Analyzing the Message: Eugene Nida on language and culture

By Helen and Cynthia Eby

Analyzing the Message Eugene Nida on language and cultureBoth translators and interpreters take a message across from one language and culture to another. They must communicate the message accurately, in order to produce the same effect in the target language as in the source language.

But how can we know if a translation is good? According to the ILR Skill Level Description for Translation Performance, “a successful translation is one that conveys the explicit and implicit meaning of the source language into the target language as fully and accurately as possible.”

Eugene Nida was a founding charter member of Wycliffe Bible Translators, and worked with “the Summer Institute of Linguistics and the American Bible Society … to gather considerable data from the examination of translations of the Bible into various aboriginal languages. These translations were made by both linguistically and non-linguistically trained individuals.” By 1975, when his book Exploring Semantic Structure was published, the Bible had been translated into 1064 languages. (67)

In his book, Nida analyzes the mechanics of message transfer. According to him, these are the basic assumptions underlying all semantic analysis:

“(1) No word (or semantic unit) ever has exactly the same meaning in two different utterances; (2) there are no complete synonyms within a language; [and] (3) there are no exact correspondences between related words in different languages.” (Nida, 120)

Because of these limitations, no two translations by excellent professionals will ever be exactly alike, especially if the translations have any level of nuance. This does not mean we should give up! It means we should consider the issues analytically and see where the challenges lie.

Problems to Consider: Linguistic and cultural

What are the main problems we have to deal with? Language is inevitably linked to culture. To help us understand this, the ILR addresses culture as well. “Competence in intercultural communication is the ability to take part effectively in a given social context,” they say, “by understanding what is being communicated and by employing appropriate language and behavior to convey an intended message.”

Nida says the main problems of equivalence in translation can be summed up in the following categories (cf. 68-78):

  • Ecology. Because languages are spoken in different locations, the language may have developed more elaborate vocabulary for different ecological issues.
  • Material culture. What objects do people handle every day in their country of origin? This can have significant impact on communication. For instance, a doctor will often say to “take one tbsp. of medication.” In some cultures, people reach for a spoon they use for soup, not for a 15 ml measuring spoon, which is what the prescription is calling for.
  • Social culture. How are people addressed? What level of formality is appropriate in the target culture? In the United States, it is common for the top executive to sign off a letter to his employees, “Bob.” In Latin America, a last name is required.
  • Religious culture. The dominant religion of the place where the language is spoken may influence aspects of how people communicate. There could be significant differences between the source and target languages and cultures in this regard.
  • Linguistic culture. Each language uses different syntax, and uses the passive voice with a different relative frequency to communicate different things. Capitalization is used differently. These differences must be respected in the translation.

Practical Application

As I discuss these questions with my clients and with the people I interpret for, I notice that they unanimously need documents that read naturally, that express the original message of the author in a way they can understand with no hesitation.

To do this, we must express ourselves in ways that reflect the actual usage of the language in current publications and speech. We need to immerse ourselves in contemporary language usage, available through online and print sources as well as connecting with the language community.

Of course, some people have a “knack” for translation, but it certainly is a skill that can be taught. By focusing on the issues we have brought up and following a series of steps, a translator can produce an accurate translation. The key is to analyze the message from various points of view: syntactic (structural), semantic (meaning), pragmatic (purpose), and cultural context. This article is not long enough to cover all of them, but we can give a brief outline.

Here are the steps for translation which Nida provides (cf. 156-59). I added steps 1 and 7-8.

  1. Pragmatic analysis. What is the purpose of the original message? What is the purpose of the translation? Without this information in hand, we cannot produce a translation that helps the author communicate with his audience.
  2. Syntactic analysis. This is the study of how each piece fits in the sentence from a structural point of view: subject, direct object, verb, etc.
  3. Semantic classes of each word. This refers to the meaning of each word. What type of meaning is each section of the message trying to communicate?
  4. Add all implied relationals. These are the conjunctions, prepositions, linking verbs, etc.
  5. Decompose the text to its semantically simplest form. In other words, break the message down into units of meaning so we can know what we have to communicate in the language. Once we can outline the meaning, we know what we are dealing with.
  6. Recompose the simplest form of the text in to an appropriate equivalent in the target language. Here we include the necessary connectors in the target language. We can reorganize the units of meaning in a way that fits and make it flow in a natural way. Basically, we rearrange the jigsaw puzzle: How would I say this to my neighbor in Beccar, Buenos Aires?
  7. Analyze the text from a target language point of view. Does the text read naturally from the point of view of a target language reader? Will he be able to read it without referring to the source language or culture? To accomplish this, some semantic units may shift from one grammatical word class to another.
  8. Peer review. Ask another translator, who is at least as qualified as the original translator, to review the translation for accuracy and for language mechanics. Is the meaning transferred accurately? Does it read smoothly from the perspective of a native speaker of the target language with no knowledge of the source language? Remember, in the publishing world nothing hits the print shop unless three people have reviewed it! Having only one person review your translation is going very light on the review process.

Translation is teamwork. Translation is analytical. In his book, Nida says, “One often receives the erroneous impression that translation is almost entirely an art rather than also a science, and a skill.” (67) We have tried to help our readers outline a path to success in this science and skill. At the ATA conference, there will certainly be workshops to address these areas!

Nida, Eugene A. Exploring Semantic Structures. Munich: Wilhelm Fink Verlag, 1975.

Header image credit: Barn Images

4 thoughts on “Analyzing the Message: Eugene Nida on language and culture

  1. The only comment I have, and this may not have been discussed in Nida at all, so if it doesn’t apply to his book, please ignore it – is that when re-assembling the sentence in the target language, it is extremely important to remember not to force the translated segments back into the same sentence structure as the source. This is something you addressed quite thoroughly, regarding subjects and pronouns in a recent 4 mosqueteras.. It applies equally to all elements of sentence structure, from prepositional phrases to use of gerunds to word order and where the subject should appear in a sentence.

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