here]

Do note Donna’s and Bob MacDonald’s and then CD-Host’s wonderful comments!

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7 Comments

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7 responses to “Dynamic Equivalence re-visited

  1. My replies to Rich Rhodes’s post:
    1. First, why go to wikipedia for a definition of Nida’s concept?
    2. Why no go to Nida himself.
    3. And did Nida himself really abandon “dynamic” for “functional”?

    Here’s a snippet from one of Nida’s books suggesting he used dynamic and functional together from the get go. And it’s not Wikipedia even if Rich is having a hard time defining it:

    “THE DYNAMIC DIMENSION IN COMMUNICATION
    Language consists of more than the meanings of the symbols and the combinations of symbols and the combinations of symbols; it is essentially a code in operation, or, in other words, a code functioning for a specific purpose or purposes. Thus we must analyze the transmission of a message in terms of a dynamic dimension. This analysis is especially important for translating, since the production of equvalent messages is a process, not merely of matching the parts of utterances, but also of reproducing the total dynamic character of the communication. Without both elements the results can scarcely be regarded, in any real sense, as equivalent.”

    4. Rich says: “Anyone who seriously attempted a formal equivalence translation in such contexts would be fired by the end of the day.” I guess he would fire SIL / Wycliffe Bible Translators linguist Eunice V. Pike. Here’s a bit (further down in a post of mine) on Pike translating with some other women, all speakers of Mazatec, on the fly, simultaneously. Formal equivalence is what they insist on. Fire them all!

    5. Further down in Rich’s post, he gives examples from the Bible. Let’s just comment on his first:

    ἀνθρώποις παραδεδωκόσι τὰς ψυχὰς αὐτῶν ὑπὲρ τοῦ ὀνόματος τοῦ κυρίου ἡμῶν Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ (Acts 15:26)

    He’s only focused in on the clause παραδεδωκόσι τὰς ψυχὰς αὐτῶν and wants its message to be NOT “lit. ‘handing over his life’.” Rather, he’s okay with “hazarded their lives” and likes for his better Bible “risked their lives” because “risk . . . has become the standard way [in English, he presumes, to express this idea now.”

    5A. So, has “life” become the standard way Rich presumes to translate ψυχὰς, or Psyche, or Soul, or Being?

    5B. And why no mention of “men” for ἀνθρώποις in his better Bible translation? Why not let Paul and Silas be humans, “people,” as Ann Nyland would translate this Greek phrase rightly, literally and dynamically?

    5C. And the rest of it:

    τοῦ ὀνόματος = the name? = better as The Sake?
    τοῦ κυρίου ἡμῶν = our Master = better as our Lord?
    Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ = Joshua Anointed or Yeshua Meshiah = better as Jesus Christ?

    Why not pick on the problems here which neither literalness nor dynamicness/ functionalness in translation handles very well?

    • Rich Rhodes

      Kurk,
      Sorry. I hadn’t gotten around to reading this until this afternoon. So much buzz on the original post.

      I cited Wikipedia because of its easy access. (Yes, I know that Nida both did and didn’t give up the term dynamic equivalence for the more neutral functional equivalence.)

      The main thing that I was trying to do — besides honoring Nida — was to get past the rhetoric and get to Nida’s core insight, which I take to be something like this: Bible translators (including many early SIL’ers) weren’t doing the same thing when they translated the Bible that successful translators between modern languages were doing, but that’s what Bible translators should be doing. As with many insight driven proposals, the details are never quite right at first.
      As you probably well realize, I focused on the risk part of the verses in question because that was the point I wanted to make. Sure there are plenty of other DE features lying around in the translation of these verses. Those aren’t my translations, don’t rail at me for their translation choices. I was interested in demonstrating in a small way that even so-called literal translations aren’t. It often comes as quite a shock to the uninitiated just how much of the KJV line of translations is really quite DE.

      Finally, there are really good reasons not to talk about translation problems which fall in the cracks if you want to talk about an important and influential insight and not the hash that subsequent history has made misunderstanding it.

  2. Wayne Leman very kindly replies at BBB; he says to me:

    Kurk wrote:

    I’ve mentioned gender neutrality as a formal equivalence translation or is it a functional equivalence translation of the first phrase of Acts 15:26

    (I finally found what you were referring to, Kurk. It was difficult to find in your BBBB comment on the BBB post which you posted partially to BBBB. I suggest that if you ask your questions here on BBB, it would be easier for BBB bloggers to respond to.)

    Anyway, I have been thinking about your question. I understand you to favor a gender-neutral translation of anthropois in Acts 15:26. My understanding of the lexical meaning of anthropos and its plural is that the lexical meaning is ‘person’ or ‘human,’ as you stated. So, then, if you preserve that lexical meaning in Acts 15:26, even though the referents to anthropois are male adults (Paul and Barnabas), you would be following formal equivalence translation. Functional equivalence, I think, would recognize that the referent in Greek, as so often in English, determines what gender word or pronoun is used to refer to that referent. In this case, I think it is more natural English to refer to the two “persons” Paul and Barnabas as “men.” There is no theological significance to this kind of functional equivalent translation as “men”; it says nothing about the role of women. There just weren’t any women in this particular scene, unlike other scenes where there are women (and then they must *not* be left out). It’s just trying to follow the natural patterns of English usage.

    I say this as one who strongly supports gender-accurate translation. For example, I believe that the original translation of adelphoi in Rom. 12:1 most likely referred to a mixed group of females and males. I then consider it misleading (and probably inaccurate) to translate functionally as “men” for that group. “Men” today, in such a context, is not understood to include women. The more accurate formal equivalent translation of adelphoi in the context of Rom. 12:1 (especially note how many women Paul includes in his greetings which follow at the end of the book) is English “siblings”. But English translators have concluded that “siblings” is not so commonly used as “brothers and sisters”, which I’m fine with also. Either way would be, in my understanding, a formal equivalent translation of the *lexical* meaning of adelphoi in Rom. 12:1.

    All this illustrates, I suggest, that any English Bible translation team that refers to the Greek lexicons as they translate (and most do) must be very careful how they use the lexicons. And they must determine if the lexicons are giving the core lexical meanings of the words. The meanings need to be expressed using words most commonly used today by English speakers, since English words often have different meanings today from what they had in the past.

    It’s not true that adelphoi in Rom. 12:1 “literally” means ‘brothers’. When that is footnoted, as it is in some gender-accurate (or gender-neutral) translations, it is an inaccurate usage of the word “literal,” committing a kind of etymological fallacy where it is assumed that the meaning of the singular of a word will be “literally” copied to its plural in all contexts. But that is not how a number of Greek words work (nor gendered words in many languages around the world, and not just in masculine/feminine gender systems but in other gender systems as well, such as animate/inanimate). It is easy to point out many examples where grammatical gender of Greek words does not match biological gender of the referents. Fortunately, some of those who have opposed so-called gender-neutral English Bible translation have recognized this basic fact of Greek, that many grammatically masculine plural referents (and even some singular ones) are biologically gender-neutral. So, really, the debate is about *interpretation* of which passages are gender-neutral and which refer only to masculine referents.

    Well, I’m preaching to the choir in this case, but at least I tried to answer your question about formal equivalent and functional equivalent is used in Acts. 15:26.

  3. My reply to Wayne:

    In this case, I think it is more natural English to refer to the two “persons” Paul and Barnabas as “men.” There is no theological significance to this kind of functional equivalent translation as “men”; it says nothing about the role of women. There just weren’t any women in this particular scene, unlike other scenes where there are women (and then they must *not* be left out). It’s just trying to follow the natural patterns of English usage.

    So, really, the debate is about *interpretation* of which passages are gender-neutral and which refer only to masculine referents….

    Well, I’m preaching to the choir in this case, but at least I tried to answer your question about formal equivalent and functional equivalent is used in Acts. 15:26.

    Thank you very much, Wayne. I appreciate your being so thoughtful and for taking so much care to explain clearly. Hope you won’t mind my repeating things you’ve written in my brief response. You’ve convinced me that “people” for “anthropois” ἀνθρώποις is a formal equivalent translation. It’s the one that Ann Nyland makes here. But most other translations choose “men,” as their dynamic or functional equivalent, for the reasons you specify.

    So, questions:

    How far can the translator go in choosing to specify? Yes, Paul and Barnabas are men. Can the translator explain naturally that these two are also “believing men”? Or that they are “missionary men”? Or that they are “Jesus following men”? Why stop with specifying (in natural English) just the gender of these individuals? Or if gender is so okay as the specification, why not also emphasize that they are “heterosexual men”? The latter is a serious question. The translator is interpreting what’s natural in English and what is to be communicated in the message of Luke’s Acts here.

    On the other hand, what if Luke, by his Greek word, is specifying that these two people are humans, as is Jesus, who is also mentioned by name in this very same clause. In contrast, not a few words earlier, Luke has James directly quoting the LXX translation of the prophets in which there’s the specific difference given between “people” and “the LORD” and his “name.” If Luke is not, by his Greek, rather subtly establishing that Jesus is both “the LORD” and is also one of the “humans,” then I’m not sure I’m reading his Greek well. But even the ESV has this for verse 15:17 –

    that the remnant of mankind [ἀνθρώποις] may seek the Lord,
    and all the Gentiles who are called by my name,

    And then, not a few words later, Luke brings in an explicit mention of someone neither a male, a man, nor even a human person of the class of “mankind”; he brings in the Holy Spirit. And then a little later, Luke twice explains how these two humans, Paul and Silas, are preaching the word of “the LORD,” whom, in this context means Jesus, the Holy Spirit, and YHWH, whom the prophets had written of, literally, formally equivalently, HaShem, “by name.”

    So, that Paul and Barnabas are men (not women) may be natural English, as the translator determines that. However, Luke’s contrasts in his Greek seem much more strongly to suggest that he’s emphasizing the humanity (not the divinity) of the individuals. They speak the word of “the Lord” (who is not human, except perhaps by including Luke’s Jesus also); and, always, it’s “the name” of “the Lord,” not a human (man’s) name that is key here.

    What do you think?

  4. suzmccarth

    I think “man” or “men” is better when the people being referred to are named men. The use of anthropos is sometime a way to refer to a male of lower or common status – the “guy” or “bloke.” But that is not an exactly equivalent either. Rather than seeing anthropos as contrasting with “theos” it may contrast with “aner”, the citizen. However, Paul was a citizen. In koine and in the Psalms, aner and anthropos are sometimes just used as synonyms, nothing more. We shouldn’t expect anything too tidy.

  5. We shouldn’t expect anything too tidy.

    Well, that’s an excellent point. Tidying up and absolute contrasting is really more the Aristotelian goal of writing. Perhaps I’m reading into Luke more than he intended, but I’m not sure he would disallow how I’m reading, are you? The thing that seems to form patterns of discourse as much as the repeated anthropois is the repeated τοῦ ὀνόματος τοῦ κυρίου, referring first to God himself and then to Jesus. Not sure Luke is intending to theologize Jesus at this point, but then again would he dispute that a reader could take what he’s written this way. Readers and translators have made far more of the untidy mess of the literal fragments of lines of poetry of Sappho.