Nida – What dynamic equivalence was all about

If you missed the headline, Eugene Nida died last August on the 25th at the age of 96.

Some newspapers, such as The Telegraph or French newspaper La Croix  did relay the info, but it was not a major headline because last summer, London’s burning, police and thieves were in the streets, and the white riots were so mediatised that we forgot we were bored with the USA (if you wonder what the last sentence was about, just google « the Clash » on your browser).

So for those who wonder who Eugene Nida was, let’s just say he was an American Baptist reverend who helped to translate the Bible in more than 200 languages and who was famous in the field of translation studies for his seminal work on dynamic equivalence, a translation strategy that aims at complete naturalness of expression.

There’s no such thing as identical equivalence in translation and the Bible is no exception. Just check the word ‘Bible’ in your favourite encyclopaedia and you’ll find that the word encapsulates different sets of texts depending on the religion it refers to.

Since identical equivalence is impossible, Nida thought that Bible translators should rely on the closest words, expressions, structures, references, etc., i.e. the closest natural equivalents available in the language of the people they were targeting. Off course, he acknowledged that in some instances translators should reproduce as literally and meaningfully as possible the original texts they translate, a strategy he refered to as formal equivalence. But he thought that for certain particular purposes – such as that of converting people to Baptist Christianity – dynamic equivalence was the best strategy.

This is because dynamic equivalence focuses primarily on equivalence of response. It aims to provoke a response by the person to be converted which would be similar to that of a speaker from the original language (Eugene Nida, Towards a Science of Translating, with Special Reference to Principles and Procedures involved in Bible Translating, Brill, 1964)

But the « original language » he had in mind was not actually Hebrew, or Aramaic, or whatever other language the Bible might has originally be written in. The « original speaker » he had in mind was the American English speaker. While he might have not said it explicitly in his academic work, the purpose he had in mind was always the translation of the Bible from American English into the language of foreign people to be converted.

Nida’s work on dynamic equivalence is highly interesting, and constitutes a valid strategy in its own right, though some translators think that, through his theories, Nida was pushing for his own agenda, the imposition of American identity and values on foreign cultures. Among such translators is Lawrence Venuti, who questioned whether Nida’s concept of similar response was not just another impossible form of equivalence. Venuti is an American translator and academic, who has denounced the invisibility that plagues the work of translators. In his most famous piece of writing, Venuti refered to Nida, stating that:

« When Nida asserts that ‘an easy and natural style in translating, despite the extreme difficulty of producing it [...] is nevertheless essential to producing in the ultimate receptors a response similar to that of the original receptors’ (Nida 1964:163), he is in fact imposing the [American] English-language valorization of transparent discourse on every foreign culture, masking a basic disjunction between the source and target language texts which puts into question the possibility of eliciting a « similar » response » (Lawrence Venuti, The Translator’s Invisibility. A History of Translation, Routledge, 1995, p21).

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