Eugene Nida - Formal Correspondence in Translation (1970)

Formal Correspondence in Translation

By Eugene A. Nida, 1970.

Dr. Eugene A. Nida is Secretary for Translations, the American Bible Society.

(taken from The Bible Translator, Vol. 21 No. 3 July 1970)

A crucial question constantly confronts all Bible translators: How far should a Bible translator go in adapting the message to the language and the culture of the receptors? Should one insist on following closely the wording of the original, and in a sense thus force the reader to adjust to the original? Or, should he try to employ the closest natural equivalent and bring the original to the reader?

There is no easy answer to this basic question, for there are so many factors involved.

  1. There are the different degrees of cultural and linguistic diversity which separate distinct sets of source and receptor languages. Hence, what might be a satisfactory formula for dealing with one type of transfer from the source to the receptor language would seem very inappropriate when applied to a quite different set of languages.
  2. There are vast differences in literary traditions in various receptor languages. For some languages a formal-correspondence translation (i.e. one in which there is relatively close formal parallelism) might be acceptable, since it is more or less standard practice, while in another language this type of translation would be seriously frowned upon and generally rejected.
  3. One must also take into consideration the people for whom a translation is being prepared. Their background knowledge, their intrinsic interest in the message, and their attitudes toward communication all figure in determining how far one can and should go in making adaptations.
  4. The content of a message to some extent determines how a translator must treat it. For example, if people have no indigenous traditions about the creation of the world, that is to say, if they have no concept of cosmology, then translating the first two chapters of Genesis involves many more problems than would be the case for people who have at least some ideas about creation and the development of plant and animal life.
  5. The literary form of a passage is important in determining how certain problems should be handled. For example, in poetic language people normally expect more figures of speech and idioms than they are prepared to accept in normal prose. In a prose context they might very well assume that such idioms should be understood literally, since most of the expressions in prose are so intended. However, in a poetic structure, where more of such figures of speech occur, there is much more likelihood that people will understand such idiomatic expressions as being figurative.

Before, however, we can deal meaningfully with the issue of how far one should go in adaptation, it is essential that we examine the extent to which translators have employed formal adaptations and that we try to determine the apparent reasons for such adaptations. Only in this way can we properly formulate some guiding principles which may be adequate to direct a translators’ efforts in making legitimate adjustments and in providing the necessary supplementary information by means of marginal notes, glossaries, tables of weights and measures, etc. In fact, in this article we shall be concerned only with a study of the types of adjustments made by translators and of some of the apparent reasons which have prompted such modifications.

Formal Differences between Translations

Even within a single language one may encounter a surprising range of translation. For example, in English the American Standard Version of 1901 is extremely literal; in fact, it is just about as much a word-for-word translation as one could imagine and still make sense. It has been said that the translators of the ASV and the ERV were “long on Greek and Hebrew but short on English”. However this may be, what is significant about this translation from our standpoint is its rather extreme literal correspondence to the wording of the original texts. The Revised Standard Version (1952) is an attempt to bring the text of the American Standard Version more into line with contemporary usage in English, while preserving a considerable degree of formal correspondence. The New English Bible (N.T. 1961 and O.T. 1970) represents quite a different approach, for in the NEB the committee purposely chose to depart generally from the Elizabethan forms of English as represented in the King James Version and the English Revised Version, and to attempt an entirely fresh translation, based far more on principles of dynamic equivalence. J. B. Phillips has even gone a step further and has introduced a number of equivalences which depart rather radically, not only from the wording of the original, but also from the cultural context of the communication.

Despite these four rather marked degrees of formal difference (ASV, RSV, NEB, JBP) in the translations, there are not, however, many radically different interpretations. In fact, it is amazing how essentially similar these translations are in exegesis, but how significantly different they are in ways of expression. To a large extent, therefore, I might say that the basic problem for the Bible translator is thus not: ‚What does it mean?‘ but, ‚How does one say it?‘

If, however, we are to discuss degrees of formal difference in a satisfactory manner, we must have some sort of scale for comparison. But how to produce such a scale is not at all easy, since there are so many different non-commensurate factors involved. At one extreme there is the formal correspondence of word classes, e.g. nouns for nouns and verbs for verbs, and at another extreme the adaptations of figures of speech, e.g. “tall as a cedar” (Amos 2.9), which is equivalent in several Nilotic languages of the Sudan to “tall as a reed” (cedars are unknown, and furthermore a man’s height is never compared with a tree). A completely formal scale could, of course, not be applied in the same way to different literary forms, e.g. narrative, exposition, and poetry. Furthermore, one cannot assign numerical values to the various features. Nevertheless, despite all of these complications, it is possible to construct a kind of hypothetical scale which has a large measure of structural validity and which can provide useful insights into many types of problems.

A Model for Analyzing Formal Differences between Translations

A useful model for analyzing the formal differences between translations has two basic dimensions. The vertical dimension is a measurement of the amount of formal correspondence (i.e. between the source-language text and the receptor-language text) which should exist in a theoretically optimum translation, that is, in a translation which has just the right amount of formal correspondence, taking into consideration the degrees of linguistic difference between the source and receptor languages. Of course, one could never get the agreement of all concerned as to precisely how much formal correspondence a specific translation should have in order to be judged an optimal dynamic equivalent translation, but we could plot, as an average of different informed opinions, approximately where in the structure of the model an optimum translation for any specific receptor language should be placed.

The horizontal dimension of this model is the rank order of all languages, counting from the source language, which would be at the extreme left, i.e. at the position of zero. Theoretically this would mean that we would compare all languages and arrange them in order beginning with the one which is formally closest to the source language and then proceeding language by language to those which are more and more remote. This would give us a rank order of languages, based on their formal characteristics. For example, if we chose English as the source language, then the order would probably be Frisian, Dutch, Low German, High German, followed by the Scandinavian languages, and then French, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, etc. It would be extremely difficult to set up such a rank order of languages, for there would obviously be many different factors: vocabulary, syntax, discourse structure, etc., but theoretically at least it should be possible, and it is this theoretical possibility which makes the model on p. 107 so helpful and instructive in thinking about some of the fundamental problems of formal differences in translation.

If on the basis of these two fundamental dimensions (the percentage of optimum formal correspondence in specific texts and the rank order of languages based on degrees of structural dissimilarity, beginning with the source language) we attempt to plot the position of the optimum dynamic equivalent translation for various languages (disregarding some of the problems of literary genre, style, and literary traditions in the receptor languages), we come out with a type of componential curve.

We do not know precisely the form of such a curve, but we do know that as we move away from the source language the degree of formal correspondence falls away very fast. At the other extreme, for languages which are very different from the source language, the relative total amount of formal correspondence does not differ appreciably, even though the particular features of such differences may be utterly distinct. That is to say, in translating from Greek into Enga (a Papuan language of Central New Guinea), King Bushman (a language of South West Africa and Angola) and Aymara (a language of Peru and Bolivia), the differences in the relative amounts of formal diversity from Greek are not very great, even though the kinds of formal adjustment which are made in these three utterly diverse languages are quite distinct. In other words, the specifics of change are very diverse, but the percentage of modifications in the three instances is not very different.

There are certain other aspects of this model which should be carefully noted. In the first place, no language would have complete formal agreement with the source language. That is to say, no language would have 100 per cent correspondence. This is due to the very nature of languages themselves, for two forms of human speech are distinct languages only when they are so formally different as to be mutually unintelligible. Accordingly, the curve must begin somewhere below 100 per cent. If, as suggested, English is chosen as the source language, then Frisian would begin not too far down.

On the other hand, if Basque is to be regarded as a source language, then the closest language would be considerably further down on the scale, since Basque is not related to any other Western European language.

Along the curve that has been drawn in the model the point of optimal dynamic equivalence for any language (as determined by its rank order in the horizontal dimension) indicates that any position below this line would mean too little formal correspondence. That is to say, if the structural differences between source and receptor languages indicate by the rank order that there should be theoretically only 60 per cent of formal correspondence and if one had only 40 per cent of formal correspondence, this would be entirely too little. On the other hand, most translations tend to introduce more formal correspondence than is optimal, thus missing the correct position of a particular language on the curve.

Though one may justifiably speak of “formal-correspondence translations” as being the opposite of “dynamic-equivalence translations”, it is necessary to recognize that in using the designation “formal-correspondence translations” we are simply classifying a translation on the basis of certain dominant and decisive features, namely, the fact that it has too much formal correspondence. In Figure 1, however, we are trying to point out what would be the ideal amount of formal equivalence in a translation and this would be equivalent to a “dynamic-equivalence translation”. The term “equivalence” points to the right amount of formal correspondence, and “dynamic” relates the communication process to the intake capacity of the receptors. That is to say, the validity of renderings must be determined on the basis of how the intended receptors are most likely to understand the text. For certain descriptive purposes, therefore, we can rightly oppose formal-correspondence translations and dynamic-equivalence translations, but in terms of the diversity of structures of particular source and receptor languages, a dynamic equivalent translation is located at the optimal position on the scale of formal correspondence.

It is also important to realize that the optimum position for a particular language will actually consist of a series of closely related positions along the line for different literary types, e.g. narrative, exposition, poetry, etc., since all of these require somewhat varying degrees of formal correspondence.

Though most translators attempt to prepare texts which will be at an optimum point (or set of points) on this curve, in reality a high percentage of translations miss the target. They tend either to move too close to the source language, in which case they introduce far too much formal correspondence; or they may move too far from the source language and introduce too little formal correspondence. Because of this tendency to move in either direction from the optimum, it is useful to study some of the reasons which lead to such shifts.

A Tendency toward too Much Formal Correspondence

There are a number of reasons why translators tend toward too much formal correspondence in translating. In the first place, some translators simply do not have adequate control of the receptor language into which they attempt to translate. As a result they tend to impose on the translation the linguistic structures which are familiar to them in their own mother tongue or in some other source language which they may be using. This use of “some other source language”, i.e. Greek or Hebrew, is usually, however, far more theoretical than actual, for very few translators really think in Greek or Hebrew. Moreover, all that they know of these languages has been filtered through their own mother tongue so consistently and thoroughly that they are often quite unaware of the extent to which their own ecclesiastical and liturgical traditions are reflected in their interpretations of the Greek and Hebrew texts.

In the second place, translators can include far too much formal correspondence in their translations when they rely too much on their informants. This may seem a contradiction in terms, since the local helpers are presumably more likely to want to use their own expressions than to imitate the language of the foreigner. However, this is by no means always the case. In fact, informants often have a very exaggerated view of the importance of a secondary source language, especially if they have had some limited education in it. Moreover, they may simply feel that the strange message of the Bible might just as well be expressed in strange forms in their own language, thus seeming to match the mystery of the communication with the unintelligibility of the linguistic forms.

A failure to understand proper translation principles may also be a reason for too high a percentage of formal correspondence in a translation. Translators may have been led to think that in rendering the Bible one must stick to a word-for-word type of correspondence. Once they are assured that this is by no means so, and that in fact to do this results usually in distorting badly the meaning of the Biblical message, they are normally delighted to know that they have the freedom to communicate the Good News so that people can really understand. The tendency toward slavish literalism often comes from typical schoolroom practices of asking students to translate foreign language sentences literally. Presumably, the teacher reasons that only in this way can he determine whether the student has really analyzed the formal structure. However, this type of classroom translating is to be vigorously denounced, not only as a model for Bible translating but even as a proper procedure for the classroom.

Some literal translations may result from translators thinking of the commonly termed “primitive languages” as basically inferior, and hence the more these languages can be adjusted to the forms of so-called “world languages” (by which the translator usually designates his own mother tongue), the better off everyone will be. The result of this process is a kind of “translationese”—a hybrid form of language which is really an insult to a people. In fact, one chief in West Africa refused to have a Gospel distributed among his people, for he said that he simply would not have his language corrupted by such ludicrously perverted forms.

Some translators insist upon strict formal correspondence in translation because of an incorrect view of inspiration. They think of the New Testament as having been written in a special form of Greek—a kind of “Holy Ghost language” which must be reproduced, even if it does not make sense. Such a view of the Scriptures is not far removed from word magic. This tendency to literalism in translation occurs with translators representing two quite different theological orientations. Persons with strongly conservative theological views may feel constrained to “reproduce the very words of the original”, even though the sense may not be clear (in fact, in such instances it is most likely to be misunderstood by the receptors). Such translators feel very reluctant to appear to be “changing the Word of God”. They feel that verbal correspondence is more important than contextual consistency, and hence if the original writer uses the Greek word sarks in a number of different passages, these translators want to employ only one word, i.e. “flesh”, even though it may have quite different meanings in these different contexts.

At the opposite end of the theological spectrum are those who are almost equally interested in literal verbal consistency. They are not concerned with the doctrine of inspiration by the Holy Spirit, but they are very anxious to try to reproduce what they feel is the “inspiration of the believing community”. In order to know just how these original believers were inspired by the message, translators holding this viewpoint contend that one must reproduce the very words which the original writers used. Only in this way is one supposedly able “to reproduce the flavor” and “to catch the mood”.

In reality, however, such literal translations do not reproduce the flavor. Rather, they introduce a kind of “odd” flavor and at the same time tend to obscure the meaning. They cannot really recreate the mood of the original, for the reader is simply not familiar with the cultural and linguistic background. The real mood is created by something that will be completely natural in the receptor language, assuming, of course, that the original text was also natural in its form.

A tendency toward too little formal correspondence

In the same way that translators may swing too far to the left in trying to match the formal structures of the source text, they can also go too far to the right (i.e. in terms of the model in Figure 1) and employ too little formal correspondence.

One of the common reasons for too little formal correspondence is too little mastery of the receptor language. Of course, at first the translator, in his gross ignorance of the receptor language, tends to conform the translation entirely too much to his own mother tongue—the only one which he really controls. With such an inadequate mastery of the receptor language he is often quite unaware of much of the potential of the receptor language— potential which may correspond in many respects to the forms of the source language. Even after learning more of the receptor language, he still may tend to introduce too little formal correspondence. He is so aware of some of the striking differences between the source and receptor languages that he feels that any formal correspondence is suspect. Therefore, even though there may be a perfectly natural expression which is similar to the source-language form, he is likely to reject it.

The tendency toward too little formal correspondence may also result from the translator’s having only a hazy idea of what the text actually means. Since he does not possess a precise understanding of its significance, he tends to express the meaning much less succinctly and economically (and thus with less formal agreement) than he should. It is almost always true that people who do not know exactly what they want to say take entirely too many words to say it; and so a translator who does not know exactly what a passage means tends to beat around the linguistic bush in order to say something, which may be an approximation, even though in reality it is formally quite distant.

Too little formal correspondence may also result from a “bias for the exotic”. This is especially true for persons who have spent some time working in a language which is interestingly different from their own mother tongue. Even those who have some introduction to linguistics but who do not have sufficient breadth of language experience, may be strongly, though unconsciously, biased in favor of the language which they have investigated and learned. This seems to be especially true if they have reduced the language to writing and have developed a possessive attitude toward the language. They are so impressed by the distinctive features of this language that they tend to highlight them and, in fact, to overuse them.

A considerable degree of unconscious paternalism may also be involved in this tendency toward too little formal correspondence. Some translators feel constrained to make the text “doubly clear”; otherwise “our natives cannot understand”, they insist. In fact, they want to make the text even clearer than it is in the original. Some prefer to bring all supplementary material into the text, rather than leave it in the form of marginal helps, since they insist that “our people do not use footnotes”. In our case, a translator went so far as to produce a translation which was a combination of Biblical text, liturgy, and commentary—all as the result of the best intentions, but with very little regard for the historical context in which the Scriptures were first produced and for the way in which the Church has traditionally employed them.

No doubt some of the difficulties involved in the tendency toward too little formal correspondence result from the use of the Scriptures in ways which are at variance with their original usage. The New Testament was essentially addressed to the Church, to be used by the Church in its witness to the world. It was part of the proclamation of the word and the witness, the Bible and the Church. The use of the Scriptures in evangelism, among so many peoples who have no contact with the believing community, inevitably calls for the introduction of certain marginal helps which are designed to provide the essential historical and cultural background, but not doctrinal or dogmatic interpretation. In doctrinal matters the Bible must be left to speak for itself. The Bible Societies have recognized the importance, in fact the indispensable nature, of such marginal helps, but at the same time they cannot depart from their historic evangelical position and permit the introduction of such supplementary materials into the text itself.

In some instances too little formal correspondence has resulted from a lack of concern for the historical context in which the Scriptures were first written. When a translator renders “demon possessed” as “mentally distressed”, he is obviously not concerned with the historical (or even theological) viewpoint of the Scriptures, but with what he personally regards as the present-day equivalent. Also, a translator who wishes to render “shepherd” as “pigherder”, because it fits the local culture better, is guilty of overlooking the uniqueness of the historical setting of the Scriptures. This tendency to “redraft” the Scriptures along more modern lines is found at both poles of theological thought. Evangelistic motivations may prompt some conservatives to be impatient with the text, for they want to reedit it in terms of present-day applications. Similarly, some liberals regard the strictly historical viewpoint as irrelevant, since only the present-day existential values are supposedly of any significance. Both of these approaches amount essentially to a kind of demythologizing, and in the process they depart rather radically from the traditional emphasis upon the uniqueness of the historical revelation, as rooted in history and worked out in the concrete actions of specific peoples.

Is Translation Really Possible?

The problems of translation are so enormous and the failures to translate adequately are so numerous that one may well ask, “Is translation really possible?” A number of persons have, of course, asked this question in the past, and as Fritz Güttinger, in his fascinating book Zielsprache, has pointed out, the literary critics have tended to be opposed to translation (at least theoretically), claiming that in reality it is not possible, and if it is attempted, then only strictly literal translations can be admitted, since these are the only ones which can reveal the literary structure of the original document. On the other hand, authors, who are much more concerned with the processes of communication than with the problems of dissecting literary forms, are likely to prefer dynamic-equivalence translations which will accurately reflect the spirit and the content of the original text, even though departing somewhat from the forms.

A somewhat similar dichotomy may be found among Christian scholars. Theologians who have concentrated primarily upon the forms of language used in the Greek and Hebrew texts of Scripture are often those who most emphatically object to dynamic-equivalence translations, while those who are concerned with the practical problems of communicating the message of the Bible are much more aware of the necessity of making alterations in the form, not only as a means of communicating with receptors, but also as a means of preserving the very content of the message itself.

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