On dynamic equivalence

I’m writing this now in the few-hours interim period between when the last Saturday morning masses have been offered according to the Second edition of the Roman Missal and when the Saturday vigil masses will be according to the Third Edition. The usual way of explaining the transition to the Third Edition is by a shift in the method of translation from dynamic equivalence (DE) to formal equivalence (FE). For those who are critical of the previous editions, this has been the basis of much ironic berating of DE. I’m in an odd position, for I think both  that DE is necessary and that there are very severe criticisms that one can make of the old editions.  One has two options: if “dynamic equivalence” is taken as a method of translation, then the criticisms of the old edition are not entirely and for the most part a critique of DE; and if one insists that the old editions are faithful workings out of the principles of DE, then DE is not a entirely a kind of translation. I favor the first interpretation, since we miss crucial things about translation unless we see it as a tension between FE and DE; and the criticism of the old editions is not a criticism of a method of translation but of theological and philosophical premises that were used to change and suppress ideas in the original text.

Dynamic equivalence aims at readability and comprehensibility in the target language at the expense of word order, grammatical structure, and literalness. We need to point out immediately that “literalness” is the weak part of the definition, and it easily becomes a fulcrum by which one could “translate” the text as almost anything. There are few words relating to texts that are more deceptive than “literal” and its cognates – it is particularly deceptive when “literal” in fact means “unreflective” or “a common first impression of”,  which is usually what people mean when they speak about a “literal interpretation of Genesis”, though they take themselves to mean “what the author intended”. So what sort of literalness does DE tend to sacrifice? I can start with an example that came up in a Latin II class a few days ago. While translating Gallic Wars, we read how Caesar declared Quintus Pedius a legate and sent him off to Belgium, though Pedius didn’t leave right away but, as the text puts it, only cum primum pabuli copia esse coepit. Word-for-word: when the supply of fodder first began to be. In other words, Pedius didn’t have enough grain for his cavalry and pack oxen and he needed to wait for more.  Now, in order to translate this correctly, you have to say something like “as soon as he had raised sufficient supplies of grain” or “when he had received his supplies of grain” or something like this, but whatever you do will have to wreak havoc on the grammar of the sentence and the lexical meanings of the terms. Here the word-for-word translation, even according to the distant meanings in the lexicon, would result in a bad translation. FE would more mislead than inform, and so a correct translation needs to put aside grammatical structure (like the subject of the verb) and literalness in the sense of trying to find a lexicon entry corresponding to our translation of the words. The passage is either made dynamically equivalent or it is not translated at all. Examples of this sort of thing are occurring all the time when one translates, so much so that it seems like the teacher’s main job in later levels of language teaching is to awaken a sense of dynamic equivalence in the student. In the early stages the student – say an English speaking student learning Latin- isn’t translating Latin sentences so much as English sentences with substituted Latin words. In such contrived and safe conditions, FE is all one needs to translate.

But to return to the main point at hand, one is not exercising DE when he renders, say et cum spiritu tuo as and also with you; or credo as we believe or consubstantialis as one in being. The literalness that one is setting aside is not set aside for the sake of correct translation, or even for a principle that belongs to textual translation at all: we say “and also with you” because we want to distance ourselves from spirit/body dualism and speak to the whole man as opposed to just a part of him; we say “we believe” because we want to stress the communal or social nature of the Church and (as something of a fig leaf) because we have some versions of the Nicene Creed that use the first person plural (though they were not the text that was supposed to be translated); and we say “one in being” because we think that it is less confusing than “consubstantial”. These are arguably fine ideas as far as they go, but they are not principles of translation.  The justification for “consubstantial” comes close to being a principle of translation, but it isn’t. The original idea is difficult and technical in Latin too, and so we can’t appeal to a translation principle when making it non-technical and less difficult. And for what it’s worth “one in being” is not any easier to understand. And it’s ambiguous.

It is wrong to call the older editions dynamically equivalent. This distorts the nature of DE and sets it in facile opposition to FE, whereas they are really two tools necessary for proper translation. A criticism of the old editions is not based on looking at the principles of translation, but on the philosophical positions that served as tools of suppression of ideas of changes in meaning. For example, the old editions as a rule suppressed any reference to a soul or a human spirit.  To the extent that one was taught only by the old editions of the liturgical texts, he would have no idea that he had a spiritual existence or part of himself. This is, to my mind, an insuperable criticism of the old texts, but (to hit the horse one last time) it is not a criticism of translation, still less of dynamic equivalence – at least if DE is taken as a method of translation, and there is very good reason to do so.



  1. jon said,

    November 26, 2011 at 6:49 pm

    Excellent and true.

  2. November 27, 2011 at 2:33 pm

    I translate the Caesar as: “..when the fodder supply first showed up..”.
    I took coepit ease to mean “appeared” and then put “showed up” in for a touch of color. As you say, “consubstatialis” is a technical term in Latin as well as English and the substitution of the explication: “One in being” is not the work of translation, neither DE nor FE. Furthermore, such a substitution does nothing to clarify nthe meaning of “consubstantialis”. The meaning of “consubstantialis” is still opaque to me, actually. Using “We believe” for “Credo” is really like taking advantage of an opportunity to push a little propaganda about how social the Church is. Not the work of translation, either.. We should keep the Credo a personal prayer and use “I believe”
    The trouble with “consubstantialis” is that English has lost an equivalent for the word / concept “SUBSTANCE”. Our concept of substance is a chemical one dating back to alchemy). The “consubstantialis” problem seems to be a translation problem like trying to translate “automobile” into Latin, or trying to translate “personal responsibility” into Latin (It does not = auctoritas, nor does it = officium) or it’s like trying to translate the modern word “boredom” into Latin, which didn’t exist in English until the 1860’s.
    (N.B.: It does not = tedium, taedium // nor does it = ennui, jaded)
    It is impossible to find a word for something in English that has no corresponding concept in English speakers’ brains. I personally don’t really think we English speakers have a word for or a concept for “consubstantialis” any more than a Roman would know what was meant by “automobile”. John Duffy, in Iowa

  3. PatrickH said,

    November 28, 2011 at 10:24 am

    So the tendency in the second ed to drop instances of “quaesumus” (“we beseech”) should be criticized because it not only violates the requirements of formal equivalence (not even translating the word/phrase at all) but also, and quite precisely, violating dynamic equivalence. After all, if I translate a request to pass the mustard spoken in French with “s’il vous plait” into English as just “pass the mustard”, I am clearly violating the canons of dynamic equivalence by transforming a request into a demand or order, thereby destroying the connection of the words spoken and heard, to the nature of the relationship between speaker and the spoken to.

    • November 28, 2011 at 11:43 am

      I wanted a second post on this, since, given that DE establishes the principle that it is sometimes necessary to suppress literalness (not just for idioms) this necessity can be either absolute (the translation would be absolutely incorrect without it) or for fittingness. Fittingness allows a greater amount of latitude, but that doesn’t mean there are no rules at all; and the rules for translating liturgical and sacred texts, to my mind, would probably restrict itself to absolute necessity in DE. An example of fittingness might be changing verb voice, dropping or modifying “behold” (there is really no good living English for it), but this, at any rate, is not what was going on in the 2nd edition.

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