Interview: Eugene Nida on Meaning-full Translations
Eugene A. Nida is not a household name, but the 84-year-old resident of Belgium has influenced the Bibles read by most Christians around the world. The "premier linguist and translation consultant," as the Evangelical Dictionary of World Missions styles him, writes mostly about technical topics: descriptive linguistics, cross-cultural communications, translation theory, and semantics. However, the translations he helped shape in over 200 languages make it easier for many millions of lay Christians and nonbelievers to grasp the meaning of the Bible.
He taught at the Summer Institute of Linguistics (now SIL), the educational alter ego of Wycliffe Bible Translators, and eventually became executive secretary for translations at the American Bible Society.
He coined the term dynamic equivalence translation to describe a "meaning-based" approach to translation—one that looks for functional equivalence rather than formal resemblance in translation. The American Bible Society's 1976 Good News Bible and its 1995 Contemporary English Version show his influence, as do other prominent translations, such as the New Living Translation.
CT editor David Neff talked with Nida when the outspoken linguist visited the United States earlier this year.
What do you consider your most important contribution to Bible translation?
To help people be willing to say what the text means—not what the words are, but what the text means.
For example, Hallowed be thy name in the Lord's Prayer. I have not met one English-speaking person who can tell me what that means. I've met some theologians who say that this is a passive imperative (which we don't have in the English language), but it seems to me a tragedy for us to use expressions that most people don't understand.
How did you develop your ideas about Bible translation 50 years ago?
When I was at the University of California, Los Angeles, our professors would never let us translate literally. They said, "We want to know the meaning. We don't want to know just the words."
I found that a number of the Greek classics had been translated very meaningfully, much better than the Bible had been translated. I thought it a tragedy to have the Scriptures in a form that most people misinterpret. Why should the Bible be so much more poorly translated than secular texts?
I studied linguistics, Greek, Latin, and Hebrew, and I decided that we've got to approach the Scripture as though it is the message and try to give its meaning, not just to repeat the words.
Is this difficult in practice?
When we bring together a group of folks who want to be translators, it takes a month to get them willing to make sense intellectually. It takes another two weeks to make them willing to do it emotionally. They can accept it intellectually but not emotionally because they've grown up worshiping words more than worshiping God.
We can't have conferences for new translators in less than six weeks because of this psychological hurdle. Otherwise, within a year's time they will be producing literal translations because it's so much easier to do it word-for-word.
Bible translators often think they must aim at almost exact verbal correspondence to the original in order to make sense. Many of them insist there must be consistency of words. But consistency in principal words is misleading because words have a variety of meanings depending on context. So a translator can be consistently wrong as well as consistently right.
This "word worship" helps people to have confidence, but they don't understand the text. And as long as they worship words, instead of worshiping God as revealed in Jesus Christ, they feel safe.