First of all, we need to note the often confusing matter of definition. At the beginning of its entry on this topic, the well-known authority “Wikipedia” states: “Dynamic equivalence (also known as functional equivalence)…” This is a common perception, and de Waard & Nida essentially say as much at the beginning of their book, From One Language to Another: Functional Equivalence in Bible Translating (FOLTA, 1986): “The substitution of ‘functional equivalence’ is not designed to suggest anything essentially different from what was earlier designated by the phrase ‘dynamic equivalence’” (p. 7).
As the authors develop this book, however, they show that in fact they do mean something rather different. “It is hoped, therefore, that the use of the expression ‘functional equivalence’ may serve to highlight the communicative functions of translating and to avoid misunderstanding” (p. 8). This functional emphasis was, in fact, the focus of The Theory and Practice of Translation (TAPOT, Nida & Taber, 1969), as revealed in the well known definition: “Translating consists in reproducing in the receptor language the closest natural equivalent of the source-language message, first in terms of meaning and secondly in terms of style [form] . . . it is functional equivalence which is required, whether on the level of content or on the level of style” (pp. 12-13, emphasis added).
Why did the “misunderstanding” arise then? Perhaps it was due mainly to the introduction of the expression “dynamic equivalence” to describe the TAPOT approach (instead of retaining “functional equivalence”)—the former being “defined in terms of the degree to which the receptors of the message in the receptor language respond to it in substantially the same manner as the receptors in the source message” (TAPOT, p. 24). But alas, how can such “responsive” equivalence be accurately perceived and measured? This assumed (and impossible) goal has, not surprisingly, generated all sorts of indiscriminate practice and consequent negative criticism.
In the later book then, de Waard and Nida seek to put the emphasis back on functional equivalence with respect to the textual level of translation: “An expression in any language consists of a set of forms which serve to signal meaning on various levels: lexical, grammatical, and rhetorical. The translator must seek to employ a functionally equivalent set of forms which in so far as possible will match the meaning of the original source-language text” (p. 36). They delineate eight such functions: expressive, informative, imperative (only these first three were noted in TAPOT), cognitive, interpersonal, performative, emotive, and aesthetic (p. 25). In FOLTA then special attention is devoted to “rhetorical” functions and their related processes: “To accomplish the rhetorical functions of wholeness, aesthetic appeal, impact, appropriateness, coherence, progression-cohesion, focus, and emphasis, various rhetorical processes are employed. The principal ones are: (1) repetition, (2) compactness, (3) connectives, (4) rhythm, (5) shifts in expectancy (primarily order, syntactic structures, and semantic content), and (6) the exploitation of similarities and contrasts in the selection and arrangement of the elements of a discourse” (p. 86). Clearly there is a much greater recognition of the meaning of forms here, both on the lower as well as the higher levels of discourse structure.
These insights have then been further corrected, refined, and developed (expanded upon) by some of the followers of Nida in subsequent publications, for example, Bible Translation: Frames of Reference (T. Wilt, ed., 2003). In other words, there is more to be said and read about “functional equivalence” in relation to Bible translation nowadays than solely in the writings of the late, great Eugene A. Nida. In fact, much more interdisciplinary work is necessary in the field of Bible translation generally, and this would include more interaction with the field of secular translation studies. I was amazed at how little I knew about the range and depth in this field when doing some background research for Translating the Literature of Scripture (2004)—for example, with respect to the literalist, functionalist, descriptive, textlinguistic, relevance, interpretive, comparative, and professional approaches, as I term them in ch. 2 (some of these do overlap with already established concerns in Bible translation).
On the other hand, such enriching influence can, and should, move both ways. Secular translators need to keep up with what’s going on in the theory and practice of Bible translation—and not remain with their eyes fixed, for good or ill, on Nida and his works. I was disappointed, for example, on how few of us present were considering subjects from a biblical perspective at the latest Research Models for Translation Studies II conference held at the University of Manchester in 2011. Bible translation theorists seem to have moved further than their secular counterparts, for example, with regard to the importance of orality (the crucial oral-aural dimension) in translating literary texts, and in adopting a cognitive linguistic approach to the task.
The latter conceptual “frames of reference” model would appear to be most appropriate to use when describing communication in general and translation in particular—that is, reproducing one text and its cognitive contextual framework within another, to the extent possible under the prevailing circumstances of production. On the other hand, it is recognized that a complete, all-encompassing, functionally “equivalent” translation is essentially impossible. One can accomplish only selected degrees of formal, semantic, and/or functional (pragmatic) re-presentation, or correspondence, in the TL, depending on the previously established translation brief and Skopos (job commission and primary purpose in view of the intended audience and setting of use) according to a “functionalist” methodology. There is quite a bit to process here, but then again, accurate and acceptable translation (of any sort) is a complex and challenging business—as anyone who has tried it already knows!