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.
Dynamic equivalence (also known as functional equivalence) attempts to convey the thought expressed in a source text (if necessary, at the expense of literalness, original word order, the source text’s grammatical voice, etc.), while formal equivalence attempts to render the text word-for-word (if necessary, at the expense of natural expression in the target language). The two approaches represent emphasis, respectively, on readability and on literal fidelity to the source text. There is no sharp boundary between dynamic and formal equivalence. Broadly, the two represent a spectrum of translation approaches. (Wikipedia Dynamic and formal equivalence)
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. It’s a lot like obscenity was to Justice Potter Stewart.
I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description [“hard-core pornography”]; and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it, and the motion picture involved in this case is not that. (Justice Potter Stewart, concurring opinion in Jacobellis v. Ohio regarding possible obscenity in The Lovers (Les Amants), a French film about adultery and the rediscovery of love. 1964)
Too often what passes for functional equivalence (like, say, The Message) overshoots the mark — sometimes quite considerably. On the low end of intrusion into the text Peterson makes the Bible sound slangy, and that’s not what the Greek reads like. On the high end he reads a lot of his theology back into the text. (But then that’s nothing new for the English Bible translation game.)
The missing piece of what functional equivalence is supposed to be is something that every linguist absorbs as part of his (her) training, but which is never really made explicit. There is a difference between the meanings of the words individually and the only slightly more abstract meanings that people understand when phrases and sentences are made up of those words. Formal semanticists stand on their heads trying to account for such differences. Cognitivists delight in pointing out the difficult cases that the formalists’ theories can’t handle. But the operative expression here is “slightly more abstract”. Functional equivalents might be worded in dramatically different ways, but in context the meanings have to be very close — if not absolutely identical.
Here’s a example from a recent comic strip that will help highlight the difference between the thing said and the meaning intended.
Wanda (the mother) intended that Hammie (the son) take a bath, but she said it in such a way that it required more cooperation in the communicative exchange than Hammie was ready to give. Here’s how it works:
Taking a bath is a complex frame, in this case it consists primarily of an action chain.
1) One fills the tub with water (and assures that the various soaps and shampoos are readily available).
2) One undresses,
3) gets in the tub,
4) uses the soap and shampoo to get oneself clean,
5) rinses oneself off,
6) gets out of the tub,
7) dries oneself off, and
8) gets dressed again (presumably in clean clothes).
Generally, this action chain is referred to as a whole by saying take a bath. But that’s not the only way to accomplish that communicative end. Wanda referred to one step in the action chain — the most salient step — and assumed a cooperative listener would provide the rest of the action chain by inference.
As is often the case failures give us the most insight into the way language works in general. Relative to the amount of information actually communicated, the amount of information conveyed is small. An important part of knowing a language is knowing how speakers of that language refer to a particular knowledge complex. Normally such reference is made at phrase or even sentence level not word by word.
Let’s take a Biblical example.
Throughout Scripture there are references to people who acted without regard for their own safety for someone else’s benefit, or for some higher cause. There are several expressions used in the NT to express this notion, but there is a common English expression to refer to that class of scenario, it is the word risk. Risk is a relatively new word in English. We got it from the French around the end of the 17th century, but it has become the standard way to express this idea now. In fact, attempting to express this meaning without using the word risk, risks misunderstanding.
It’s worth noting that that fact was not lost on the RSV translation team, as shown by the differences between the 1946 RSV translations (continued in the 2001 ESV) and the 1611 KJV and the 1901 ASV.
ἀνθρώποις παραδεδωκόσι τὰς ψυχὰς αὐτῶν ὑπὲρ τοῦ ὀνόματος τοῦ κυρίου ἡμῶν Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ (Acts 15:26)
‘Men that have hazarded their lives for the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.’(KJV)
‘Men that have hazarded their lives for the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.’(ASV)
‘men who have risked their lives for the sake of our Lord Jesus Christ’ (RSV)
‘men who have risked their lives for the sake of our Lord Jesus Christ.’ (ESV)
οἵτινες ὑπὲρ τῆς ψυχῆς μου τὸν ἑαυτῶν τράχηλον ὑπέθηκαν (Rom 16:4)
‘… Who have for my life laid down their own necks, …’ (KJV)
‘… who for my life laid down their own necks; …’ (ASV)
‘… who risked their necks for my life, …’ (RSV)
‘… who risked their necks for my life, …’ (ESV)
ὅτι διὰ τὸ ἔργον Χριστοῦ μέχρι θανάτου ἤγγισεν, παραβολευσάμενος τῇ ψυχῇ ἵνα ἀναπληρώσῃ τὸ ὑμῶν ὑστέρημα τῆς πρός με λειτουργίας. (Phil. 2:30)
‘Because for the work of Christ he was nigh unto death, not regarding his life, to supply your lack of service toward me.’ (KJV)
‘because for the work of Christ he came nigh unto death, hazarding his life to supply that which was lacking in your service toward me.’ (ASV)
‘for he nearly died for the work of Christ, risking his life to complete your service to me.’ (RSV)
‘For he nearly died for the work of Christ, risking his life to complete what was lacking in your service to me.’ (ESV)
The Greek expressions are like the indirect reference in the cartoon above, they refer to part of the scenario to express the meaning of the whole.
παραδεδωκόσι τὰς ψυχὰς αὐτῶν lit. ‘handing over his life’
τὸν ἑαυτῶν τράχηλον ὑπέθηκαν lit. ‘they have laid down their necks’
παραβολευσάμενος τῇ ψυχῇ lit. ‘making a throw with one’s life’
The difference between the indirect expressions in Koine and the direct expressions in the RSV demonstrates the proper application of functional equivalence. Between the time of the KJV (1611) and the RSV (1946) there was a shift in English usage making the word risk all but obligatory for referring to scenarios of risk. That shift made expressions with risk the functional equivalent of the various Koine expressions.
That’s functional equivalence — née dynamic equivalence — properly understood.
 The ASV was behind the curve. Risk was already in wide use by the end of the 19th century.