Eugene Nida on ‘Criteria to be Used in Judging Translations’

From Toward a Science of Translating (Leiden: Brill, 1964), pp. 182-84.

Criteria to be Used in Judging Translations

Since different principles apply to different types of F-E and D-E translations, it is not easy to judge the relative merits of two or more translations. However, three fundamental criteria are basic to the evaluation of all translating, and in different ways help to determine the relative merit of particular translations. These are: (1) general efficiency of the communication process, (2) comprehension of intent, and (3) equivalence of response.

The efficiency of a translation can be judged in terms of the maximal reception for the minimum effort of decoding. In a sense, efficiency is closely related to Joos's "first law of semantics" (Joos, 1953), which may be stated simply: "That meaning is best which adds least to the total meaning of the context." In other words, the maximizing of redundancy reduces the work of decoding. At the same time, redundancy should not be so increased that the noise factor of boredom cuts down efficiency. Perhaps the factor of efficiency may be restated thus: "Other things being equal, the efficiency of the translation can be judged in terms of the maximal reception for the minimal effort in decoding." Because of the diversities in linguistic form and cultural backgrounds, however, translations are more likely to be overloaded (and hence inefficient in terms of effort) than so redundant that boredom results.

The second criterion in judging translations, comprehension of the original intent (or, stated in other terms, the accuracy with which the meaning of the source-language message is represented in the translation), is oriented either toward the source culture (a formal-equivalence translation) or toward the receptor culture (a dynamic-equivalence translation). In an F-E translation, the comprehension of intent must be judged essentially in terms of the context in which the communication was first uttered; in a D-E translation this intent must be understood in terms of the receptor culture. The extent to which intent can be interpreted in a cultural context other than the one in which the message was first given is directly proportional to the universality of the message. Aristophanes' play The Clouds obviously does not lend itself so well to comprehension of intent in different cultures as does the Book of Job.

This criterion of "comprehension of original intent" is designed to cover what has often been traditionally spoken of as "accuracy," "fidelity," and "correctness." Actually, one cannot speak of "accuracy" apart from comprehension by the receptor, for there is no way of treating accuracy except in terms of the extent to which the message gets across (or should presumably get across) to the intended receptor. "Accuracy" is meaningless, if treated in isolation from actual decoding by individuals for which the message is intended. Accordingly, what may be "accurate" for one set of receptors may be "inaccurate" for another, for the level and manner of comprehension may be different for the two groups. Furthermore, comprehension itself must be analyzed in terms of comprehending the significance of a message as related to its possible settings. i.e. the original setting of the communication and the setting in which the receptors themselves exist. This second criterion (i.e. comprehension of intent) is in no sense designed to sidestep the issues of accuracy and fidelity, but to place them in their right perspective—in terms of a total theory of communication.

The third criterion in judging translations, equivalence of response, is oriented toward either the source culture (in which case the receptor must understand the basis of the original response) or the receptor culture (in which case the receptor makes a corresponding response within a different cultural context). The extent to which the responses are similar depends upon the cultural distance between the two communication contexts.

In this description of the various criteria involved in the judging of translations, intent and response have been isolated from each other. But actually such isolation is impossible; for the nature of the response is closely tied to intent, presumed or actual, and any final judgment of translations must deal with both interrelated elements. At the same time, this formulation implies that the orientation can be to either the source or the receptor context, while in actual practice no either/or distinction can be made; rather, various grades of mixture or interpenetration must be dealt with. The either/or distinction is primarily a matter of principal focus of attention, or of priority of concern. IN the same way, no judgment on translations can completely isolate the source context from the receptor one. Nevertheless, though the three criteria of efficiency, comprehension of intent, and similarity of response cannot be fully isolated from one another, they are all basic to an understanding and evaluation of different translations.

Though there is a relatively wide range of possible legitimate translations beginning with somewhat literal F-E (Formal Equivalent) renderings to rather highly D-E (Dynamic Equivalent) ones, there are certain points on both ends of this scale at which extremely F-E or D-E translations fall off rapidly in efficiency, accuracy, and relevance. On the F-E end of the scale a translation which is exceedingly literal, contains numerous awkward expressions, and is hence "overloaded" as far as the prospective receptors are concerned, is obviously far below legitimate standards. At the other end of the scale, a D-E translation may likewise fail to come up to a valid standard, if in the translator's concern for the response of the receptors he has been unfaithful to the content of the original message.

F-E translations which fall below standards are generally more common than correspondingly inadequate D-E translations, for the gross errors in F-E translating arise primarily out of ignorance, oversight, and failure to comprehend the true nature of translating. On the other hand, mistakes in D-E translations are generally less numerous, for they are usually made with the translator's eyes wide open. In a sense, renderings which err in being too far in the direction of a D-E translation may be more dangerous, particularly if a translator is clever in concealing his "slanting." But the mistakes resulting from filling a translation with renderings which are too much in the direction of F-E translating are more ruinous, for the translation is usually so overloaded that it is unlikely to be used with any great effectiveness, except where there is an unusual amount of incentive and cultural pressure.