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Bible Babel

by Michael Marlowe
For then will I restore to the peoples a pure language,
That they may all call upon the name of the Lord,
To serve him with one accord. (Zephaniah 3:9)

In the late 1950’s F.F. Bruce wrote a book on the history of English Bible versions in which he
expressed some appreciation of versions in modern English that had appeared up to that time, saying,
“may their number go on increasing!” (1) And increase they did! This was before the great proliferation
of versions that began in the 1960’s, and before the appearance of any of the modern versions that are
now to be found on the shelves of Christian bookstores. In an enlarged edition of his book published in
1978 we detect a note of concern, however, when Bruce complains that the number of new translations
of the Bible “keeps on increasing to a point where it becomes more and more difficult to keep up with
them all.” (2) In 1991 D.A. Carson observed that “from the publication of the RSV Bible [in 1952] to
the present, twenty-nine English versions of the entire Bible have appeared, plus an additional twenty-
six English renderings of the New Testament.” (3) And yet they continue to increase. Turning out new
versions and revisions of the Bible has become an established industry, with interests of its own, and
we can no longer extend a magnanimous welcome to everything that the Bible publishing industry
churns out.
The problem lies not only the number of versions, but also in their mutability. Publishers are
continually making changes in their versions, so that they do not remain the same for more than a
dozen years or so. The situation with the NIV is typical. Its New Testament was originally published in
1973. Changes were made in 1978, and in 1984. By 1997 the people who control the NIV were
revising it with “inclusive language.” Apparently they thought this revision would be accepted in the
same way that the previous revisions had been. As it turned out, however, many church leaders
objected to this last revision as frivolous, and as a capitulation to “political correctness.” Now, the NIV
is not really owned by a publisher. It is owned by a non-profit organization called Biblica (formerly
called the International Bible Society). But this organization has a very close relationship with
Zondervan Publishers, and it was reported that Zondervan executives had requested the revision. (4)
The pressure brought against the project by ministry leaders prevented the revision from replacing the
current NIV, but Zondervan got what it asked for anyway, because the revision was published under
another name: Today’s New International Version (published in 2002). The version was marketed as
being one that was adapted to the language of “consumers” between eighteen and thirty-four years old.
Prior to this, Zondervan had also caused the International Bible Society to produce a New International
Reader’s Version (1995) adapted to the language of children. So at the present time there are three
different “New International” versions being published in America. And changes have also been made
in the TNIV and NIRV versions since they were first published. But there is more: if we include the
British editions (which are not identical to the American editions), there are at least five “New
International” versions. Yet another revision of the NIV is now in the works, and it is scheduled to
appear in 2011.
This instability and variety within the NIV brand itself is not in line with the intentions of the original
NIV committee. When they began work on the version in 1967 they stated their goals in a document
which emphasized the importance of having “one version in common use.”
Only with one version in common use in our churches will Bible memorization flourish,
will those in the pew follow in their own Bibles the reading of Scripture and comments on
individual Scriptures from the pulpit, will unison readings be possible, will Bible Teachers
be able to interpret with maximum success the Biblical text word by word and phrase by
phrase to their students, and will the Word be implanted indelibly upon the minds of
Christians as they hear and read again and again the words of the Bible in the same
phraseology. We acknowledge freely that there are benefits to be derived by the individual
as he refers to other translations in his study of the Bible, but this could still be done in
situations in which a common Bible was in general use. (5)
The prospects for “one version in common use” are not good. Although the NIV has become the best-
selling brand in America (according to statistics compiled by the Christian Booksellers Association), it
has not become the version most often read by people who do much Bible-reading. That honor still
belongs to the King James Version—a version which has not changed in hundreds of years. In 1998 the
Barna Research Group found that among Americans who “read the Bible during a typical week, not
including when they are at church … the King James Version is more likely to be the Bible read during
the week than is the NIV by a 5:1 ratio.” (6) This might seem incredible to some people in the Bible
business, but it agrees with my own observations over the years. For whatever reason, people who use
the KJV tend to know their Bibles much better than those who use the NIV, despite the fact that the
NIV (in any of its forms) is much easier to understand. I have also met people who say that although
they sometimes use the NIV for casual reading, they prefer to use the KJV for memorization. And I do
not know anyone who uses the NIV for “word by word and phrase by phrase” exposition. People who
study the Bible closely have generally preferred the New American Standard or the New King James
Version over the NIV. The New Living Translation is now being used in the worship services of many
congregations that had formerly used the NIV.
In 1998 the Sunday School Board of the Southern Baptist Convention launched a translation project of
its own. At that time the President of the SBC (Paige Patterson) was asked to comment on the situation.
His reply indicated the failure of the NIV translators’ hopes: “If the Sunday School Board did
something really good, there’s enough dissatisfaction with the NIV that it might sell,” and he added,
“We have over-translated and we have ruined Bible memorization and congregational reading. We have
translation pandemonium out there. How it’s going to work out, I don’t know.” (7) When the New
Testament of this new version (the Holman Christian Standard Bible) appeared in 2001, its preface
explained that there was a need for the version because “Each generation needs a fresh translation of
the Bible in its own language.” By “fresh” they mean something completely new, as opposed to
“revisions of translations from previous generations.” If the editors believe this, then thirty years from
now they will have to say that their own version is obsolete. By then it will have reached its
generational expiration date. Also in 2001 the English Standard Version (a revision of the RSV)
appeared under the marketing rubric “Truth. Unchanged.” Six years later a revised edition appeared,
with 360 changes.
In 2003 the situation reached a high point of absurdity when the New Century Version (the least
accurate one of all) soared to the top of the sales charts in an edition called Revolve, “bringing the Bible
to teen girls in a format they’re comfortable with.” Designed to resemble the hollywood gossip
magazines sold at supermarket checkouts, this edition “shows them that the Bible is fun and applicable
to life today.”
In the meantime—what has happened to the Holy Bible? It has become a piece of merchandise. Bible
publishing has become like the popular music industry, in which the songs are given only so much air
time before they are replaced by newer ones. The Bible racks at the Christian bookstore have become
like the toothpaste aisle at the grocery store—ten brand names, with several “new and improved”
formulas, available in four varieties each. The resemblance is not accidental. In both cases the same
principles of product development and brand marketing are in operation.
Regarding the contribution of “dynamic equivalence” to this situation, we will not say that Nida is
responsible for the Revolve edition. We might connect it with the emphasis on cultural relevance and
formal accommodation that figure so prominently in his theories, but even if the publisher of such an
edition presented it as an application of “dynamic equivalence,” we should rather see it as something
wholly inspired by commercial interests. Nevertheless, the philosophy of “dynamic equivalence” has
obviously contributed to the current flood of popular versions and editions, not only by directly
inspiring many of them, but also by subverting the traditional view that continuity and uniformity are
important in the ministry of the Word. Under the new regime of dynamic equivalence, there can be no
continuity or uniformity in Bible versions, and no “standard” translation.
The theory of dynamic equivalence actually demands multiple versions and frequent revisions. Because
people differ so much in their linguistic preferences and capacities, and because colloquial speech
changes with every generation, Nida maintained that every language ought to have several different
Bible versions designed for different constituencies. In Toward a Science of Translating (1964) he
The ability to decode a particular type of message is constantly in process of change, not
only as the result of an increase in general education, but especially through specific
acquaintance with the particular type of message. For example, at first a new reader of the
Scriptures is obviously confronted with a very heavy communication load, but as he
becomes familiar with certain words and combinations of words, the communication load is
reduced. Obviously, then, the communication load is not a fixed characteristic of a message
in and of itself, but is always relative to the specific receptors who are in the process of
decoding it.
Because of this shift in communication load, we are faced with two alternatives: (1)
changing the receptors, i.e. giving them more experience, and (2) changing the form of the
message, i.e. providing different forms of the message for different grades of receptors. In
the past the tendency was to insist on educating the receptors to the level of being able to
decode the message. At present, however, in the production of all literature aimed at the
masses the usual practice is to prepare different grades of the same message, so that people
at different levels of experience may be able to decode at a rate acceptable to them. The
American Bible Society, for example, is sponsoring three translations of the Bible into
Spanish: one is of a traditional type, aimed at the present Evangelical constituency; another
is of a more contemporary and sophisticated character, directed to the well-educated but
nonchurch constituency; and a third is in very simple Spanish, intended especially for the
new literate, who has usually had a minimum of contact with Protestant churches.
Communist propagandists, it may be noted, have engaged in a similar scaling of
translations of Lenin and Marx, making important adaptations for various grades of
background and educational experience.
If the communication load is generally too low for the receptor, both in style and content,
the message will appear insipid and boring. The failure of Laubach’s The Inspired Letters (a
translation of the New Testament Epistles from Romans through Jude) is largely due to this
fact. It is possible, of course, to combine a low formal communication load with a relatively
high semantic load (especially by the inclusion of allusions) and to produce thus a very
acceptable piece of literature or translation. The Kingsley-Williams translation of the New
Testament in Plain English is an example of a translation which purposely employs a
limited vocabulary and simple grammatical constructions, but in which the semantic
content is not watered down or artificially restricted. In the field of literature, Alice in
Wonderland and Winnie the Poo, and, in contemporary cartoon strips, Pogo and Peanuts,
provide examples of quite low formal communication loads combined with high semantic
loads. On the highest level, the power of Jesus’ teaching by means of parables exemplifies
this combination of low formal communication load with superbly challenging semantic
It is possible to produce a very acceptable translation while combining high formal and
semantic communication loads, as has been done in the New Testament of the New English
Bible—an outstanding work of translation. From time to time any good literary production
must of necessity pierce the upper limit of ready decodability; but again it must also drop
below this limit in order to adjust to the periodicity which is a part of all normal human
A really successful translation, judged in terms of the response of the audience for which it
is designed, must provide a challenge as well as information. This challenge must lie not
merely in difficulty in decoding, but in newness of form—new ways of rendering old
truths, new insights into traditional interpretations, and new words in fresh combinations.
(pp. 143-4.)
Decoding ability in any language involves at least four principal levels: (1) the capacity of
children, whose vocabulary and cultural experience are limited; (2) the double-standard
capacity of new literates, who can decode oral messages with facility but whose ability to
decode written messages is limited; (3) the capacity of the average literate adult, who can
handle both oral and written messages with relative ease; and (4) the unusually high
capacity of specialists (doctors, theologians, philosophers, scientists, etc.), when they are
decoding messages within their own area of specialization. Obviously a translation
designed for children cannot be the same as one prepared for specialists, nor can a
translation for children be the same as one for a newly literate adult.
Prospective audiences differ not only in decoding ability, but perhaps even more in their
interests. For example, a translation designed to stimulate reading for pleasure will be quite
different from one intended for a person anxious to learn how to assemble a complicated
machine. (p. 158.)
Likewise in The Theory and Practice of Translation (1969) he wrote:
The priority of the audience over the forms of the language means essentially that one must
attach greater importance to the forms understood and accepted by the audience for which a
translation is designed than to the forms which may possess a longer linguistic tradition or
have greater literary prestige.
In applying this principle of priority it is necessary to distinguish between two different sets
of situations: (1) those in which the language in question has a long literary tradition and in
which the Scriptures have existed for some time and (2) those in which the language has no
literary tradition and in which the Scriptures have either not been translated or are not so set
in their form as to pose serious problems for revisers.
As will be seen in Chapter 7, in which the basic problems of style are considered for
languages with a long literary tradition and a well-established traditional text of the Bible, it
is usually necessary to have three types of Scriptures: (1) a translation which will reflect the
traditional usage and be used in the churches, largely for liturgical purposes (this may be
called an “ecclesiastical translation”), (2) a translation in the present-day literary language,
so as to communicate to the well-educated constituency, and (3) a translation in the
“common” or “popular” language, which is known to and used by the common people, and
which is at the same time acceptable as a standard for published materials. (p. 31)
I have quoted so extensively from Toward a Science of Translating here because I want the reader to
notice not only what is said but also what is not said by Nida in his discussion of the subject. The thing
missing is any admission of the fact that meaning is lost in the versions that have a low
“communication load.” By “communication load” Nida does not mean the total amount of information
conveyed by the translation, but rather the rate at which information is conveyed, as he explains very
carefully in the same chapter. To put it very simply and in my own terms, he maintains that the amount
of information can be made equivalent by paraphrastic expansion of the translation. A low
communication load conveys the same information at a low rate by extending its length. The only
downside is, a version that does this “will appear insipid and boring” to educated people. In the passage
quoted from The Theory and Practice of Translation he sends us to chapter 7 for an explanation of the
need for “three types of Scriptures.” But there we find that the only reason for this is that different
classes of people tend to prefer different styles of writing. It is only a matter of taste. (No explanation is
given for the threefold division, but this seems rather arbitrary. Human beings do not just naturally fall
into three classes. Why not four or five?) The reason for a traditional “ecclesiastical translation” is not
explained, and we get the impression that it is merely a concession to the benighted people who insist
upon having one. Another theorist of Nida’s school, William Wonderly, sees no good reason why
“common language” versions like the Good News Bible should not completely displace the more literal
“Church” translations. He attributes the preference for more literal versions within the Church to a
spirit of mindless traditionalism: “common language translations are indeed excellent for church use,”
he says, “wherever there is not a heavy pressure for the use of a version which is hallowed by church
tradition.” (8) Of course the “Church” translation is the one that causes “serious problems for revisers,”
as Nida complains, because people will not allow it to be changed lightly; but by the same token it is
the one most diligently read and studied by Christians. Nida never acknowledges any legitimate place
for tradition, gives no attention to the question of exegetical accuracy, sees no value in theological
terms, and, indeed, he completely ignores all of the considerations I have raised in this book. Even the
“literary” translations are to be judged purely “in terms of the response of the audience.”
Nida constantly focuses on the need for versions in “common” or “popular” language. The very notion
of a “common” language becomes rather problematic, however, when we find that Nida believes that
“no word ever has precisely the same meaning twice.”
If the problem of describing the area covered by a particular linguistic symbol is difficult,
the assigning of boundaries is even more so. The basic reason is that no word ever has
precisely the same meaning twice, for each speech event is in a sense unique, involving
participants who are constantly changing and referents which are never fixed. Bloomfield
(1933, p. 407) describes this problem by saying that “every utterance of a speech form
involves a minute semantic innovation.” If this is so—and from both a theoretical and a
practical point of view we must admit this to be a fact—it means that, in some measure at
least, the boundaries of a term are being altered constantly. At the same time, of course, no
two persons have exactly the same boundaries to words. That is to say, for precisely the
same referent one person my use one linguistic symbol and another person a different
symbol. The interminable arguments about terminology provide ample evidence that the
boundaries of terms are not identical for all members of a speech community. Of course,
there is a wide measure of agreement in the use of words; otherwise, human society could
not function. Nevertheless, there are significant differences of word boundaries between
semantic areas. (Toward a Science of Translating, p. 48)
He further states that “no two persons ever mean exactly the same thing by the use of the same
language symbols.”
In any discussion of communication and meaning, one must recognize at the start, each
source and each receptor differs from all others, not only in the way the formal aspects of
the language are handled, but also in the manner in which symbols are used to designate
certain referents. If, as is obviously true, each person employs language on the basis of his
background and no two individuals ever have precisely the same background, then it is also
obvious that no two persons ever mean exactly the same thing by the use of the same
language symbols. (ibid., p. 51)
Here we see the foundations of our modern Bible Babel. For there is almost nothing that cannot be
defended in one way or another, on the grounds that it may be convenient or pleasing to some
hypothetical group of people—whose limitations are just accepted, rather than challenged and
expanded by teaching.
There is something plausible about Nida’s idea that different versions are appropriate for different
sociological groups and also for different levels of knowledge within each group. It puts us in mind of
the textbooks designed for different grades in school. Obviously a second-grade text should be much
simpler than a sixth-grade text. But in an educational setting like this, the texts are not “translations” of
the same material in some other language, nor are they ever presented as such. (We note that Nida must
go to the “Communist propagandists” to find a precedent for this questionable practice.) It is not just
the verbal form of the material that changes from grade to grade, but also the content. There is no
pretense of equality or “equivalence.” The subject matter becomes more challenging and complex. So
the situation is not really comparable. And in fact a gradation of translations is not a viable option for
congregational ministry. We do have Sunday-school grades, youth ministries, small-group Bible
studies, and “new member” classes; but the adult members of the congregation cannot be divided into
grades, like students in a school, and given different versions of the Bible that are adapted to their level
of biblical knowledge. Although their knowledge is unequal, they must be treated as one body—a
sociological unit—and the teachers must help everyone to understand the Bible through an accurate
translation, “rightly dividing the word of Truth.”
Nida never did acknowledge the need for such a painstaking ministry of the Word. We even find in his
books such disparaging remarks concerning the role of teachers as this:
… in some instances Christian scholars have a certain professionalism about their task and
feel that to make the Bible too clear would be to eliminate their distinctive function as chief
expositors and explainers of the message. In fact, when one committee was asked to adopt
some translations which were in perfectly clear, understandable language, the reactions of
its members were, “But if all the laymen can understand the Bible, what will the preachers
have to do?” (The Theory and Practice of Translation, p. 101.)

An ecclesiastical setting is in view here, but Nida goes out of his way to deny any place for an
“ecclesiastical translation” in it. Instead, he explains that some teachers do not want to use the new
paraphrastic versions for teaching purposes in the church because they are selfish obscurantists, who do
not want their jobs eliminated by translators who “make the Bible too clear.” He tries to establish this
slander with an anecdote (which he no doubt heard from one of the translators he had trained) in which
certain “perfectly clear” and “understandable” renderings were rejected by a church committee. We
have no way of knowing what the “perfectly clear” and “understandable” renderings were in this case,
but considering all the problems we have seen in English versions produced according to Nida’s
recommendations, we can well imagine what sort of renderings were being rejected. Frankly, we find it
hard to believe that any Christian could have said “But if all the laymen can understand the Bible, what
will the preachers have to do?”—unless perhaps it were a joke, designed to make the translator of the
rejected version feel better. But again, Nida presents it in all seriousness as the real reason why so many
teachers prefer to use a more literal “ecclesiastical” version in ministry.
Regarding the use of an ecclesiastical translation for “liturgical purposes,” we find that Nida does not
understand why it should be so. Elsewhere he argues that a version used for such a purpose must not be
traditional, but should instead be especially “dynamic” and easy to understand:
The priority of the heard form of language over the purely written forms is particularly
important for translations of the Bible. In the first place, the Holy Scriptures are often used
liturgically, and this means that many more people will hear the Scriptures read than will
read them for themselves. Second, the Scriptures are often read aloud to groups as means of
group instruction …
If a translation is relatively literal (i.e.. a formal correspondence translation), it is likely to
be overloaded to the point that the listener cannot understand as rapidly as the reader
speaks. This is particularly true in the case of expository materials. For this reason it is not
only legitimate, but also necessary, to see that the rate at which new information is
communicated in the translation will not be too fast for the average listener. (Theory and
Practice of Translation, pp. 28-30.)
Now as for the use of the Bible in study groups, it will not be necessary for me to describe to those who
have much experience of it the problems which arise from different people having different versions in
front of them. We all know what happens. Someone reads a passage out loud, and others follow along
in their own Bibles, in whatever version they may be, and the differences between the versions
sometimes give rise to difficult questions. This problem is not severe when the different versions are all
essentially literal, having only minor differences which are easily taken in stride. But I have often had
to explain to people why so many “dynamic” renderings are incorrect. I have been involved for many
years in group Bible studies, at which various versions were being used, among them the King James,
the New American Standard, the New International, the English Standard Version, and others, all of
which can be read together without much trouble. But when such a version as the New Living
Translation is read, it is quite impossible for people to follow along in other versions. They soon lose
track and look up from their Bibles in confusion. I have seen this several times in recent Bible study
meetings. A “dynamic equivalence” version can only be used very extensively if everyone uses it. But
this is out of the question. Nor is it even possible, because these versions come and go, and keep
changing. The people who use them also come and go. They will buy their own Bibles, of course, and
they will choose between versions for their own private reading; but a teacher must use a version that is
not always going its own peculiar way. Even if I enjoyed some paraphrastic version, and wanted to use
it in ministry, I know it would not be practical to use it much in the context of a Bible study. There is no
way around it: a version that is used in common must be a relatively literal one.
There is really no need for dumbing down the Bible in the context of the worship service, where a
sermon is delivered for the very purpose of explaining the Word of God. Nor is there any reason for it
in the context of a Sunday school or Bible study group, in which someone who is able to teach is doing
it, as a “workman who does not need to be ashamed.”
In the circumstances of our society, where so many Bible versions are competing, it is not enough for
us evaluate them only according to the individual effect each may have in isolation from the others,
because they do not really exist in isolation. They must also be evaluated according to the total effect
produced by their presence together in society. If one effect of adding yet another “dynamic” version to
the mix is to worsen the confusion experienced by laymen, then we cannot just ignore this problem.
The confusion is in fact one of the effects of the version. But as a theorist Nida does ignore the
problem, because in his theory the individual readers and the versions appear not in their real-world
social context but only in an unreal theoretical state of isolation. Thus, the practical realities of ministry,
and indeed social realities in general, are left out of account.
Although our problem is not acknowledged by Nida, it is a real problem that arises every day for many
people who are trying to teach or learn what the Bible says about all sorts of things. Recently I
happened to read the daily “Billy Graham” column that appears in my local newspaper, which gives
brief answers to questions about Christian teachings. The question today was, Did people in Old
Testament times go to heaven when they died? In his answer Graham says yes, and to prove it he
quotes “the familiar words of King David in Psalm 23 — words of hope and confidence in God’s
promise of eternal life. He wrote, ‘Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will
fear no evil, for you are with me … and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever’ (Psalm 23:4,6).”
This precious Psalm should be stored in the heart of every Christian. But what I have in mind here is a
situation where the reader of Graham’s column turns to the passage in the Bible he has at home. If that
version happens to be the New American Bible (NAB) he will find: “Even though I walk in the dark
valley I fear no evil, for you are at my side … And I shall dwell in the house of the Lord for years to
come.” Likewise in the Revised English Bible he will read, “Even were I to walk through a valley of
deepest darkness I should fear no harm … and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord throughout years
to come.” It will be noticed that in this rendering there is no reference to death or the life beyond. So
what will the reader make of this? The very words which Graham depends upon for his point are
altered so that the point cannot be made. It appears now that even the final words of the twenty-third
Psalm cannot be quoted without fear of contradiction. In verse 4 the NAB and REB translators have
interpreted the Hebrew word ‫( צלמות‬vocalized tsalmaveth in the Masoretic text) in a weakened sense,
so that “valley of the shadow of death” becomes only a “dark valley.” This is defensible if we accept a
different vocalization of the word (tsalmuth), but the opinion of the NAB translators here was certainly
influenced by the common liberal view that the writers of the Old Testament did not look forward to
any life beyond the grave, in stark contradiction to Graham’s view of the matter. (9) And it is for the
same reason that they have interpreted the final phrase ‫( לארך ימים‬lit. “to length of days”) rather
minimally as “for years to come” instead of “forever more.” (10) On the other hand, the traditional
translation cited by Graham assumes that the Psalmist has in view not only this life but also the life to
Although I believe the traditional rendering of these words is better, that is not my point just now. The
point is, the newspaper readers who want to know which representation of the meaning is more correct
have no way of settling the matter independently. The difference cannot even be explained without
reference to the Hebrew and without bringing in some important hermeneutical questions as well. In
the end the layman will have to rely upon a teacher or commentator to explain the options and
recommend one or the other. So Nida’s attempt to eliminate the role of the teacher must ultimately fail,
not only in the context of the Church but also in society at large. A really adequate theory of translation
would not be blind to this.
In addition to breaking society up and dissolving it into individuals, even the stages of the average
person’s education are isolated from one another in Nida’s theory. Superficially this does not appear to
be the case, because in one paragraph quoted above, Nida states that “The ability to decode a particular
type of message is constantly in process of change, not only as the result of an increase in general
education, but especially through specific acquaintance with the particular type of message.” He then
speaks of the desirablility of having “different grades of the same message” (Toward a Science of
Translating, p. 143). Further on he acknowledges the fact that “Obviously a translation designed for
children cannot be the same as one prepared for specialists, nor can a translation for children be the
same as one for a newly literate adult” (p. 158). We have compared this to educational methods. But we
find in his works no recognition of the need to move from one grade to the next, nor any explanation of
why a literate adult should not be using a version prepared for children. He even avoids saying this
outright in his discussion of “grades.” The reason is, he will not admit on a theoretical level that there
must be a loss of meaning in any “dynamic equivalence” version. Obviously there can be no
“equivalence” if the different “grades” of versions are not even theoretically equivalent, and so they
must be regarded as equivalent. But how can that be? Only if “equivalence” is defined purely “in terms
of the response of the audience,” so that “one is not so concerned with matching the receptor-language
message with the source-language message, but with the dynamic relationship” (p. 159). I would
emphasize this point because I think most people looking at this range of versions from a common-
sense standpoint will assume that in Nida’s scheme of things the different “grades” are provided so that
people can begin with something easy and progress to something more accurate. But that is precisely
what he cannot say, and does not say. He cannot admit a difference in accuracy. Indeed he is compelled
to redefine accuracy, so that it means nothing other than a Nidaesque equivalence:
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. (p. 183)

Thus the whole concept of accuracy becomes as slippery and subjective as everything else in this body
of theory. It may be thought that Nida has a point here, in saying that the accuracy of a translation must
be measured by the receptors’ comprehension of it. But his point has validity only after we have
accepted the assumption implicit in the phrase “decoding by individuals for which the message is
intended.” The thing in view here is not translation into languages, such as German, French, English,
etc., but translation into the infinitely variable idiolects of “individuals.” If this is the goal of
translation, then it follows that accuracy can only be defined with reference to “decoding by
individuals,” as Nida says. But if the goal of the translation is to transfer the meaning from one
language to another, and the language of the receptor is defined not as his personal idiolect but as the
language of his country, then we are able to speak of accuracy in a more objective way. The national
language is everywhere a matter of public record. It is taught in schools, and described in dictionaries
and grammars. It is embodied in the literature of the nation. When judged by that fixed standard,
accuracy is not a subjective and personal matter. If an English version uses the word grace as an
equivalent for the Greek χαρις, and someone does not understand the meaning of the word grace, he
might after all look it up in the dictionary. It is in fact an accurate English translation of χαρις whether
he understands it or not. This is how accuracy has always been understood in the past. Within the
framework of Nida’s theory, from the standpoint of his individualized view of language, it might
indeed be said that if a man does not understand the word grace, then the word is not part of his
language. But we would insist that it is part of his language, if his language is English.
We note also that Nida propounds a rather novel view of “comprehension” when he states that
“comprehension itself must be analyzed in terms of comprehending the significance of a message as
related to its possible settings.” By this he apparently means that the receptor’s “comprehension”
includes his understanding of the contemporary relevance of the text, or what may be called its
“significance” for modern times. The translator is thus made responsible for presenting the text so that
its (divinely intended?) transcultural applications may be “comprehended” by everyone straight off the
page of the version. According to Nida, any talk of “accuracy” is “meaningless” apart from this
definition of comprehension.
Is it necessary for us to point out that these definitions are outlandish, and that they place impossible
demands upon the translation? For what version has ever done this, or ever could do such things? There
is something fantastic and even megalomaniacal about Nida’s vision of the role of translators and
translations, in which the whole process of religious education is taken up into versions produced by
omni-competent translators.
Nida’s refusal to admit the need for education is not strange when the theory is really understood.
Linguistic education, at least, must be excluded on a theoretical level if all languages, dialects and
idiolects are to be regarded as equal. In chapter 16 of this book I briefly mentioned this concept and
pointed out its unscientific nature, but now it appears how important this is to Nida’s theory, and a
closer look is in order. The concept originated in the 1930’s. An early example is in Leonard
Bloomfield’s Language (New York, 1933), an introduction to linguistics which was used as the
standard textbook on the subject in American universities for many years. Bloomfield writes:
For the native speaker of sub-standard or dialectical English, the acquisition of standard
English is a real problem, akin to that of speaking a foreign language. To be told that one’s
habits are due to “ignorance” or “carelessless” and are “not English,” is by no means
helpful. Our schools sin greatly in this regard. The non-standard speaker has the task of
replacing some of his forms (e.g. I seen it) by others (I saw it) which are current among
people who enjoy greater privilege. An unrealistic attitude—say, of humility—is bound to
impede his progress. The unequal distribution of privilege which injured him in childhood,
is a fault of the society in which he lives. Without embarrassment, he should try to
substitute standard forms which he knows from actual hearing, for those which he knows to
be sub-standard. In the beginning he runs a risk of using hyper-urbanisms; such as I have
saw it (arising from the proportion I seen it : I saw it = I have seen it : x). At a later stage,
he is likely to climb into a region of stilted verbiage and over-involved syntax, in his effort
to escape from plain dialect; he should rather take pride in simplicity of speech and view it
as an advantage that he gains from his non-standard background. (p. 499)
The presence of an ideology here is plain to see. We find value judgments about several things. Instead
of just stating the fact that in English we have a formal and traditional variety called “standard”
English, and describing its history, features and purposes in an objective way, Bloomfield rather
dismissively characterizes it as a form of language “current among people who enjoy greater
privilege,” and expresses disapproval of this whole socio-linguistic system of things, on ideological
and even moral grounds. He would like to encourage the sub-standard speaker to “take pride” in his
non-standard colloquial language, while actually pitying him for his linguistic disability. He expresses
the view that we cannot expect people to become proficient in standard English, and he even compares
“acquisition of standard English” to “speaking a foreign language.” People will only make themselves
ridiculous, like incompetent foreigners, by trying too hard. The whole situation is somehow a “a fault
of the society,” in which educators “sin greatly,” and so forth.
This may appear very noble and democratic in spirit, but the alleged problem is certainly overstated,
and we are left with the impression that “Standard English” serves no other purpose than to make
uneducated people feel inferior. Bloomfield should have explained that traditional standards of
language serve important cultural and linguistic purposes. We might compare Standard English with a
uniform system of federal law which makes it possible for people of different states to make
enforceable contracts across state lines. Without such a code of law, the welfare of the whole country
will suffer. Likewise the promotion of a common language will have cultural benefits, and there can be
no common language without traditional standards. Even when we recognize that the established forms
of a language are purely and simply a matter of custom, and ultimately arbitrary, that should not lead us
to think that formal standards are dispensible. They are both arbitrary and indispensible. “Law and
order” is as necessary in language as it is in the political and economic realms. It promotes continuity
and community. When there are no standards held in common, the linguistic community deteriorates,
and everything that depends upon our ability to communicate ideas declines.
The decomposition of the national language not only separates contemporaries from one another, but
also the generations. If we might use again the analogy between language and law, the point is well
made by Edmund Burke in his Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790):
But one of the first and most leading principles on which the commonwealth and the laws
are consecrated, is lest the temporary possessors and life-renters in it, unmindful of what
they have received from their ancestors, or of what is due to their posterity, should act as if
they were the entire masters; that they should not think it amongst their rights to cut off the
entail, or commit waste on the inheritance, by destroying at their pleasure the whole
original fabric of their society; hazarding to leave to those who come after them, a ruin
instead of a habitation—and teaching these successors as little to respect their contrivances,
as they had themselves respected the institutions of their forefathers. By this unprincipled
facility of changing the State as often, and as much, and in as many ways as there are
floating fancies or fashions, the whole chain and continuity of the commonwealth would be
broken. No one generation could link with the other. Men would become little better than
the flies of a summer.
We have only to change one word to make the application: substitute “Language” for “State.” And it
brings to mind the claim made in one Bible version’s preface quoted above, that “Each generation
needs a fresh translation of the Bible in its own language.” The “language” referred to here is
presumably a form of colloquial English that lasts only one generation. But it took centuries for the
words “grace,” “righteousness,” “repent,” “faith,” “blessed,” and “Christ” to accumulate all the
connotations that make them so meaningful to Christians. Will these words now be unceremoniously
ditched and forgotten by a vain generation that prefers the “common language” of the moment? That
would be to “cut off the entail,” and “commit waste on the inheritance” of our Christian language. The
only Common Language that is adequate for speaking of these things is the one we have in common
with our fathers.

From: Against dynamic Equivalence