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Review of  Fascinated by Languages

Reviewer: Christine Winskowsi
Book Title: Fascinated by Languages
Book Author: Eugene A. Nida
Publisher: John Benjamins
Linguistic Field(s): Translation
Issue Number: 15.495

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Date: Wed, 04 Feb 2004 15:50:29 +0900
From: Christine Winskowski
Subject: Fascinated by Languages

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

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

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

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.