Dynamic Equivalence Defined

by Michael Marlowe, July 2009

In this article I will explain the meaning of the term "Dynamic Equivalence," as it is used in the writings of Eugene A. Nida. I will also draw attention to statements in which Nida acknowledges limitations of the "dynamic equivalence" method.

Nida first introduced the term "dynamic equivalence" in the eighth chapter of his book Toward a Science of Translating (1964), in a section with the heading "Two Basic Orientations in Translating." Below I reproduce the entire section.

Two Basic Orientations in Translating

Toward a Science of Translating (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1964), pp. 159-60.

Since "there are, properly speaking, no such things as identical equivalents" (Belloc, 1931a and b, p. 37), one must in translating seek to find the closest possible equivalent. However, there are fundamentally two different types of equivalence: one which may be called formal and another which is primarily dynamic.

Formal equivalence focuses attention on the message itself, in both form and content. In such a translation one is concerned with such correspondences as poetry to poetry, sentence to sentence, and concept to concept. Viewed from this formal orientation, one is concerned that the message in the receptor language should match as closely as possible the different elements in the source language. This means, for example, that the message in the receptor culture is constantly compared with the message in the source culture to determine standards of accuracy and correctness.

The type of translation which most completely typifies this structural equivalence might be called a "gloss translation," in which the translator attempts to reproduce as literally and meaningfully as possible the form and content of the original. Such a translation might be a rendering of some Medieval French text into English, intended for students of certain aspects of early French literature not requiring a knowledge of the orignal language of the text. Their needs call for a relatively close approximation to the structure of the early French text, both as to form (e.g. syntax and idioms) and content (e.g. themes and concepts). Such a translation would require numerous footnotes in order to make the text fully comprehensible.

A gloss translation of this type is designed to permit the reader to identify himself as fully as possible with a person in the source-language context, and to understand as much as he can of the customs, manner of thought, and means of expression. For example, a phrase such as "holy kiss" (Romans 16:16) in a gloss translation would be rendered literally, and would probably be supplemented with a footnote explaining that this was a customary method of greeting in New Testament times.

In contrast, a translation which attempts to produce a dynamic rather than a formal equivalence is based upon "the principle of equivalent effect" (Rieu and Phillips, 1954). In such a translation one is not so concerned with matching the receptor-language message with the source-language message, but with the dynamic relationship (mentioned in Chapter 7), that the relationship between receptor and message should be substantially the same as that which existed between the original receptors and the message.

A translation of dynamic equivalence aims at complete naturalness of expression, and tries to relate the receptor to modes of behavior relevant within the context of his own culture; it does not insist that he understand the cultural patterns of the source-language context in order to comprehend the message. Of course, there are varying degrees of such dynamic-equivalence translations. One of the modern English translations which, perhaps more than any other, seeks for equivalent effect is J.B. Phillips' rendering of the New Testament. In Romans 16:16 he quite naturally translates "greet one another with a holy kiss" as "give one another a hearty handshake all around."

Between the two poles of translating (i.e. between strict formal equivalence and complete dynamic equivalence) there are a number of intervening grades, representing various acceptable standards of literary translating. During the past fifty years, however, there has been a marked shift of emphasis from the formal to the dynamic dimension. A recent summary of opinion on translating by literary artists, publishers, educators, and professional translators indicates clearly that the present direction is toward increasing emphasis on dynamic equivalences (Cary, 1959b).

This definition is followed by a discussion of "definitions of translating" in which Nida quotes various translators who seem to put forth the same idea, that an "equivalent effect" is essential to good translation.

No proper definition of translation can avoid some of the basic difficulties ... However, it seems to be increasingly recognized that adherence to the letter may indeed kill the spirit. William A. Cooper (1928, p, 484) deals with this problem rather realistically in his article on "Translating Goethe's Poems," in which he says, "If the language of the original employs word formations that give rise to insurmountable difficulties of direct translation, and figures of speech wholly foreign, and hence incomprehensible in the other tongue, it is better to cling to the spirit of the poem and clothe it in language and figures entirely free from awkwardness of speech and obscurity of picture. This might be called a translation from culture to culture." [p. 161]

... all translating ... must be concerned ... with the response of the receptor; hence the ultimate purpose of the translation, in terms of its impact upon its intended audience, is a fundamental factor in any evaluation of translations. This reason underlies Leonard Forster's definition (1958, p. 6) of a good translation as "one which fulfills the same purpose in the new language as the original did in the language in which it was written." [p. 162]

In one way or another this principle of "similar response" has been widely held and effectively stated by a number of specialists in the field of translating. Even though Matthew Arnold (1861, as quoted in Savory, 1957, p. 45) himself rejected in actual practice the principle of "similar response," he at least seems to have thought he was producing a similar response, for he declared that: "A translation should affect us in the same way as the original may be supposed to have affected its first hearers." Despite Arnold's objection to some of the freer translations done by others, he was at least strongly opposed to the literalist views of such persons as F.W. Newman (1861, p. xiv). Jowett (1891), on the other hand, comes somewhat closer to a present-day conception of "similar response" in stating that: "an English translation ought to be idiomatic and interesting, not only to the scholar, but to the learned reader .... The translator ... seeks to produce on his reader an impression similar or nearly similar to that produced by the original." Souter (1920, p. 7) expresses essentially this same view in stating that: "Our ideal in translation is to produce on the minds of our readers as nearly as possible the same effect as was produced by the original on its readers" ... [pp. 163-4]

And so on. It should be said, however, that some of Nida's quotations here are rather misleading, and one of them is even fictitious. The words attributed to Matthew Arnold were not in fact written by him. They are quoted from what Nida took to be a quotation of Arnold, which he found in a secondary source. Moreover, the "quotation" generated by this confusion expresses a substantially false understanding of what Arnold really said on this subject in his essay On Translating Homer. In fact he explicitly rejected the principle that is put in his mouth here. Here is what Arnold really said:

On one side it is said, that the translation ought to be such "that the reader should, if possible, forget that it is a translation at all, and be lulled into the illusion that he is reading an original work; something original," (if the translation be in English), "from an English hand." The real original is in this case, it is said, "taken as a basis on which to rear a poem that shall affect our countrymen as the original may be conceived to have affected its natural hearers." ... But I advise the translator not to try "to rear on the basis of the Iliad, a poem that shall affect our countrymen as the original may be conceived to have affected its natural hearers;" and for this simple reason, that we cannot possibly tell how the Iliad "affected its natural hearers." ... No one can tell [the translator] how Homer affected the Greeks; but there are those who can tell him how Homer affects them. These are scholars; who possess, at the same time with knowledge of Greek, adequate poetical taste and feeling. No translation will seem to them of much worth compared with the original; but they alone can say, whether the translation produces more or less the same effect upon them as the original. They are the only competent tribunal in this matter: the Greeks are dead; the unlearned Englishman has not the data for judging; and no man can safely confide in his own single judgment of his own work. Let not the translator, then, trust to his notions of what the ancient Greeks would have thought of him; he will lose himself in the vague. Let him not trust to what the ordinary English reader thinks of him; he will be taking the blind for his guide. Let him not trust to his own judgment of his own work; he may be misled by individual caprices. Let him ask how his work affects those who both know Greek and can appreciate poetry; whether to read it gives the Provost of Eton, or Professor Thompson at Cambridge, or Professor Jowett here in Oxford, at all the same feeling which to read the original gives them. I consider that when Bentley said of Pope's translation, "it was a pretty poem, but must not be called Homer," the work, in spite of all its power and attractiveness, was judged.

Moreover, Arnold's criticism of Newman's version of the Iliad does not really concern any "literalist" tendency; his main charge is that "it fails in nobleness."

Jowett, in his translation of Plato, was concerned with the naturalness of the English translation, as the quotation shows; but he is not "closer to a present-day conception of similar response" if by this Nida means his own concept of dynamic equivalence. In speaking of the effect "produced by the original" Jowett means only the effect produced by Plato's Greek text on one who can read it with full understanding. There is no reference to "original receptors" here. We also find that he is misquoted, as saying that a translation should seem idiomatic to the "learned reader," when he actually wrote "unlearned reader." This might seem even more in line with Nida's argument, but by "unlearned" Jowett only means readers who are not classical scholars.

The quotation from Souter does not represent the "same view" as Jowett's, nor is it even a fair representation of Souter's view. In its original context, we find that the statement pertains only to style, and, after conceding the truth of it as an "ideal," his purpose is really to warn against the tendencies of those who make it their first principle:

Our ideal in translation is to produce on the minds of our readers as nearly as possible the same effect as was produced by the original on its readers. This has been attempted in more than one way, but in my opinion every attempt which is not based upon a fine sense of the value of Latin words and on a careful attention to each word in every sentence, is built upon a rotten foundation and doomed to failure. The glamour of a fine English style has given many such productions a false repute, but even the best of them grossly mislead the reader in many crucial places.

The principle of "equivalent effect" in these authors does not have anything like the status that it has in Nida. It concerns matters of style only, and it does not involve any demand that the total effect on the modern readers must be equivalent to that experienced by the "original receptors." These translators knew very well that the distance between ancient and modern society was such that they could not hope to create a translation which eliminates the need for an introduction to the historical background.

This point of difference between Nida and the authors that he quotes is worth dwelling on, because it must be understood that his conception of "dynamic equivalence" goes far beyond any common-sense notion that the sentences of the original work should be made intelligible to a modern reader, and be presented in a style that resembles the original. That is the idea found in the writers he quotes. One might find the same idea in the writings of anyone who has written on the subject of translation — it is entirely uncontroversial. But Nida is proposing something much more radical and controversial. He wants to see adjustments in the text which will eliminate, as far as possible, the difficulties which arise from ignorance of cultural differences.

Principles Governing Translations Oriented Toward Dynamic Equivalence

Toward a Science of Translating (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1964), pp. 166-168.

In contrast with formal-equivalence translations others are oriented toward 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 dynamic-equivalence (or D-E) 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 D-E translation 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.

One way of defining a D-E translation is to describe it as "the closest natural equivalent to the source-language message." This type of definition contains three essential terms: (1) equivalent, which points toward the source-language message, (2) natural, which points toward the receptor language, and (3) closest, which binds the two orientations together on the basis of the highest degree of approximation.

However, since a D-E translation is directed primarily toward equivalence of response rather than equivalence of form, it is important to define more fully the implications of the word natural as applied to such translations. Basically, the word natural is applicable to three areas of the communication process: for a natural rendering must fit (1) the receptor language and culture as a whole, (2) the context of the particular message, and (3) the receptor-language audience.

The conformance of a translation to the receptor language and culture as a whole is an essential ingredient in any stylistically acceptable rendering. Actually this quality of linguistic appropriateness is usually noticeable only when it is absent. In a natural translation, therefore, those features which would mar it are conspicuous by their absence. J.H. Frere (1820, p. 481) has described such a quality by stating, "the language of translation ought, we think, ... be a pure, impalpable and invisible element, the medium of thought and feeling and nothing more; it ought never to attract attention to itself ... All importations from foreign languages ... are ... to be avoided." Such an adjustment to the receptor language and culture must result in a translation that bears no obvious trace of foreign origin, so that, as G.A. Black (1936, p. 50) describes James Thomson's translations of Heine, such renderings are "a reproduction of the original, such as Heine himself, if master of the English language, would have given."

A natural translation involves two principal areas of adaption, namely, grammar and lexicon. In general the grammatical modifications can be made the more readily, since many grammatical changes are dictated by the obligatory structures of the receptor language. That is to say, one is obliged to make such adjustments as shifting word order, using verbs in place of nouns, and substituting nouns for pronouns. The lexical structure of the source message is less readily adjusted to the semantic requirements of the receptor language, for instead of obvious rules to be followed, there are numerous alternative possibilities. There are in general three lexical levels to be considered: (1) terms for which there are readily available parallels, e.g. river, tree, stone, knife, etc.; (2) terms which identify culturally different objects, but with somewhat similar functions, e.g. book, which in English means an object with pages bound together into a unit, but which, in New Testament times, meant a long parchment or papyrus rolled up in the form of a scroll; and (3) terms which identify cultural specialties, e.g. synagogue, homer, ephah, cherubim, and jubilee, to cite only a few from the Bible. Usually the first set of terms involves no problem. In the second set of terms several confusions can arise; hence one must either use another term which reflects the form of the referent, though not the equivalent function, or which identifies the equivalent function at the expense of formal identity. The basic problem is treated later in this chapter. In translating terms of the third class certain "foreign associations" can rarely be avoided. No translation that attempts to bridge a wide cultural gap can hope to eliminate all traces of the foreign setting. For example, in Bible translating it is quite impossible to remove such foreign "objects" as Pharisees, Sadducees, Solomon's temple, cities of refuge, or such Biblical themes as anointing, adulterous generation, living sacrifice, and Lamb of God, for these expressions are deeply imbedded in the very thought structure of the message.

It is inevitable also that that when source and receptor languages represent very different cultures there should be many basic themes and accounts which cannot be "naturalized" by the process of translating. For example, the Jívaro Indians of Ecuador certainly do not understand 1 Corinthians 11:14, "Does not nature teach us that for a man to wear long hair is a dishonor to him?", for in general Jívaro men let their hair grow long, while Jívaro adult women usually cut theirs rather close. [This is not correct. See the note below.] * Similarly, in many areas of West Africa the behavior of Jesus' disciples in spreading leaves and branches in his way as he rode into Jerusalem is regarded as reprehensible; for in accordance with West African custom the path to be walked on or ridden over by a chief is scrupulously cleaned of all litter, and anyone who throws a branch in such a person's way is guilty of grievous insult. Nevertheless, these cultural discrepancies offer less difficulty than might be imagined, especially if footnotes are used to point out the basis for the cultural diversity; for all people recognize that other peoples behave differently from themselves.

Here we see that Nida did not in fact suppose that a version of the Bible could be entirely "naturalized," in such a way that explanations of words, phrases, and other features of the text are made completely unnecessary. In other words, he acknowledges that there are limits to the method of "dynamic equivalence," and that when it is pressed beyond these limits it will distort or lessen the meaning of the original. He advocates translations that are "oriented toward dynamic equivalence" (emphasis added) without demanding an uncompromising application of its principles. We may say then, that the real difference between Nida and those who prefer a more literal approach seems to be a matter of degree and emphasis. Nida puts such importance on the goal of a "natural" translation that he would make it as natural as possible (while others might only make it as natural as necessary), and he would also reduce to a bare minimum the need for introductions and explanations.

* Nida's assertion that "in general Jívaro men let their hair grow long, while Jívaro adult women usually cut theirs rather close" is only half right. Women of the Jívaro tribe have never cut their hair short. Gordon C. Baldwin in his book Stone Age People Today (1964) states that among the Jívaro, "both men and women let their black hair grow to waist length" (p. 126). But the men do dress their hair more carefully. In her book Through Gates of Splendor, Elisabeth Elliot writes, "The Jivaros have long, straight black hair. It hangs loosely around the women's faces, little attempt being made at any kind of coiffure. The men, as befitting their position as superior beings, go in for an elaborate hair-do. The waist-long hair is combed and then dressed in bright red, yellow or blue tropical bird feathers" (p. 78). One anthropologist who visited the Jívaro tribe around 1920, H.E. Anthony, reported that among the Jívaro, women get their hair cut off as a punishment for adultery. ("The Jivaro Indians of Eastern Ecuador," Natural History 21/2 [March-April, 1921], p. 150.) So probably they would have had no trouble understanding "it is disgraceful for a woman to be shorn or shaven" in 1 Corinthians 11:6. In the same article Anthony also gives photographs showing the hairstyle of the men, in which it becomes evident that the men did not allow their long hair to hang down; they appear to have gathered it up in the back and fastened it above the shoulders.