Dynamic equivalence in translation
In his book Toward a Science of Translating, published in 1964, the American linguist Eugene Nida coined new terminology to describe different approaches to translation. Nida was specifically exploring contrasting approaches to translating the Bible. But his theories of “dynamic equivalence” and “formal equivalence” are relevant to all translations.
Nida sparked a scholarly debate that continues to this day. His theories highlighted the relative merits of literal translation and that undertaken with the culture and emotional response of the target audience in mind.
Should text be translated word for word into the target language, at least as far as is possible? Or is it more important to adapt the text so that it better conveys its intended meaning and elicits its intended emotional response?
What is formal equivalence?
Formal equivalence is an approach to translation where the aim is to remain as close as possible to the original text. The translated text will preserve the vocabulary and the grammatical structure of the source text.
What are the benefits of formal equivalence?
Formal equivalence enables readers to apply their own interpretation to the original text and to consider the nuances of its meaning. However, they may only be able to do this if they are at least somewhat familiar with the source language and culture.
This approach to translation minimises the possibility of the translator imbuing outputs with their own biases. It also reduces the chances of inappropriate alternatives to the original words being chosen. These may alter the inherent meaning of the text beyond simply correcting cultural or lexical differences.
What are the pitfalls of formal equivalence?
Formal equivalence can only ever be a goal and not a reality. There will always be words, phrases and grammatical elements for which no precise equivalents exist in the target language.
It could be said there are no exact synonyms of words in any two or more languages as all languages are incredibly nuanced.
In addition, grammatical rules vary across languages, and such variations can make formal equivalence impossible. When the grammatical devices employed in the source text do not exist in the target language, a translator may be forced to add or omit elements of text and those changes can transform how the message is perceived. In other words, there may be unintended consequences to formal equivalence. In trying not to alter the text too much, a translator could change its meaning entirely.
Tense, voice, person, gender and number are all grammatical devices that present challenges for translators attempting to adhere to formal equivalence.
What is dynamic equivalence?
With dynamic equivalence, texts are rendered into the target language using words and structures that make more sense to their audience than a word for word translation. The vocabulary, grammar structure and idioms of the source text will not be preserved. The aim is to maintain the intended meaning and elicit the intended emotional response by utilising grammar and vocabulary that feels more natural in the target language.
What are the benefits of dynamic equivalence?
When the structure and grammar of the target language vary greatly from that of the source, readers may struggle to understand a translation unless the words have been altered or rearranged. A literal translation with the original syntax preserved can be incredibly difficult to read.
A target audience may not be familiar with the source culture and so will require references to be explained or idioms to be localised.
In many cases, it is vital to consider not just what is explicitly stated in the source text but also what is implied. Dynamic equivalence empowers a translator to read between the words and to recreate them in a way that enables the target audience to better appreciate the nuances of the original. Such nuances may be lost if a more formal approach is adopted.
Are there any downsides to dynamic equivalence?
As dynamic equivalence allows a translator greater flexibility of expression, the potential does exist for them to apply personal bias to their outputs. The depth of their linguistic and cultural knowledge will impact the quality of their translations. Should they misunderstand the meanings of any words or aspects of the target culture, they may unintentionally create outputs that do not accurately reflect the sense and intended impact of the source material.
Which approach is superior?
As discussed, formal equivalence is an ideal rather than an absolute. Translators will always need to apply a dynamic approach to their work. The question is, to what extent should they do this?
To understand the difference between formal equivalence and dynamic equivalence, It is worth exploring two published translations of a passage from the Bible:
“A man with an evil eye hastens after wealth and does not know that want will come upon him.”
The above example of formal equivalence appears in the New American Standard Bible.
“Selfish people are in such a hurry to get rich that they do not know when poverty is about to strike.”
This translation of the same verse appears in the Good News Translation (GNT) of the Bible. It is more dynamic in character.
Which translation is more appropriate?
The former would undoubtedly appeal to theologians and historians. It would enable them to consider and discuss the nuances of the original text. But it is the dynamic translation which would better resonate with a lay audience and particularly a younger one. The lay audience would have no interest in the finer points of the original Hebrew and would find it irritating to have to stop and think about the intended meaning.
In truth, neither approach to translation is superior to the other. It is a question of context. A translator should choose the correct methodology for each individual text or project. For instance, translating the Bible is a very different proposition to translating an advertisement for an energy drink.
Most translation projects will demand the application of dynamic equivalence if they are to accurately reflect the intended meaning and impact of the source text in the target language. Even Nida eventually eschewed his own terminology and began referring to functional equivalence rather than dynamic equivalence. In doing this, he reflected the fact that some degree of dynamism is inevitable.
The best translators are not merely skilled linguists. They possess the ability to properly consider context, culture and target audience. Their outputs retain the intended message of the source while being easy to read. The finest translations diverge from the original texts only to the extent that they need to if they are to properly resonate.
Art or science?
You could say that dynamic equivalence is where translation becomes an art rather than a science or a matter of intuition and not rules. You could also propose that dynamic equivalence is a more functional methodology and, therefore, a more practical one. The lines between art and science are always blurred.
Linguistic scholars have vigorously debated the relative merits of formal and dynamic equivalence for decades. But translation isn’t a black and white issue. It is a far more colourful endeavour. Skilled professional translators will choose the right shades and then blend them appropriately.