It’s the thought that counts: Eugene Nida and Bible translation

This summer we lost two giants of biblical studies, each of whom shaped how countless English speakers read the Bible. John Stott was the well-known pastor and scholar who was a figurehead of 20th-century evangelicalism. Less well-known, but arguably even more influential, was Eugene Nida, who died last month at the age of 96. Nida, a linguist and translator, transformed the way English translators think about the language of the Bible - or, actually, the languages of the Bible and the daunting task of translating Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek into English.

As someone who loves language and linguistics, I appreciate Nida simply for putting linguistics back into the equation for translators and not conceding the turf of translation to scholars concerned first with theology, dooming us to clunky, wooden and archaic translations. Had he simply raised the question of what linguistics has to do with Bible translation, Nida would have made a major impact.

But Nida's own answer to the question will be his legacy, and that is the practice of dynamic equivalence. A dynamic equivalent translation tries to render the meaning of the original text, rather than starting with the exact words and grammatical forms of the original text. A dynamic equivalent translation is a "thought-for-thought" translation, while a formal equivalent translation is a "word-for-word" translation. Nida's approach sounds dangerous - and in fact he was widely criticized - but in fact it's simply good linguistics, since anyone who studies human language - or even anyone who has ever used Google Translate - knows that a mere string of lexical correspondences is a far cry from a meaningful translation.

Nida's rallying cry was that a translation has to sound natural in its new language. He provided a scholarly rubric for what should be considered "natural," but he also explained it plainly: "A dynamic-equivalence 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.'"

Before Nida, and long after, many biblical scholars sought to assure English Bible readers that a "literal," "accurate" Bible translation could be easily provided with a word-for-word approach. Nida pointed out that this was a false promise:

Since no two languages are identical, either in the meanings given to corresponding symbols or in the ways in which such symbols are arranged in phrases and sentences, it stands to reason that there can be no absolute correspondence between languages. Hence there can be no fully exact translations.

That's hard to swallow, but it happens to be true. Take a look at a well-known verse, Luke 2:13, in various English translations ranging from word-for-word to thought-for-thought:
And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God ... (KJV).

And suddenly there appeared with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God ... (NASB).

And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God ... (ESV).

Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God ... (NIV).

Suddenly a vast, heavenly army appeared with the angel, praising God ... (NET).

Suddenly, the angel was joined by a vast host of others - the armies of heaven - praising God ... (NLT).

Take the English Standard Version, the current flagship translation for word-for-word translation. Despite being published in 2001, the ESV here preserves one awkward clause ("there was with the angel"), an antiquated word ("multitude") and one ambiguous idiom ("heavenly host"), all in the name of trying to be "accurate." Farther down the list - towards the thought-for-thought end of the spectrum - the syntax is straightened out, the archaisms are removed and generally the result sounds more like an actual speaker of English - just as the original text of Luke sounded like an actual speaker of Greek.

For those of us who believe that God speaks through Scripture and that rhetorical impact is part of what makes Scripture come alive to its hearers, these are huge steps forward. In fact, nearly every new translation in the last 30 years (except those very consciously trying to distinguish themselves in the name of fidelity to older versions), bears the imprint of Nida's ideas about language and Scripture. It's a legacy that bears the witness of Pentecost: language is no longer an obstacle to hearing the word of God.

(Photo of Eugene Nida courtesy of Religion News Service.)

Comments (20)

Leave a Comment

I think a big part of what makes work like Nida’s scary to some people is, it’s completely possible that what one language could sya, another language simply doesn’t have the words for. For example, how do you translate an Inuit writing about snow into English, when that language has so many words for snow and we have so few? 

That would mean there are biblical truths that are inexpressible in our current languages. So do we say there’s some truth that God revealed but that is now lost to us? And if so what do you do with the verse, just omit it or make Scripture incomplete or what? That’s a real challenge to folks who think that God’s word is the same for all time - especially people who read “word” as a literal, spoken word, not as a rationes, an idea in the mind of God as many classical and medieval Christian philosophers did.

I read and enjoy both kinds of translations. However, I much prefer a more literal word for word translation for Bible Study and daily reading. Even in the example Nathan cites, in the dynamic equivalence version, the NLT, the translator renders the thought, the ARMIES of heaven. This has a very militaristic flavor that the more literal, “multitude of heavanly hosts” does not have. I think some of these more blatant dynamic equivalence translations should more properly be called paraphrases.  Here is what I see as the dangers of this methodology (I am quoting another scholar here because they were so succint)

(1) It rejects the verbal aspect of biblical inspiration.

(2) It gives to the translator the role that rightly belongs to the preacher, commentator and Christian reader.

(3) It assumes that the present-day translator knows what contemporary words, idioms and paraphrases are equivalent to the prophets’ and apostles’ wording.

(4) It advocates conforming biblical language and concepts to the modern culture rather than conforming the modern culture to biblical language and concepts.

(5) It appears to discard the Protestant principle that Christian laity should have full access to the Word of God written without interposition of clergy or of paraphrastic veils.

I think “heavenly hosts” is an old English way of saying “the armies of heaven.” I think, in this case, the NLT WAS translating it word for word, just not with an eye towards the history of translation. 

I think abandoning the history of translation would itself be a huge step forward. If we, after doing this, would THEN translate word for word, we’d have made huge steps forward.

Great post! I’m glad to know about Mr. Nida.It seems to me that most debates about issues like this have two sides: good sense vs. People afraid of change. While very few still hold to KJV only views, the plain truth of the situation is that there are a LOT of people who still hold to the primacy of how theKJV translated things, and have great difficulty letting go of it.Consider the uproar over the new Common English Bible, which translates “host” as “army,” and “son of man” as “the human one.” “The Human One” translates the meaning more accurately, while also giving the impression that there is something of a title/big idea beyond the literal meaning. Its a brilliant translation. But many conservatives have denigrated it. Why? If we could get right down to it, it’s because that’s not how they grew up hearing it. “That’s not what the Bible says” by which they mean “that’s not how I’ve heard it all my life!“Dynamic equivalence has risks, but no more than a word-for-word translation has.

:-) Sorry to comment on you twice, Rick. :-) I hope you see this as flattery, since I reread your comment after I made my last comment! 

On the 5 points you take from a Biblical scholar, I would comment:
1) Verbal inspiration isn’t meaningful if you get into it. It’s either dictation theory, which is rejected by practically everyone today (on account of being silly) or it teaches that God inspired the words of the documents, but in the voices of the writers themselves to speak to the cultures of the day themselves. If this is what verbal inspiration means in this case, then you’re back where you were with just translating Mark. That is to say, we can translate mark’s thoughts easily. Or we can just as easily translates the words God spoke in Mark’s mouth. There is no functional difference.
2) All translations do this, whether word-for-word or not. All translations are commentaries. In this objection #2, the Bible Scholar holds a problem against the dynamic equivalence, but doesn’t hold it against the word-for-word, even though it’s just as true in both cases. Reinforcing my view that he is just defending what he grew up with and not looking at things objectively.

3)Same as #2, this applies equally well to word-for-word translations.

4) Again, just as true of word-for-word translations. And anyway, applying this idea to a translation seems strange to me. Does this scholar really think we should conform modern society to the ancient society even in language issues? If so, then in what specific language issues? The language itself? If that’s the case, then should it be greek or aramaic, or the Hebrew possibly spoken closer to Jerusalem? Should it be in the idioms used? We should use those same idioms in modern english? Really? Why? God didn’t ordain them, God used them for God’s own ends. Notice the way various writers uses different idioms differently. I think this is a misguided point in the first place, but if this scholar wants to use it, it applies as well to both translation models.5) This isn’t possible, and I’m not sure that it’s a Protestant principle, anyway. I will accept that, in some cases, word-for-word gives you closer access to what the text ACTUALLY says, but I will also insist others acknowledge that sometimes the word-for-word obscures what the text ACTUALLY says. In some cases, the dynamic equivalence translations are superior in achieving this goal.Just my thoughts. :-)


that the Bible was written in everyday common Greek for its time. When
the Bible is translated literally “word for word” it becomes sometimes
incomprehensible and hard to understand. However with “dynamic
equivalence” there is the problem of the bias of the translator - that’s
when you need to know history and customs and have a Strong’s
Concordance handy.

There are different attitudes towards translation and I know that “word for word” and “dynamic equivalence” represent two ends of a spectrum and most translations are somewhere in between. I see nothing wooden or mechanical or off-putting by the English Standard Version or the New American Standard which are closer to the word for word or verbal inspiration concept. Were Marks thoughts inspired or did the Holy Spirit carefully choose certain words in Mark’s vocabulary to express meaning? I want to err on the side of being very careful to stay true to the language rather than interpret too much. If an idiom seems unusual, then the dynamic equivalent can be expressed in the margin. I appreciate that. 

Christ endorsed the concept of verbal inspiration when he noted that man does not live by bread alone, but by every “word” that proceeds from the mouth of God (Mt. 4:4). If those words from God are not embodied in the Scriptures, where are they to be found?

Jesus, in contesting certain teachings of the Sadducees (who denied the bodily resurrection of the dead) called attention to the fact that Jehovah once had said to Moses, “I am [not “I was”] the God of Abraham?” (Ex. 3:6). The present tense form of the verb reveals that the Lord was still Abraham’s God, though the patriarch had been dead for four centuries. Jesus’s argument turns upon the very tense of a verb. Sounds like verbal inspiration.

When Christ asked the Pharisees why David referred to his own offspring (i.e., the Messiah) as “Lord” (see Psa. 110:1; Mt. 22:41-46), they could not answer. The point is — Jesus grounded his argument on a single word, “Lord,” within the Old Testament text.

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus stated that not a single “jot” or “tittle” of the Mosaic law would pass away until all things be accomplished (Mt. 5:18; cf. Lk. 16:17). The “jot” was the smallest letter of the Hebrew alphabet, and the “tittle” was a tiny stroke added to certain letters. 

Verbal plenary” inspiration means the inspiration extends to the very words themselves (verbal)—not just concepts or ideas—and that the inspiration extends to all parts of Scripture and all subject matters of Scripture (plenary). Some people believe only parts of the Bible are inspired or only the thoughts or concepts that deal with religion are inspired, but these views of inspiration fall short of the Bible’s claims about itself. Full verbal plenary inspiration is an essential characteristic of the Word of God. This view was affirmed by The Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy and I really don’t regard it as “silly”.

You forgot to cite your source…

That response is an article copied pretty much word for word from the Christian Courier.


Correct you are. The first paragraph is mine. The following 4 scripture illustrations are taken from Christian Courier. And the definition of Verbal Plenary inspiration was from Christian Courier. I summed up and affirmed the Chicago Statement. Thank you Christian Courier for a succinct defense. I just came across these folks today. I usually cite if I quote other material as I did in my earlier response.

If the exact words, rather than the translated meaning of those words, were essential, why translate into any other language in the first place?  Just teach everyone the original languages and use them.  Most of the OT quotes in the NT don’t come from the original OT language, but from the Greek translation of the OT.  I think if we speak English, the Word should be translated in English in the way that we actually use it.  Either that or just use an interlinear and forget the rest.

Loading More Comments


Leave a comment, Guest

You are welcome to leave a comment, guest. Please note, all comments are moderated by our staff. Your name and email address are required fields.
You are encouraged to create an account for additional benefits.

Why create an account?
* denotes required field.
Image Type: jpg, gif, or png.
Max file size: 50kb. Max dimensions: 100px by 100px.

See the latest in: