Sunday, September 4, 2011

Some Reminiscences of Eugene Nida

Coming so soon after the death of Peter Newmark (see August 5 post), it's all the more saddening to read that another Grand Old Man of translation studies, Eugene Nida, has passed away too. He was 96. Such was his fame that there were even obituaries of him this week in The Wall Street Journal and The Telegraph! For another obituary, go to the Stine article listed below under References. All the obits highlight that for over 50 years he was the leader of translation activities at the American Bible Society.

He belonged to the great 20th-century tradition of American ethnological and structural linguists, having earned a doctorate in linguistics from the University of Michigan in 1943. This became allied to great effect with his motivation as a Baptist minister to get people throughout the world to read and understand the Bible. This aim of understandability led him to formulate one of the most famous definitions of translation:
"Translating consists in reproducing in the receptor language the closest natural equivalent of the source-language message, first in terms of meaning and secondly in terms of style."
It’s very simple, but it reflects well the dominant expert translation norm of our times (except in the opinion of some literary translators who object to the subordination of style to meaning). Behind it is the concept that Nida himself called dynamic equivalence (DE):
"In contrast with formal-oriented translations [i.e. those that stick close to the form of the original wording] others are oriented towards dynamic equivalence. In such a translation the focus of attention is directed, not so much toward the source message, as toward the receptor response. A DE translation may be described as one concerning which a bilingual and bicultural person can justifiably say, `That is just the way we would say it.' It is important to realize, however, that a DE is not merely another message which is more or less similar to that of the source. It is a translation, and as such must clearly reflect the meaning and intent of the source."
The last quotation is taken from his magnum opus, Toward a Science of Translation, published in 1964. In a recent article (see References), I acknowledged how Toward a Science influenced the coining of the terms traductologie in French and translatology in English in the early 1970s. It’s one of the few books I freighted with me from Canada to Spain, not least for its 55-page bibliography. From the 1960s through the 1980s, there was hardly a thesis on translation that didn't cite it. And of course the book itself was translated. I wrote to Nida from the Middle East to tip him off him that an unauthorised Arabic translation had appeared in Iraq (see References).

The practical realisation of his ideal came in the form of the Good News Bible of 1976.

In addition to his writings, he was a magnetic lecturer who knew how to hold his audience by explaining his ideas to them in crisp English they could all understand and by apt examples. Physically, the word that springs to my mind to describe him is sprightly. As a result, he was in demand as a speaker all over the world until an advanced age. I saw and heard him on numerous occasions, and the last time was at a surprising location: Yarmouk University. Yarmouk University is at Irbid in the north of Jordan, close to the border with Syria. Out of the way, but it had a translation programme. That was in the spring of 1992. ‘Saw and heard him’ in a manner of speaking: actually he didn’t come in person but sent a video of his talk. Looking back through my notes, I see that by coincidence one of the things he said is particularly relevant to the post that immediately precedes this one and its title ‘A Gift for Consecutive’. He told the story of a North American Indian interpreter who had once interpreted a whole lecture of his non-stop and without taking any notes. All 45 minutes of it. It might seem incredible were it not that we have other well-documented accounts of feats like that. Was it because the interpreter had ’the gift’ or was it because he or she came from a culture with a strong tradition of oral messaging and story-telling?

Nevertheless, I only had direct dealings with him on one occasion. It must have been around 1980, soon after my first publications about Natural Translation. He was always open-minded and eclectic – Toward a Science has a chapter on machine translation – and on the lookout for new ideas. So he invited me to give a talk in a symposium he was organising at an American university. I recall with shame that in my enthusiasm I committed the sin of going on speaking well beyond the time allotted to me. But he didn’t interrupt me or reproach me. He was a very courteous person.

One of the bees in my bonnet is that contemporary mainstream translation studies don’t attach enough importance to religious translation. Through Nida, religious translation made a great contribution to modern translation theory.

Eugene Nida. Toward a Science of Translating, with special reference to principles and procedures involved in Bible translation. Leiden: Brill, 1964. 331 p. Second-hand copies from $25 through Amazon USA.

Eugene Nida. Arabic version of Toward a Science of Translation translated by Najjâr in the series 'alkutub almutarjamah (Translated Books). Baghdad: Ministry of Publishing Press, 1975.

Good News Bible: Today’s English Version. Translated by the staffs of the American Bible Society and the United Bible Societies. New York: American Bible Society, 1976. It was preceded by Good News for Modern Man: The New Testament in Today's English Version, American Bible Society, 1966.

Stephen Miller. Spreading the Word in hundreds of tongues. Wall Street Journal, August 30, 2011.

The Reverend Eugene Nida. The Telegraph, September 3, 2011.

Philip C. Stine. Eugene Nida dies. United Bible Societies, August 25, 2011.

Brian Harris. Origins and conceptual analysis of the term traductologie/translatology. Babel, vol. 57, no. 1, pp. 15-31, 2011.

Image: Eugene A. Nida Institute for Biblical Scholarship. The portraits accompanying the newspaper obits are more glamorous, but this is more like how I remember him.


  1. Excellent blog post about a great man. I'm just getting into the translation/interpretation field and I'm so glad to find this blog!

  2. Thank you Expion. I'm just sorry I had to do this post on the occasion of his death, but he lived a good life.

    With your enthusiasm, you'll go a long way.

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