The father of dynamic equivalence

Back in 2002, I was researching a Masters dissertation on: ‘the preacher as translator: a model for preaching in the 21st Century. At the time, Eugene Nida was my constant companion. Last week, in a hospital in Brussels, he died. If you read the Bible in your own language, in a modern and accessible translation, he has probably been your companion too, even without you knowing it.  Nida’s concern in Bible translation began from a mission perspective, wanting to put into the hands of cross-cultural missionaries a Bible which would ‘do the job’. In order to do this he honed the translation technique known as ‘dynamic’ or ‘functional’ equivalence.

Dynamic equivalence seeks to assess what the source text did in its source culture, and then to reproduce that same effect by the target text on the target culture. In other words, it is less concerned about reproducing a word for word equivalence, and more concerned about reproducing a blow for blow impact. Nida himself said that the aim in all this was that the reader of the eventual translation would be ‘transformed by its [the Bible’s] message.’ This technique led to some spectacular translations, for example:

  • ‘No-one puts old opossum fur onto new opossum fur’ (Mark 2 v. 21, Aboriginal Bible)
  • ‘Place your light on a grain bin’ (Mark 4 v. 21 Korku New Testament)
  • ‘Your sins shall be made as white as the snow of a seal pup'(Isaiah 1 v.18 Inukitut Bible)
The latter comes from a translation for the Inuits which took 24 years to complete. Using the principles of dynamic equivalence, the word ‘snow’ could not be used – since snow is like the dirt under your feet for those who walk on it all day long. Hence the use of ‘seal pup’ to demonstrate purity instead.
Closer to home, the work of Eugene Nida had a huge impact on the Good News Bible, which has now sold over 218 million copies worldwide.
When I teach students about these principles of translation, I tend to talk about the ‘tale of two Eugenes’, using the image below.The man on the left is the one people are far more likely to recognise: Eugene Peterson, translator of ‘The Message’. When Peterson first wrote down his translation of Galatians, and then was persuaded to write down the rest of the New Testament as well, he expressed his surprise about the request. So far as he was concerned he was just writing down what he had been doing in the pulpit for years- expressing the truths of Scripture in the ‘language of the parking lot’.  In so doing, whether consciously or not, he was embracing the principles which another Eugene had laid down before him.
Today I thank God for the life and work of Eugene Nida.