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Critical Review of Nida’s Theory of Equivalence for Chinese-English Translation

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Translation
Wordcount: 1954 words Published: 18th May 2020

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Critical Review of Nida’s Theory of Equivalence for Chinese-English Translation

1 Introduction

The concept of equivalence is widely discussed in translation studies and has played an essential role in linguistic translation since gaining attention in the 1960s. The idea is that a source text (ST) and target text (TT) should be ‘the same’ in some sense. One of the most prominent theories regarding equivalence has been proposed by Eugene Nida in his work ‘Toward the Science of Translating’ (1964), introducing the concepts of ‘formal equivalence’ and ‘dynamic equivalence’ to which the latter involves ‘the principle of equivalent effect’. His theory is often seen as being able to offer a ‘scientific’ or systematic approach to the analysis and transfer of meaning from one linguistic system to another. It has made huge contributions to the development of translation studies as a field. However, his ‘principle of equivalent effect’ is also subject to heavy criticism on whether it is truly ‘scientific’ in practice.

This paper aims to evaluate Nida’s theory of equivalence in terms of its advantages and limitations within the Chinese language culture.

2 Formal and Dynamic Equivalence

Nida’s ‘equivalence theory’ serves to replace the pre-linguistic approach to translation where the focus was on literal translation and the degree of being faithful to the source text. He argues that there are two types of equivalence: formal equivalence and dynamic equivalence.

Formal equivalence focuses on both the form and content of the message itself where ‘nothing’ outside of the ST should be added to or removed from the translation, i.e. it should be as similar to the ST as possible in terms of all the different elements of the source language used. (Nida, 1964:159). By staying within the ST structure, such translations will often use scholarly footnotes. Thus, translations in academic and legal environments will often follow formal equivalence, where readers will be able to get a ‘genuine’ sense of the language and customs of the source culture. (Munday, 2016:46). Formal equivalence plays a central role in determining accuracy and correctness of a translation.

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Dynamic equivalence is based on ‘the principle of equivalent effect’: a concept by Nida focusing on equivalence of the relationship between the original receptor and message, and the target receptor and message. In other words, the goal is to find “the closest natural equivalent to the source-language message” (Nida 1964: 166) or to convey the meaning of the ST in the TT as naturally as possible. The aim is so that the resulting TT should not feel ‘foreign’ and translation of the meaning of the message should take priority over maintaining the structure and phrasing of the ST. This allows for and will sometimes require changes in the lexicon, grammar/syntactic structure and cultural references of the source language i.e. sacrifices in ‘faithfulness’ to achieve a more natural translation.

Nida argues that: determining whether a translation is successful largely depends on the degree it has achieved the equivalent effect. He considers this as one of the “four basic requirements of a translation” which includes: the translation needs to make sense, convey the “spirit and manner” of the ST, be idiomatic in the way it is expressed, and be able to produce a “similar response”. (Munday, 2001:47) His own translation experience puts him in favour of dynamic equivalence as a more effective translation approach. He sees transferring the meaning across is more important than following the style of the original.

3 Advantages and Limitations

Nida’s theory was introduced to China in the 1980’s and his principle of equivalent effect quickly became widely acclaimed. His theory paved a new path in Chinese translation studies which focused on putting the target audience at the focus. Instead of just looking at comparing features of and within the source and target texts he emphasised the need to look at the relationship between the reader and the text for both source and target languages. (Miao, 2000).

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Previous key approaches to Chinese translation prior to Nida didn’t quite involve the perspective of the target reader as much. A lot of attention was directed towards remaining faithful to the ST and certain translation strategies/methods. This was the case from the 1800s up until Nida’s theory was introduced. For example, Lu Xun, a translator himself, claims that he’d rather be “faithful than smooth” in regard to his translation approach. Yan Fu was also a major figure in the field, having introduced the Three-facet Theory of Translation, namely: “faithfulness”, “expressiveness” and “elegance” as a set of principles to be followed when translating from English to Chinese. Quality of translation was often dependent on the competency of the translator themselves. However, in a lot of situations, adhering to faithfulness costs too much in terms of meaning lost in translation. Nida’s theory successfully helps systematically deal with a lot of these cases. For example, to translate the English term “presidential historian” into Chinese, following Nida’s principle of equivalent effect proves to be more appropriate than otherwise. Instead of being translated literally into a phrase such as: “总统(的)史学家”, where it follows a more formal equivalence approach, the phrase:  “研究总统的历史学家” would be more idiomatic and make more sense to a Chinese audience. It accurately transfers the meaning behind the English term across to Chinese and doesn’t leave room for confusion as opposed to the previous phrase (Wang,2010).

However, moving towards the present years, Nida’s theory has become less favoured in the Chinese translation field and is considered insufficient in determining the quality or success of a translation. In general, there has also been criticism from different perspectives, one being that his theory is subjective and not ‘scientific’ as Nida claims. This comes from one of Nida’s critics Edwin Gentzler, in which he states Nida fails to see the “unsystematic nature of a practice-oriented approach” (Gentzler, 2001:45). This directly challenges the nature of the theory- to how Nida’s theory had developed from his experience in Bible translation, where literal translations weren’t sufficient enough for the ‘soul’ of Christian ideology to be transferred to an audience unfamiliar of such ideology or the source language. This then led to his reader-based approach to translation. Here, dynamic equivalence would be more suitable and effective to its purpose. But Gentzler heavily criticised Nida for the subjectivity innately involved when applying this theory in practice, specifically pointing out that the theorising of the concept of dynamic equivalence fundamentally served the purpose of converting readers to Christianity.

Prior to Gentzler, Peter Newmark’s objections of Nida’s equivalent effect in his work ‘A Textbook of Translation’ (1988) was also based on the same problem addressed. But other than criticism, he addressed the problem by proposing that it would be more acceptable to see the ‘equivalent effect’ as being a “desirable result” instead of being the aim of a translation. He suggests that the degree the equivalent effect is applied in different texts may be different depending on its purpose. (Newmark, 1988:48).

In the Chinese-English context, the more noticeable and dominating problem had to do with the impossibility of dynamic equivalence. Over time, gradually it was realised that the equivalent effect is actually unachievable and can only be an ideal result (Miao, 2000). This came down to the difference in the nature of the source and target languages itself. For Chinese to English translation, the ideographic and pictographic nature of Chinese characters carries a lot implicit meaning in itself. This is not the same for languages like English which use an alphabet. There is no way to replicate this implicit effect across the two languages. Thus, to achieve the equivalent effect proves to be almost impossible for translation of Chinese poetry in which a phonetic/rhythmic dimension is added on top of that. An example of such can be shown with the lines from one of Wang Guan’s (王观) poems in the Song dynasty. The lines: “才始送春归,又送君归去。若到江南赶上春,千万和春住” when translated to English translation it becomes: “Spring has just returned and you will have to return. If you catch up with spring in the south of Yangtze River, Be sure to stay with spring” (Miao, 2000). Other than the effect from phonetic features being untransferable, emotions associated with cultural connotations also cannot be transferred- i.e. an English audience will not respond to “Yangtze River” the same way a Chinese audience will respond to “江南”. It is extremely difficult to determine the effect of a translation and almost impossible for situations without an ‘equivalent’ cultural reference.

3 Conclusion

Despite its limitations, Nida’s equivalence theory has proven its benefits to development in field of translation studies by introducing a receptor-oriented approach. This review has helped me understand the importance of and need to consider other important factors in translation other than the texts and audience involved: such as the cultural context, text genre, purpose of text, and elements particular to a certain language. It also provides a basis for me to do research on other systematic theories that could account for these other factors. Having this overall understanding will support me with future translation practice in knowing what factors I need to account/look out for in trying to achieve a balance between remaining faithful to the ST yet integrating the target culture into the translation.


  • Gentzler, D. E. (2001). Contemporary Translation Theories. Multilingual Matters.
  • Liu, M.Q. (1994). On the Basic Model of Chinese Translation Theory.  Yang, Zijian & Liu, Xueyun (Eds). 308-320
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  • Munday, J. (2016). Introducing translation studies : theories and applications (Fourth edition.). Milton Park, Abingdon, Oxon ; New York: Routledge.
  • Newmark, P. (1988). A Textbook of Translation. Prentice-Hall International.
  • Nida, E. A. (1964). Toward a Science of Translating: With Special Reference to Principles and Procedures Involved in Bible Translating. Brill Archive.
  • Panou, D. (2013). Equivalence in translation theories: a critical evaluation. Theory and Practice in Language Studies, 3(1), 1-6.
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