Nida, Eugene A. 1966. "Principles of Translation as Exemplified by Bible
Translating". In: Reuben A. Brower, ed. On Translation. New York:
Oxford University Press, 1966 (11959), 11-31.
© All rights reserved.
Text scanned for educational use, Unit for Culture Research, Tel Aviv University



IN TERMS of the length of tradition, volume of work, and variety of
problems, Bible translating is distinctive. Beginning with the trans-
lation of the Hebrew Old Testament into Greek in the second and
third centuries b.c. and continuing down to the present time, the
Scriptures have been translated, at least in part, into 1,109 languages,
of which 210 possess the entire Bible and 271 more the New Testa-
ment. This means that the major part of the Christian Scriptures exist
in the languages of at least 95 per cent of the world's population.
Moreover, most of this work has been accomplished in relatively
recent times. By the time of the invention of printing, approximately
500 years ago, only 33 languages had anything of the Bible, and even
by the beginning of the nineteenth century only 71 languages pos-
sessed anything of the Scriptures. However, within the nineteenth
century more than 400 languages received something of the Scrip-
tures, and during the first half of the twentieth century some part of
the Bible was translated into approximately 500 more languages and
dialects. At present the volume of translation and revision is of such
magnitude that within the next twenty-five years as much will be
published as within the entire nineteenth century, for more than a
thousand persons are giving all or a major part of their time to the
translation and revision of the Bible in various parts of the world.

The unparalleled range of Bible translating, including as it does
not only all the major languages of the world but hundreds of "primi-
tive" tongues, provides a wealth of data and background of experience
in the fundamental problems of communication which constitute the
basis of the following article.

Practical Nature of Problems in Bible Translating

Whereas for some people translating may be primarily a matter of
theoretical interest, the Bible translator must face up to certain imme-
diate problems. For example, if he attempts to translate literally the
expression "he beat his breast" (speaking of the repentant Publican,

12 Eugene A. Nida

Luke 18:13), he may discover that, as in the Chokwe language of
Central Africa, this phrase actually means "to congratulate oneself"
(the equivalent of our "pat himself on the back"). In some instances
it is necessary to say "to club one's head."

It is assumed by many people that the repetition of a word will
make the meaning more emphatic, but this is not always the case.
For example, in Hiligaynon (and a number of other Philippine
languages), the very opposite is true. Accordingly, one cannot trans-
late literally "Truly, truly, I say to you," for to say "truly, truly" in
Hiligaynon would really mean "perhaps," while saying "truly" once
is actually the Biblical equivalent.

Quite without knowing the reasons, we usually insist that, in
rendering in another language a sentence such as "he went to town,"
one must use an active form of the verb meaning "to go." However,
in many of the Nilotic languages of the Sudan it would be much
more acceptable to say, "the town was gone to by him."

In still other instances one encounters what is regarded by some as
a completely distorted orientation of experience. For example, in the
Bolivian Quechua language it is quite possible to speak of the future,
even as it is in any language, but one speaks of the future as "behind
oneself" and the past as "ahead of one." When pressed for an ex-
planation of such an expression, Quechuas have insisted that because
one can see "in the mind" what has happened such events must be "in
front of one," and that since one cannot "see" the future such events
must be "behind one." Such a perspective of the past and the future is
every bit as meaningful as our own, and it can certainly not be con-
demned as distorted. It is simply different from ours.

Accordingly, in such areas as (1) behavior as described by language
(e.g., "beating the breast"), (2) semantic patterns (e.g., repetition
of constituents), (3) grammatical constructions (e.g., active vs.
passive), or (4) idiomatic descriptions of "perspectives," the Bible
translator is faced with acute problems demanding answers. He knows
full well that reproducing the precise corresponding word may ut-
terly distort the meaning. Accordingly, he has been obliged to adjust
the verbal form of the translation to the requirements of the com-
municative process.

Underlying Principles

Though in many instances the principles underlying Bible trans-
lating are only partially recognized or formulated by those engaged

Bible Translating 13

in such work, nevertheless the results of any accurate translating
reveal the following basic principles:

1. Language consists of a systematically organized set of oral-aural
. By oral-aural we are simply emphasizing the fact that such
symbols not only are uttered by the vocal apparatus of the speaker
but are also received and interpreted by the listener. The writing
system of any language is a dependent symbolic system and only
imperfectly reflects the "spoken-heard" form of language.

2. Associations between symbols and referents are essentially arbi-
. Even onomatopoetic forms bear only a "culturally condi-
tioned" resemblance to the sounds which they are designed to imitate.
For example, the equivalent of our tramp-tramp is kú ha in Luvale, a
Bantu language of Central Africa, and mingòdongòdona in Malagasy.

3. The segmentation of experience by speech symbols is essentially
. The different sets of words for color in various languages
are perhaps the best ready evidence for such essential arbitrariness.
For example, in a high percentage of African languages there are only
three "color words," corresponding to our white, black, and red,
which nevertheless divide up the entire spectrum. In the Tarahumara
language of Mexico, there are five basic color words, and here "blue"
and "green" are subsumed under a single term. The comparison of
related sets of words in any field of experience -- kinship terms, body
parts, or classification of plants -- reveals the same essentially arbitrary
type of segmentation. Since, therefore, no two languages segment
experience in the same way, this means that there can never be a word-
for-word type of correspondence which is fully meaningful or ac-

4. No two languages exhibit identical systems of organizing
symbols into meaningful expressions
. In all grammatical features, that
is, order of words, types of dependencies, markers of such depend-
ency relationships, and so on, each language exhibits a distinctive

The basic principles of translation mean that no translation in a
receptor language can be the exact equivalent of the model in the
source language. That is to say, all types of translation involve (1)
loss of information, (2) addition of information, and/or (3) skewing
of information. To understand clearly the manner in which such

14 Eugene A. Nida

"distortion" takes place we must examine the ethnolinguistic design
of communication.

Ethnolinguistic Design of Communication

By adopting the simpler components of the communication proc-
ess and relating these to the entire communicative context, we may
construct an ethnolinguistic design of communication as shown in
Figure 1.

Figure 1

In the diagram of Figure 1 S stands for source (the speaker as source
and encoder). M is the message as expressed in accordance with the
particular structure (the inner square in this instance) of the language.
The message may include anything from a single word to an entire
utterance. R is the receptor (including decoder and receiver), and
the outer square (designated by C) represents the cultural context
as a whole, of which the message (as a part of the language) is itself
a part and a model (compare similarity of shapes).

It is quite impossible to deal with any language as a linguistic signal
without recognizing immediately its essential relationship to the
cultural context as a whole. For example, in Hebrew the root * brk
is used in the meaning of "to bless" and "to curse." Such meanings
would only be applicable in a culture in which words in certain socio-
religious contexts were regarded as capable of either blessing or
cursing, depending upon the purpose of the source. Similarly * qds,
which is generally used in the sense of "holy," may also designate
a temple prostitute, an association which would be impossible within
our own culture, but entirely meaningful in a society which was well
acquainted with fertility cults.

This emphasis upon the relationship of M to C must not, however,
constitute an excuse for unwarranted etymologizing, in which mean-
ings are read into words from historically prior usages, for example,
treating Greek ekklesia "assembly" or "church" as really meaning

Bible Translating 15

"called out ones" (a contention of some Bible interpreters) because
of an earlier use of the compound word.

Despite the recognition of the close connection between the M and
C (that is, between the realities symbolized by the inner and outer
squares), we must at the same time recognize the fact that every S
(source) and every R (receptor) is a different individual in ac-
cordance with his background and is hence somewhat diverse in the
use and understanding of M (the message). If we may describe each
person's encoding-decoding mechanism as a kind of linguistic grid
based upon the totality of his previous language experience, we must
admit that each grid is different in at least some slight degree. This
does not make communication impossible, but it removes the possi-
bility of absolute equivalence and opens the way for different under-
standing of the same message.

In the communicative process, however, S and R generally recog-
nize these matters of difference and tend to adjust their respective
grids so as to communicate more effectively. For example, a speaker
adjusts himself to his audience (if he wishes to communicate with
any degree of effectiveness) and the audience, in turn, makes allow-
ances for the background of the speaker. Furthermore, each partici-
pant in the S-M-R process is aware of such adjustments and tends to
make reciprocal compensation so as to comprehend more fully and
correctly.1 Communication is thus essentially a two-way process,
even though one person might be doing all the speaking.

One of the essential tasks of the Bible translator is to reconstruct
the communicative process as evidenced in the written record of the
Bible. In other words, he must engage in what is traditionally called
exegesis, but not hermeneutics, which is the interpretation of a passage
in terms of its relevance to the present-day world, not to the Bibli-
cal culture.

One interesting problem in exegesis which may be treated by the
method of reconstructing the communicative process is the formal
differences between the phrases "kingdom of God" (used exclusively
in the Gospel of Luke) and "kingdom of heaven" (used in most
contexts in the Gospel of Matthew). Most Biblical scholars have re-
garded these two phrases as essentially equivalent, but there are some
persons who insist that they refer to two different "dispensations."
The answer to such a problem consists in reconstructing the facts of
the communication: the Jewish taboo avoidance of Yahweh (and by
extension other terms referring to deity), the substitution of words

16 Eugene A. Nida

such as "heaven," "power," and "majesty" for Yahweh, the Jewish
background of the writer of the Gospel of Matthew, the evident
Jewish audience to which the Gospel of Matthew is directed, the
Greek background of Luke, the Greco-Roman audience to which
the Gospel of Luke was directed, and the complete lack of any
substitution device (such as "heaven" for "God") on the part of
the Greco-Roman community. These factors in the communication
process when considered in the light of the total cultural context
make the identification of the two phrases entirely justified.

Two-Language Model of Communication

Up to the present time we have been discussing the translator's
task in terms of the Biblical languages, but assuming, for the sake of
greater simplicity of statement, that the translator was a part of the
Biblical culture. This, of course, is not true, for though he may be
well acquainted with numerous aspects of this culture, he is not, nor
can he ever be, anything like a fully participating member. Not only
can the culture not be fully described, but it can most certainly not
be reproduced -- despite Alley Oop's time-machine experiences.

The fact that English (the language which we shall, for our present
purposes, assume as the language of the translator) is the means by
which information concerning the Biblical culture is directly or
indirectly gathered, e.g., through commentaries, dictionaries, and
learned journals, is described diagrammatically in Figure 2.

Figure 2

In this diagram the squares represent the Biblical language (for the
sake of our diagram it makes no essential difference whether we are
speaking of Greek, Hebrew, or Aramaic) and the triangles represent
the "equivalent" communication in English. The subscript numerals
help to identify the different components in these parallel instances
of communication. A translator of the New Testament into English

Bible Translating 17

assumes the position of R1, even though he can only approximate the
role of a New Testament receptor. At the same time this translator
becomes S2, in that he reproduces M1 as M2, so that R1 may respond
in ways essentially similar to those in which the original R1 responded.

Where there is a time gap between C1 and C2 the translator (S2)
can only be a kind of proxy R1. However, a bilingual translator who
participates fully in two linguistic communities may fulfill a dual role
by being quite validly both R1 and S2.

Figure 2 serves also to emphasize two significant factors: (1) the
essential differences in the form between M1 and M2, and (2) the
relationship of M1 and M2 to their respective cultural contexts. Of
course, the actual situation is not as simple as the diagram would
imply, for nothing so complex as a language-culture relationship can
possibly be reduced to a few lines. However, the differences are
present and real and can be noted in all phases of the communicative
procedure. A few of these differences will enable one to understand
more fully certain of the broader implications of what we are only
able to hint at here.

Though as English-speaking people we employ a language which
is relatively closely related to Greek (certainly in comparison with
the differences between English and Hottentot), there are numerous
basic differences. In the meanings of words, for example, we have
relatively few close correspondences. We use love to translate certain
aspects of the meanings of at least four different Greek words: aga-
paô, phileô, stergô
, and eraô, but these words also correspond to
such English meanings as "to like," "to appreciate the value of,"
"to be friendly with," "to have affection for," and "to have a passion
for." Even a first-year Greek student will give the meaning of logos
as "word," but the Liddell and Scott dictionary lists more than
seventy different meanings -- and these do not do full justice to the
specialized Biblical usage. However, Greek also has two other words,
epos and rhêma, which are likewise translated as "word" in many

The incommensurability between Greek and English is quite
evident in the differences between tense and aspect, a problem which
gives constant difficulty to a translator of the New Testament. This
problem is made all the more acute by the fact that the Hebrew of
the Old Testament employs a tense-aspect system which is quite
different from that of the Greek, but which is often reflected in the
distinctive Semitic coloring of many New Testament usages.

18 Eugene A. Nida

In the matter of arrangement of words, especially in the marking
of long series of dependent phrases and clauses, the English language
simply does not have the structural potentialities of Greek. Accord-
ingly, a stretch of speech which may be a perfectly good Greek
sentence (consisting, for example, of verses 3-14 of Ephesians 1) can
only be rendered intelligibly by several sentences in English.

Whether, then, in terms of the meanings of words or idioms ("heap
coals of fire on his head," "bowels of mercy," or "the reins and the
heart") or of the grammatical categories or arrangements of words,
M1 differs from M2. However, this is not the whole story, for most
Bible translators are faced not with a two-language but a three-
language communication problem.

Three-Language Diagram of Communication

By means of one's own language -- which in the case of English
bears a close cognate relationship to Greek and reflects a considerable
historical connection with the Biblical culture, even as Western
culture took over much from the Judaeo-Greco-Roman world --
one not only explores the Biblical languages but in large measure
tends to mediate these data in communicating into another language.
Accordingly, we may diagram this process (Figure 3).

figure 3
Figure 3

Of course, there are a number of translators who translate "directly
from the original languages," but even then a high percentage of their
responses to the forms of the original languages tend to be colored
by the medium of study and analysis, namely, their own mother
tongue. Their task, however, is to communicate the M1 in terms of
M3, with the least possible skewing as the result of M2. The problem
is made more difficult in most instances by virtue of the fact that
most languages don't have any historical connection with the Bibli-
cal languages, either by being members of the same language family
or because of historical and cultural associations. However, there is

Bible Translating 19

one interesting fact, namely, that the so-called Biblical culture exhibits
far more similarities with more other cultures than perhaps any other
one culture in the history of civilization. This is not strange, if one
takes into consideration the strategic location of this culture in the
Middle East, at the "crossroads of the world" and at a point from
which radiated so many cultural influences. This fact makes the Bible
so much more "translatable" in the many diverse cultures of the world
than most books coming out of our own contemporary Western
culture. This essential similarity to the cultures of so many peoples
helps to explain something of the Bible's wide appeal.

Definition of Translating

A definition of translating will inevitably depend in very large
measure upon the purpose to be accomplished by the translation in
question. However, since in Bible translating the purpose is not to
communicate certain esoteric information about a different culture,
but to so communicate that R3 may be able to respond to M3 in ways
substantially similar to those in which R1 responded to M1, a defi-
nition of translating which is in accord with the best traditions of
Biblical scholarship could be stated as follows: "Translating consists
in producing in the receptor language the closest natural equivalent
to the message of the source language, first in meaning and secondly
in style."

This type of definition recognizes the lack of any absolute corre-
spondence, but it does point up the importance of finding the closest
equivalence. By "natural" we mean that the equivalent forms should
not be "foreign" either in form (except of course for such inevitable
matters as proper names) or meaning. That is to say, a good transla-
tion should not reveal its nonnative source.

It is recognized that equivalence in both meaning and style cannot
always be retained -- in the acrostic poems of the Old Testament, to
cite an extreme example. When, therefore, one must be abandoned
for the sake of the other, the meaning must have priority over the
stylistic forms.

Differences of Formal Structure

In comparing the form of the Biblical message (M1) with the
corresponding form that must be employed in any other language
(Mx), we are immediately impressed with the marked formal dif-
ferences. We cannot, however, consider all these contrasts. Neverthe-

20 Eugene A. Nida

less, a brief statement of such problems as diversities in (a) word
classes, (b) grammatical categories, and (c) arrangements of words
can be illustrative of the basic principles involved in determining
what is the "closest natural equivalence" in any given situation.

Word Classes

There is a great deal of difference between languages in respect to
the word classes that are used to express certain ideas, for so
often what is a noun in Greek must be rendered as a verb in other
languages, and what is a pronoun in Greek or Hebrew frequently
must become a noun in another language. Furthermore, adjectives in
Greek or Hebrew are often verb-like words in other languages.
Nevertheless, behind this apparent wide discrepancy in the word
classes of various languages there are some astonishing similarities.
In the first place, most languages described to date have been found to
have "object words" (usually treated as noun-like words), "event
words" (generally designated as verb-like), and at least some other
classes, often pronouns, adjectives, and/or relational particles. What
is therefore more significant than the apparent differences between
Greek and other languages (such differences are much more evident
in New Testament translating than in the Old Testament) is a
fundamental agreement between languages as to classes commonly
called nouns and verbs.

What we designate as noun-like words and verb-like words are
predominantly those which are (1) "object words" with more or less
fixed figures or forms, tree, stick, hill, river, grass, rope, stone, sun,
moon, star, canoe, dog, cat, head, foot
, and (2) "event words," run,
walk, jump, swim, see, hear, fight, hit, talk, make
, and fly. It is possible
that Gestalt psychology can provide certain important clues as to
the reasons for this basic dichotomy in languages, though it is recog-
nized that in many languages there is considerable overlapping of
classes and shifting of terms from one class to another. The well-
defined figure, as compared with the ground (to use Gestalt termi-
nology), could provide us with the core of noun-like words (the
so-called "object words"). The less well-defined figures representing
movement, becoming, passing, or "eventing" would then be repre-
sented by the "event words," namely, the verbs. Certain character-
istics held in common by various "object words," for example, red,
yellow, true, good, kind, one
, and two, would provide the abstracts
generally designated as adjectives, and those designating common

Bible Translating 21

features of events, fast, suddenly, slowly, once, and twice, for in-
stance, would correspond to adverbs, though in this there is also con-
siderable overlapping and shifting of class membership. In addition
to the word classes designating objects, events, and abstractions, there
are the relationals, which describe relations between objects or be-
tween events. If such words are used primarily as relationals between
objects, we call them preposition-like words, and if they indicate
relations between events, they are generally classed as conjunctions,
but here again there is a great deal of overlapping and shifting from
one class to another.

The preceding paragraphs must not be interpreted as a defense of
the Indo-European word class structure, nor of the fatal error of
descriptive methodology in defining a noun as "the name of a person,
place, or thing." Furthermore, we are not suggesting that these
semantically important classes represent any inevitable direction of
development for any language. In the Mayan languages for example,
the equivalents of English adjectives are for the most part a formal
subclass of verbs, and the prepositions and conjunctions are predomi-
nantly noun-like words, though of a very restricted class. In Tara-
humara certain object words (as judged in terms of their present
semantic values) are certainly derived from event words, for example,
paciki "an ear of corn" (from paci "to grow ears of corn") and
remeke "tortillas" (from reme "to make tortillas"). Nevertheless, de-
spite such divergencies there is in most languages a sizable core of
words which reflect distinctions explicable in terms of Gestalt psy-
chology. Moreover, whether as major or minor classes, languages do
tend to have four principal groups: object words (roughly equivalent
to nouns), event words (roughly equivalent to verbs), abstracts
(modifiers of object and event words), and relationals (roughly
equivalent to prepositions and conjunctions in the Indo-European

For the Bible translator the most serious problem relating to word
classes is created by the fact that in Greek, and for that matter in
most Indo-European languages, there is a marked tendency to use
event words without reference to the objects or person that may
participate in such events. For example, in Mark 1:4 there is the
clause "John preached the baptism of repentance unto the forgive-
ness of sins." All the nouns except John are essentially event words,
but the participants in the events are not made explicit, and the re-
lationships between the events are very ambiguously indicated. When,

22 Eugene A. Nida

as in many languages, this type of expression must be translated not
by a series of nouns but by verbs, the problem is difficult; for not
only must the participants be explicitly indicated (as required by verb
constructions in question), but the relationships between the events
must be more explicitly stated. This means that such an expression
in many languages must be rendered as "John preached that the
people should repent and be baptized so that God would forgive
the evil which they had done."

Similarly, it is quite impossible to say in many languages, "God is
love." The word indicating "love" is essentially an event word, and
it cannot be combined as a kind of predicate complement to a subject
by means of a copulative verb. In other words, "love" cannot exist
apart from participants. One cannot say, therefore, "God is love" but
simply that "God loves." This is, of course, essentially what the Bibli-
cal passage means, not that God is to be equated with love, for
the expression "God is love" can not be inverted into "Love is God."

Grammatical Categories

When a language possesses certain categories which are not in
Greek or Hebrew, the question arises as to whether the translation
should conform to the categories of the receptor language. If such
categories are obligatory there is really no alternative, unless one
wishes to produce a translation which is grammatically incorrect.
However, the problem is not quite so simple, for there are two types
of factors: (1) the nonexistent, ambiguous, obscure, implicit, or ex-
plicit nature of the information in the source language, and (2) the
obligatory or optional character of the category in the receptor

The following outline indicates those types of situations in the
source and receptor languages which give rise to the most common
problems of equivalence:

A. Instances in which M1 lacks information which is obligatory
in M2
. For example, in Matthew 4:1 there is no information avail-
able from the New Testament record as to whether Jesus had ever
visited Capernaum prior to his trip recorded at this point. When, as
in the Villa Alta dialect of Zapotec, spoken in southern Mexico, it
is obligatory to distinguish between actions which occur for the first
time with particular participants and those which are repetitious,
one must make a decision, despite the lack of data in the source

Bible Translating 23

language. Since there is a greater likelihood that Jesus would have
visited nearby Capernaum than that he would not have done so,
the translation into Villa Alta Zapotec reflects this probability, and
there is accordingly a distinct increase in "information" in the trans-
lation. When, however, such information is purely optional in a re-
ceptor language, it is of course not introduced.

B. Instances in which information which is obligatory in Mx is
obscure in M1
. The status of Jesus as a rabbi was well recognized by
his friends and followers but was openly challenged by others. If,
accordingly, we must apply to the Gospel accounts the categories
of an honorific system (such as are common in the languages of South-
east Asia we cannot always be sure precisely what would be the
relative social position of Jesus and those who would speak to and of
him. Though considerable information is given, there is also real
obscurity at many points. If, however, the receptor language requires
honorific indicators, they must be added (with at least a partial in-
crease in information).

C. Instances in which information which is obligatory in Mx is
ambiguous in M1
. Though ambiguities also involve a degree of ob-
scurity, they are different from simple obscurities in that either
alternative seems to have almost equal validity. For example, in John
4:12 the Samaritan woman speaks to Jesus of "our father Jacob, who
gave us the well." If we apply to this statement the inclusive-exclusive
first person plural dichotomy, which occurs in many languages, we
can argue almost equally well for the inclusive form (assuming that
the woman would be willing to admit that the jews were also de-
scended from Jacob) or the exclusive form (reflecting something
more of the traditional hostility between the Samaritans and the Jews
and the evident contrast mentioned in verse 20 of the same chapter).
When the inclusive-exclusive distinction is obligatory in the receptor
language, the translator must make a decision, and regardless of the
results there will be at least a partial increase of information. When,
however, the receptor language allows such information to be op-
tional, then the translator should retain the ambiguity of the original.

D. Instances in which information which must be made explicit
in Mx is only implicit in M1
. When information is implicit in the
source language context, but must be made explicit in he receptor
language, there is actually no gain in information carried by the

24 Eugene A. Nida

message. It is merely carried in a different way -- explicitly rather
than implicitly. For example, in John 4:20, when the Samaritan
woman is reported as saying, "Our fathers worshiped on this
mountain; and you say that in Jerusalem is the place where men
ought to worship," there is no possible doubt as to the exclusive
use of "our." However, this fact is implicitly given, not explicitly so.
In many instances, however, what is quite implicitly understood in
one language is not so understood in another, especially in those
instances where the cultural context is very different. For example,
a literal translation (one which translates only the strictly explicit
features) of Hebrews 7:3, "He is without father or mother or gene-
alogy, and has neither beginning of days nor end of life..." is likely
to be understood in many languages as implying that Melchizedek
was a theophany, rather than simply a person for whom there is no
record of human descent. Accordingly, to avoid serious misunder-
standing it is often necessary to make explicit in the receptor language
(even on an optional and nonobligatory basis) what is only implicit
in the source language.

E. Instances in which information which is explicit in M1 must
be differently treated in Mx
. Explicit information in the source
language should be communicated in the receptor language. There
are, however, two exceptions to this general rule. In the first place,
the receptor language may not have a corresponding method of indi-
cating such information. For example, in the Greek verb system there
are numerous subtle distinctions of aspect which cannot be translated
into English without very heavy circumlocutions, which in the end
tend to make the aspectual distinctions far more explicit than they
were in the source language. Such translations involve a partial in-
crease in information by virtue of their emphasis. In the second place,
when the indication of such information is optional in the receptor
language, the frequency of occurrence of information of this type
may be quite different from what it is in the source language. For ex-
ample, in Greek and Hebrew number and tense are indicated repeat-
edly, while in many languages number and tense may be indicated
once within a context, but left implicit throughout the rest of the
passage in question. It is necessary that a translation indicate such
optional factors with a frequency which is comparable with what
would normally occur, or the translation becomes unnatural, since
the patterns of "redundancy" have been altered.

Bible Translating 25

This outline of criteria for the addition or omission of information
is applicable not only to the immediate problem of grammatical cate-
gories, but to any and all types of mensurability between the source
and receptor languages.

Arrangements of Words

The same principles elaborated in the preceding section with
regard to corresponding categories also apply in matters of arrange-
ments of words, whether of order of words or of the number and
types of dependencies. Of the numerous problems involved in gram-
matical arrangements of words we can only touch briefly upon
hypotactic and paratactic constructions. A language with a heavy
hypotactic structure (e.g., Greek) simply makes explicit a number
of relationships which are left implicit in a language which employs
a paratactic type of structure (e.g., Hebrew). Unfortunately, there
is a tendency to think that the hypotactic structure is fundamentally
superior and that accordingly in translating into a language which has
an essentially paratactic structure one should introduce (for example
by overworking potential hypotactic patterns and by creating new
grammatical forms or arrangements) the same number and types of
hypotactic constructions as one finds in Greek. Such a procedure is
quite unwarranted, for one should permit to be left implicit in the
receptor language what is explicit in the source language if the re-
ceptor language in question would normally employ an implicit type
of structure. The breaking up of long, involved sentences and the
omission of corresponding conjunctions (provided such processes
are carried out in conformity with the requirements of the receptor
language) do not actually result in any loss of information. It simply
means that the information is carried implicitly, rather than explicitly.

Hierarchy of Semantic Constituents

Despite our recognition of the fact that there are no complete
synonyms, that is to say, words which may substitute for each other
in all possible positions of occurrence, nevertheless, we do recognize
that some words are substantially identical with others in the sense
that they may be substituted for each other without any appreciable
loss or change in meaning within a particular discourse. This is, of
course, the experience of everyone who attempts to write without
dull repetition of the same words. Not infrequently we need to
mention the same referent, but stylistic considerations make it neces-

26 Eugene A. Nida

sary for us to employ some other term which will serve the purpose.
A brief examination of this process soon reveals that some words
substitute for many words (words such as thing, matter, object,
feature, apparatus, this, he, they, go, come
, and move have a wide
range of substitution), while other words may substitute for very
few words (raccoon, elephant, thimble, equator, seismograph, crawl,
, and assassinate). If we group such words into related series and
classify them on the basis of their range of substitution, we soon
discover a series of hierarchies, ranging from the most concrete, "low-
level" vocabulary at the base (with words having the greatest speci-
ficity), and the most generic, "high-level" vocabulary at the top (with
words possessing the greatest degree of generality).

For the translator this factor of hierarchical series of concrete-
generic vocabulary poses special problems, for though languages
exhibit considerable agreement as to the segmentation of experience
exhibited by the concrete vocabulary (for such segmentation is
dependent largely upon "figure"-"ground" contrasts which are more
or less well outlined, in terms of Gestalt psychology), the generic
vocabulary, which is dependent upon the recognition of common
features, is much more subject to differences of interpretation. Ac-
cordingly, it is much easier for the Bible translator to translate the
Book of the Revelation, which is filled with symbols, of which the
meaning is obscure though the language is specific and concrete, than
the Gospel of John, of which the meaning is more evident but the
language of a higher hierarchical level

What makes such high-level generic vocabulary difficult to translate
is not the fact that receptor languages lack such vocabulary, but that
the generic vocabulary which does exist does not parallel the generic
vocabulary of the Bible.

Unfortunately, there are two erroneous (and at the same time
contradictory) impressions about so-called primitive languages. One
often hears, on the one hand, that a language exhibits a primitive
character since the language does not have any generic vocabulary,
but only specific terms. On the other hand, people not infrequently
lament the fact that a "primitive" language is inadequate as a means
of communication because the words in question cover too wide an
area of meaning, as for example in Anuak, a language of the Sudan,
in which the same word may designate anything made of metal, from
a needle to an airplane. The actual situation that one finds in languages
is not the real absence of generic vocabulary, but its occurrence on

Bible Translating 27

different levels, and with difficult subpatterns of substitution. For
example, in Bulu, spoken in the Cameroun, there are at least twenty
five terms for different kinds of baskets but no specific generic term
which includes just baskets and nothing else.2 However, one can
refer to such objects by words which would have a higher-level value
than our word basket, namely, the Bulu equivalent of "thing,"
"object," or "it." On the other hand, there are not only many dif-
ferent specific words for fruits, but a generic term for fruits as a
whole, on a level which more or less corresponds with our term.
In Kaka, a related language in the eastern part of the Cameroun, there
are two generic terms for fruits, one which includes bananas and
pineapples, and another which includes all other kinds of fruits (in
terms of our meaning of fruit), plus testicles, glands, hearts, kidneys,
eyeballs, soccer balls, pills, and the seed of any fruit or plant.

Analytical studies of semantic problems in so-called primitive
languages reveal that the general proportion of specific to generic
vocabulary is not appreciably different from what it is in the language
of so-called civilized societies. The reason for the false impressions
about specific and generic vocabulary is that people have wrongly
expected generic vocabulary in various languages to exhibit the same
degree of correspondence which they have observed in the study
of specific vocabulary. Such is simply not the case, nor should one
expect this to be so, since specific objects provide a much surer
observable base of segmentation than the classification of objects,
events, abstracts, and relations, on the basis of shared or unshared
features. In other words, the more one depends upon the factors of
human "judgment" rather than responses to more or less immediate
perception, the greater will be the tendency to diversity.

Areas of Meaning and Amount of Information

The wider the area of meaning of a word (in terms of the wider
segment of experience covered by a term) the greater is the likeli-
hood of its statistical frequency of occurrence. This greater statistical
frequency means that it tends to have a higher predictability of occur-
rence and hence greater redundancy. The greater the redundancy the
less the information that is actually carried by the unit in question.
This means that a translation made up primarily of words with wide
areas of meaning does not carry the load of information which is often

There is, of course, another factor, namely, the transitional prob-

28 Eugene A. Nida

abilities. If, for example, words with wide areas of meaning and
hence greater frequency of occurrence in the language occur in un-
usual combinations and hence have low transitional probabilities in
the particular context in question, the signal consisting of these words
may still carry considerable information. Nevertheless, a translation
made into any artificially restricted vocabulary will inevitably be one
which carries less information than the original, unless extensive
circumlocutions are employed and the meaning is thus "padded out."

There is a tendency for translators to overwork "good terms." They
find certain expressions which may be used in a wide range of situ-
ations and hence employ them as frequently as possible. The result
is often a marked rise of frequency, in contrast with normal usage,
and the resultant loss in information, because of their predictability
within the Biblical context. In an analogous manner translators often
feel compelled to translate everything in the source language, to the
point of employing corresponding expressions in the receptor language
with an unnatural frequency. For example, in Greek almost all
sentences begin with a connective, and the result is that the connectives
have relatively less meaning than the corresponding connectives in
English, which occur with much less frequency. If one translates all
the Greek connectives, the result is actually overtranslating, for the
Greek words (with proportionately less meaning) are translated by
corresponding English connectives (with proportionately more mean-
ing). At the same time, while the occurrence of connectives with
almost every sentence is a mark of good style in Greek, this is certainly
not the case in English. This problem becomes even more acute in a
language which is predominantly paratactic in structure.

Endocentric and Exocentric Structures

In the same way that there are endocentric and exocentric con-
structions on a formal level, there are corresponding structures on
a semantic level. For example, it is quite impossible to determine the
meaning of "to heap coals of fire on one's head" by knowing the
semantic distributions (types of discourse in which such words may
be used) of all the component parts. The meaning of this idiom can
be determined only by knowing the distribution of the unit as a
whole. Accordingly, we regard it as a semantically exocentric ex-
pression. Since, however, the majority of expressions in any language
are semantically endocentric, not exocentric, those who interpret the
source language idioms as rendered in a receptor language are more

Bible Translating 29

likely than not to understand the expressions as endocentric rather
than as exocentric (unless there are some special markers which pro-
vide the clues). That is the reason why, for example, in some of the
languages of Congo this expression "heap coals of fire on one's head"
was regarded as an excellent new means of torturing people to
death, not a means of making them ashamed by being so good to

The problem of endocentric interpretation of exocentric ex-
pressions can, however, be overcome in part by certain markers. For
example, many of the metaphors of the Scriptures -- "I am the bread
of life," "I am the door," "a camel through a needle's eye" -- can
be properly understood if they are made into similes -- "I am like
the bread which gives life," or "I am like a door." By the introduction
of the equivalent of "like" the receptor is alerted to the fact that
this is a kind of exocentric expression involving a "nonnormal" ex-
tension of meaning.

Similarly the context may serve as a guide to interpretation. For
example, idioms occurring in a poetical context will be more readily
understood in their proper exocentric values, since the total context
provides the clue to their correct interpretation.

Relationship of Linguistic Form to Semantic Function

In attempting to discover the closest natural equivalent, whether of
meaning or style, one is always faced with the difficulty of finding
corresponding forms with analogous semantic functions. On the
level of the meaning of words in terms of their referents and their
function in the cultural context (space does not permit us to deal
with the parallel problems of corresponding styles), one is faced with
the following types of situations:

1. The nonexistence of a term (and its corresponding referent)
in the receptor language, but with an equivalent function being
performed by another referent
. For example, in some languages there
is no word for "snow," for such a phenomenon is outside the realm
of the people's experience. However, the widely used equivalent of
the phrase "white as snow" is "white as egret feathers." Accordingly,
in a translation this different referent with the corresponding function
may be introduced. On the other hand, if "white as egret feathers"
is not a regular expression for the meaning of very white, then the
introduction of "egret feathers" is not an equivalent of "snow," and it

30 Eugene A. Nida

would be more accurate to translate simply as "very, very white."
The equivalence of the two expressions "white as snow" and "white
as egret feathers" is not primarily a matter of the whiteness of the
respective referents, but the recognition of this fact in the traditional
use of referents in both the source and the receptor languages, re-

2. The existence of the referent in the receptor language, but with
a different function from what it has in the source language
. This
means, for example, that "heart" in Greek must often be rendered
by "liver," as in the Kabba-Laka language of French Equatorial
Africa, by "abdomen," as in Conob, a Mayan language of Guatemala,
and by "throat," as in some contexts in Marshallese, a language of the
South Pacific. In languages in which "gall" stands for wisdom and a
"hard heart" is a symbol of courage, the Bible translator is obliged to
make certain adaptations or cause serious misunderstanding.

In some circumstances, however, the referent in the source language
is such an integral part of the entire communication that it must be
retained and the distinctive functions explained in footnotes. This is
true, for example, of such Biblical terms as "sheep," "sacrifices," and

3. The nonexistence of the referent in the receptor language and
no other referent with a parallel function
. In such circumstances the
translator is obliged to borrow foreign words (with or without clas-
sifiers) or employ descriptive phrases. For example, he may borrow
the names of precious stones, amethyst, ruby, pearl, or the names of
classes of people, Pharisees and Sadducees. If he adds a classifier,
with resultant expressions such as "valuable stone called amethyst"
and "sect called Sadducees," he can do a good deal to compensate
for the lack of correspondence between the receptor and the source
language. By employing descriptive phrases, he may, for example,
translate "phylacteries" as "little leather bundles having holy words
written inside" (as has been done in the Navajo translation).

Within the brief scope of this essay it has been impossible to give
adequate consideration to a number of significant matters: (1) stylis-
tic parallels, a study for which certain special methods and techniques
are required, (2) the influence of a translation of the Bible upon the
meanings of words (that is, the important factor of the "Christiani-

Bible Translating 31

zation of vocabulary," with a clear recognition of the limitations of
such a process), and (3) the precise manner in which new develop-
ments in information theory, and in the broader field of cybernetics,
are integrally related to Bible translating; though anyone in these
fields of study will appreciate the degree to which the above analysis
is dependent upon these relatively new disciplines.

In summary, however, it is essential that we point out that in Bible
translating, as in almost all fields of translating, the most frequent mis-
takes result from a failure to make adequate syntactic adjustments in
the transference of a message from one language to another. Quite sat-
isfactory equivalents for all the words and even the idioms may have
been found, but a person's oversight or inability to rearrange the
semantic units in accordance with the different syntactic structure
immediately stamps a translation as being "foreign" and unnatural.
These most numerous errors are not, however, the most serious, for
though they may be wearisome and frustrating, they do not usually
result in the serious misunderstandings which arise because of a lack
of cultural adjustments.

When there are inadequate equivalents in the formal patterning
of sentences (i.e., mistakes in syntax), we generally recognize such
faults as once and either excuse them, or at least are able to discount
them in trying to ascertain the meaning. Mistakes in cultural equiv-
alence, however, do not carry with them such obvious clues, and
hence the lack of agreement is not understood nor the source of the
error detectable from the text itself.

Though it is fully recognized that absolute communication is quite
impossible, nevertheless, very close approximations to the standard of
natural equivalence may be obtained, but only if the translations
reflect a high degree of sensitivity to different syntactic structures and
result from clear insights into cultural diversities.


1. A person with ill-will toward an S will purposely not make such an
adjustment and will attempt to lift words out of context or not make allowance
for background. Similarly, an S may have a haughty disregard for R, or be
more interested in leaving an impression of his erudition than in communi-
cating any set of facts.

2. The following data on Bulu and Kaka were supplied in private corre-
spondence by William D. Reyburn.