LINGUIST List 15.495

Fri Feb 6 2004

Review: Translation: Nida (2003)

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  • Christine Winskowski, Fascinated by Languages

    Message 1: Fascinated by Languages

    Date: Thu, 5 Feb 2004 23:01:05 -0500 (EST)
    From: Christine Winskowski <>
    Subject: Fascinated by Languages

    Nida, Eugene A. (2003) Fascinated by Languages, John Benjamins.

    Announced at

    Christine Winskowski, Iwate Prefectural University.

    In this book, Eugene Nida offers an autobiographical account of his work, spanning over four decades, in Bible translation. In this time, Nida made over 200 trips to various parts of the world, supervising scriptural translation projects on behalf of the United Bible Societies (UBS) and its members. ''Fascinated by Languages'' presents a first-hand account of many difficulties inevitably encountered in meaningfully translating ancient scriptural texts across time, across language, and across cultures.

    Nida opens this account by describing the causes of his ''fascination with languages'' - a multi-lingual family and neighbors, and visiting preachers presenting contradictory arguments based on the same Biblical texts. After completing a master's degree in patristics (early church fathers) in 1939, Nida's first professional work was the evaluation of a translation in Yipounou (a Bantu language) of the Gospel of Mark from the Bible. Here he first encountered translation which was faithful to the original wording, but not to the meaning of the text - a theme which would recur many times in his career.

    After the end of the Second World War, Nida participated in the formation of the United Bible Societies, a non-denominational umbrella organization for national Bible societies of the world, dedicated to the translation and dissemination of the Bible. Oversight of translation projects in the field was to be Nida's vocation for the next 40 some years.

    Part I of the book comprises highlights of Nida's experiences in various parts of the world over the course of his career. As such, his experiences are not presented chronologically; in fact, there is no dating whatsoever, except from the occasional hint given by a historical event, e.g. ''after the Cultural Revolution in China'' (p. 33). Instead, Nida describes translation difficulties, relevant social/political and church-related developments, cultural issues, and his own travel adventures, grouped by region and country.

    The reader is first introduced to Nida's work in Africa, initially a survey to find what translation projects were being undertaken at the time. He describes translation problems grounded in culture, linguistics, theology, and administration. For example, in the Sudan, the expression for ''forgiveness'' is ''to spit on the ground in front of someone,'' a traditional sign in the adjudication of disputes. Clearly, however, such a cultural accommodation would be problematic for many translators rendering scriptural passages.

    The chapter on Asia is divided by countries. Translation problems, social and political contexts, cultural differences, and travel adventures are treated. Nida describes delays to translation projects in Lebanon because of factional rivalry over dialects of Arabic. In Thailand, Nida found the notion of ''everlasting life,'' the traditional reward in Christianity, could not appeal to Buddhists, who aim to break the chain of innumerable rebirths into life and escape to the oblivion of nirvana. Nida's account of Japan suggests curious intransigence. His recommendations to select translators of middle age (rather than advanced age) were politely received but not taken seriously, and it was also felt that meaningful and clear translations would leave preachers with nothing to do. In China, however, Nida found exceptionally effective language learning and impressive dedication among students and scholars.

    Latin America is the next region of the world treated in this volume. Nida describes one church he visited in Chile which boasted more than 10,000 members. In describing a project to revise the Reina-Valera Bible in Spanish, he points to the reluctance frequently encountered to scriptural change, especially when a text has been used for some time. Still, the revision proceeded with ''more than 1,700 pages of proposed changes'' (p. 48), forwarded from all over Latin American. Another challenge was the translation into indigenous languages. The apostle Paul was considered a brujo (sorcerer) because the text of Acts speaks of him ''breathing out threats and death against the disciples,'' apparently characteristic behavior of sorcerers.

    Nida also worked in North America, assisting translation of the Bible into indigenous languages. In this section he points to the difficulties stemming from poor, literal renderings of the Greek into English in the King James and English Revised versions. The phrase ''hallowed be they name'', for example, is not a reference to God's holiness, but rather a reference to ''the manner in which people should recognize his holiness'' (p. 53). In reviewing a Hopi translation of the New Testament, Nida found no evidence supporting Whorf's well-known claim that the Hopi language contained conceptual limitations.

    In Eastern Europe, Nida investigated developments in Russia, Georgia, and Armenia. Along with interesting travel stories (e.g. encountering a hotel reservation as ''A. Linquist,'' due to the misreading of ''Nida, Eugene Albert; Linguist''), Nida seemed to appreciate his contact with the intelligentsia of all three countries.

    In Western Europe, Nida found that university graduates had strong foundations in literature but had little practical skill with foreign language. In the Czech Republic, Nida encountered Old Testament scholars prepared to represent time and place realistically in their translations, but New Testament scholars who preferred more literal renderings. He apparently found great interest and dedication on the part of students and teachers of Romania, and reports that his sessions with Lithuanian translators were the most interesting he has encountered.

    Part II of Nida's book deals with translation, texts as literature, and interpretation. He introduces the key translation consultants he worked with through the years, and points out that the best translators may not be conversant in linguistics, but must know the cultures of the Hebrew Bible and New Testament. They must also be able to render the text in a meaningful way for future readers. Nida clearly is passionate about fidelity to the text: A colleague, translating the book of Matthew, omitted reference to the star of Bethlehem being observed by the wise men as ''moving.'' The colleague argued that the wise men, as astronomers, knew that stars did not ''move.'' However, Nida points out that eliminating this supernatural event from the translation departs from the text.

    In the chapter on the Bible as literature, Nida points to the rich literary character of the texts, and observes that translators are rarely educated to be sensitive to the literary forms. He discusses the powerful poetry and insightful theology of Job, densely packed metaphors in Ecclesiastes, and other beauties of the language.

    In Nida's chapter on interpretation of texts, he states that the contextual differences may lead to diverse interpretations, a typical translation problem. He describes the apocryphal and deuterocanonical books (i.e. those not accepted by all churches as genuine), and explains their importance to the understanding of the time. Also presented are some of the knotty problems raised by inconsistency across texts. Is differing order in the listing of the temptations of Jesus in Matthew and in Luke a sign of Biblical errancy, or theological emphasis? Did Jesus' cleansing of the temple take place in the last week of his life, as indicated in Matthew, Mark and Luke, or at the beginning of his ministry, as indicated in John? Nida points out that such inconsistencies are to be expected in texts which have been orally transmitted and then transcribed across more than a thousand years.

    The Vatican II declaration that scriptural readings should be made available to local languages of churches set in motion conferences on inter-faith cooperation on translation projects, such as an ecumenical French translation of the Bible, and a modern Greek translation of the New Testament. Nida explains that ancient texts have variable reliability; in fact the well-known King James Bible was based on a text of lesser reliability. Another project was a commentary of the Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia, evaluating ancient texts according to whether there were multiple copies, whether scribes had attempted to simplify text, attempts by scribes to make their texts more similar to one another, and various errors. Nida adds some anecdotes about these scholars' lives - e.g. playing scrabble in four languages at once. The development of a Greek New Testament lexicon was the next project, a task involving careful and principled classification of thousands of meanings for the 5000-word vocabulary, sorted on slips of paper into hundreds of piles in a translator's apartment. Nida discusses the kinds of semantic relations encountered, and illustrates a number of interesting problems that arose.

    Finally, Nida turns to the description of some specific Bible translation problems, including the meaning of the term ''virgin'' in the Hebrew Bible and the Greek New Testament, idiomatic and figurative usage, the changing of a terms meaning over time, and the nature of literary traditions, such as those apparent in the letters of Paul.

    In the third part of the book, we are treated to some details about Nida's impressive career. While he never served as a translator himself, he was dedicated to understanding the problems of translation as a linguist and anthropologist. We are introduced to his home, his first wife, and after her death, his second wife. Retirement and then a move to Europe apparently have done little to slow Nida's continued lecturing and writing. Lastly, he offers brief comments on the various movements in linguistics, and concludes by describing himself as an eclectic and pragmatist.


    As a reader with no background in translation, but with great professional and personal interest in language, culture, and the psyche, I found this volume to be a fascinating glimpse into the world of scriptural translation. What fascinates is that such translation lies at the nexus of societal history and literature on the one hand, and psychological and spiritual culture of biblical peoples on the other. As such, one can hardly imagine a more serious task.

    Nida's matter-of-fact assumption of religious faith does not obviate his scientific perspective of translation as a rational, orderly, and objective process in keeping with linguistics as an empirical endeavor. This is refreshing in light of an academic milieu whose pursuit of every appearance of unbiased objectivity has resulted in a kind of arid separation of the personal from the measurable. No such issue arises with Nida, who blithely accepts the reality of a spiritual universe. At the same time, his fidelity to true and accurate rendering of the text comes through. Nor does he fear the loss of habitual forms and interpretations, no matter how long-sanctioned, if more accurate translations from available textual and contextual understanding can be found. The reader might be curious about Nida's private understandings of the many scriptural passages discussed in this volume, given his extensive experience and exposure to religious people from all corner of the earth. That, however, is not what the book is about.

    What it is about -- Nida's encounter with the complex problems of translation -- is sufficient. It is also about the dedicated people and organizations with whom Nida worked through the years, both well- known scholars and translators and various church and lay people, and some of the circumstances of the major translation projects with which he was involved. Non-insiders will find these details interesting and even inspiring.

    As a quasi-memoir, Nida's book intrigues, illuminates, and entertains. The one reservation that might be offered has to do with overall coherence, unity, and order. This manifests in a few ways. For example, too often, the reader is taken from discussion of translation issues to travel anecdotes, or vice versa, with little or no transition. In the opening of Part I, we are treated to a page and a half of travel stories. They do not seem to form any sort of frame for the main thrust of the countries' overview; they are simply there. There are many such sudden changes from translation matters to travel anecdotes or other observations.

    Further, the initial section on areas of the world has a curiously uneven quality. Africa is treated in a single, undifferentiated section, whereas other regions are not. In the section on India, most of the space is devoted to strange customs (e.g. ''dishes rinsed in water containing fresh manure,'' p. 26-7), whereas the section on Thailand addresses most interesting issues of cross cultural difference in understanding of western scripture by Buddhists. Further, in the very brief Burma/Myanmar section, we are told that ''people from the Hill Tribes were the dynamic innovators of meaningful translations'' (p.27), with no elaboration on what this might refer to. Nida may certainly be forgiven if his memory for the details of his experience in some countries is better than for others, e.g. in China, where extensive description is presented. However, better editorial assistance might have guided the inclusion, exclusion, or expansion of sections and contents to provide more consistent treatment of these regions and countries of the world.

    Occasionally, accounts seem half-told: In the section on the Pacific Islands, Nida explains that in Marshallese, it must be specified whether the ''rich young ruler'' had lands, money or children. ''False prophets'' may refer to people who pretend to be prophets, or prophets who speak lies. However, we are not told how these translation solutions were solved. Nida mentions the most interesting discussions with translators he has encountered in Lithuania, yet we learn nothing about them. The resolutions of scholars on the inconsistencies in the Gospels are not offered.

    Nida illustrates the difficulties of meaningfully translating through the two halves of the book. While this, as well as snippets of UBS history and events, and personal/travel observations also appear throughout, there is an awkward disconnect between the half on regions/countries and the half on translation. There is no transition, and the issues described in Part II seem to have little connection (except for the location of translation projects) with the events in Part I.

    Despite these criticisms, the book is a fascinating read to a person like myself, a teacher of English to students from more than 40 countries, and one who has lived abroad in three countries (two as working adult). While critical assessment of Nida's arguments on the technical aspect of translation must be left to his colleagues, anyone interested in language and culture cannot fail to be compelled by Nida's descriptions of and insights on scriptural translation. They are a testament to an extraordinary career.


    Christine Winskowski is a Professor in the Department of International Cultural Studies at Iwate Prefectural University, Japan. Her research interests include culture learning and teaching in second language programs, and topicalization (topic development) dynamics in talk.