Eugene Nida–Translating Biblical Poetry

With regard to Eugene Nida’s views on the translation of poetry, into English in particular, I think that we need to recognize that his opinion changed somewhat over the years. The following, for example, is an excerpt from an interview with Christianity Today in 2002, when Gene was 84:

Q: Some American translations have suppressed biblical poetry, even in the Psalms. How should poetry and other rhetorical elements be handled?

Nida: “I was very surprised that in the Living Bible there were a number of passages that were really quite lyrical, but it was all printed as prose because the translator felt that most Americans didn’t believe anything that was in poetic lines. He was probably right, because most people don’t believe that poetry really has any particular truth.

Bible translators are not producing poetry in the traditional European sense. Western poetic style can work for some of the Psalms, though not for all of the Psalms. But if somebody has the skill, the creativity, and the ability to render the Psalms poetically, they should be encouraged.

We had a Zulu poet who came to us and said, the Psalms are real nice, but they’re not written right. Zulu poetry has a very complicated 12-syllable line structure. It’s a chant structure. He reorganized the material, and now it’s meaningful for Zulus. And it has the flow of what the Psalms would have had, because they were normally chanted.” (end quote)

Gene was kind enough to review certain sections of one of my first attempts to come to grips with the poetry of the prophetic books (The Discourse Analysis of Hebrew Prophetic Literature, Mellen Biblical Press, 1995) and approved of my general approach to the subject, that is, moving from Hebrew poetry to Chewa poetic forms (though he had a number of critical comments concerning my English style of writing!).

In my studies, I have tried, first of all, through various types of discourse-stylistic analysis, to demonstrate the many excellent compositional qualities of the biblical writings—the forms of the text not only expressing, but also complementing and enhancing the meaning. Once we begin to recognize and come to appreciate these varied literary (artistic and rhetorical, including oral-aural) features—the beauty and power, the impact and appeal—of the original text, we are then in a better position to re-present them, dynamically, in translation.

Whether that goal will be achieved through an approach that favors more (or less) formal correspondence or functional equivalence, should, I think, be determined by the broader nature of our translation endeavor, namely, its organizational “frames of reference” (intended audience, primary goal, principal setting of use, available project budget, competency of the translators, medium of communication, and so forth). As Gene always said, “How you translate depends on for whom!”

About ewendland

I am currently an instructor at the Lutheran Seminary, Lusaka, ZAMBIA (since 1968). My academic training has been in biblical studies (BA, Northwestern College; MST, Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary), Bible translation (several SIL courses), linguistics (MA, University of Wisconsin, Madison), and African languages (PhD, UWM). I am a “retired” translation consultant for the United Bible Societies (having worked with projects in Malawi, Zambia, and Zimbabwe). I currently still serve as an external examiner in Zambian languages (University of Zambia) and as visiting professor in OT, NT, and Ancient Studies at the University of Stellenbosch, South Africa, with an affiliation to the Centre for Bible Interpretation and Translation in Africa ( My research and writing interests focus on the literary (structural, poetic, rhetorical) analysis of biblical texts and their oratorical translation, especially in southeastern Bantu languages (
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