Requiescant in Pace

Two notable passings of scholars whose lifework influences our discussions: László Dobszay and Eugene Nida. An interview with the latter is especially worth reading.


  1. The interview with Nida is a wonderful critique of the New Missal translation culture: e.g.

    they’ve grown up worshiping words more than worshiping God.

    a translator can be consistently wrong as well as consistently right.

    the smartest committee I ever worked with were five Bushmen in the Kalahari Desert

    If the people begin to open their mouths, you know they’re understanding. If they sit there with the mouth closed, you know they don’t understand.

    There is nothing sacred about specifying always men, men, men

    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.

    But a Bible for public reading should not only be accurate in meaning but should have a good flow of language so that you don’t have a lot of unnecessary breaks in the line.

    More of the problems involve cultural anthropology than they do problems of theology.

    What is the impact of multiple translations? It makes people begin to think. As long as all people had the King James Version, they didn’t think. It’s terribly important to have different translations to get a good argument started.

    (I renew my suggestion that we use the Current Missal, the New Missal and the 1998 Missal simultaneously)

    An awful lot of Christians don’t think. Preachers just want them to say Amen.

    So many Christians love to argue about the Bible (the Liturgy!) rather than take it seriously as a message that is important for their own lives.

  2. I lament the passing of both of these scholars, each of which has been highly influential in the spiritual lives and worship of our era.
    The work of Laszlo Dobszay I greatly respect and am deeply thankful for. To me, he was the greater of the two.
    The work of Eugene Nida I am much less grateful for. Not because he wasn’t a great biblical scholar (he was!), but because of the impoverishing effect his method had on the translation of the mass, particularly the emaciated collects, which we now use. Reading the interview, though, gave me a good sense of his humanity and love for the written word of God, and, I am grateful for this.
    However, I take great issue with the rather blanket mis-characterisation of those who love King James (and Douay-Rheims) as worshipers of words. From the time I was a very young child, the meaning of KJ was never elusive to me, and certainly not the words of the Our Father which he says uncontestedly that no one understands. I find it astonishing that there could be anyone to whom the meaning of ‘hallowed be thy name’ was not self evident (though I have heard some persons rather haughtily and unassailably proclaim that it wasn’t). One might (but does not, nor would not) infer as well that those who prefer more modern translations do not also ‘worship’ the words they have come to love. This would be (correctly) perceived as intolerable arrogance.
    Still, having met him in the interview, I respect him more than I did before – and will pray for his soul as well as that of Laszlo Dobszay.

  3. Thanks to Paul Ford for using this blog to get the word out. Both of these men are now known to me, and not too late either. These two examplars complement each other, one dedicating himself to listening to and empowering people from many cultures, and the other applying general principles in depth in one culture.

  4. Rest in peace, for both. The interview with Nida is too striking to pass without comment.

    The stuff about the guys in Kalahari was worth the whole article, but in addition to the stories, I was intrigued by 2 paragraphs especially. The line about “worshiping words” (which Jack quotes above) was what first caught my eye. Stinging line. There’s truth in that, hard truth. But look at the whole 2 paragraph setting:

    “When we bring together a group of folks who want to be translators, it takes a month to get them willing to make sense intellectually. It takes another two weeks to make them willing to do it emotionally. They can accept it intellectually but not emotionally because they’ve grown up worshiping words more than worshiping God.

    We can’t have conferences for new translators in less than six weeks because of this psychological hurdle. Otherwise, within a year’s time they will be producing literal translations because it’s so much easier to do it word-for-word.”

    If they can “unlearn” in six weeks emotional responses that took a lifetime to form, aren’t they doing pretty quick work? I am suspicious of six-week conversions. Are they instead learning to internalize new rules which could prove to be idolatrous in their own way? Of course it could be that the process attracts people who are already halfway there, so it may only take a short time to “complete their conversion” away from “worshiping words” to worshiping God. Hmmm.

    1. Rita,

      More of the problems involve cultural anthropology than they do problems of theology

      IF this at the core of many translation problems then I could imagine that it would be much easier for religious people to accept intellectually rather than emotionally. There is a lot of investment in having Scripture mean something theologically both when it was written as well as now.(that is a part of “worshiping words”) To back off that investment and look mainly at text in terms of the culture then and now would not be easy.

      However, I think you are right that such a approach can easily become a new ideology. I see that in the work of the “Context” group which has applied anthropological notions of agrarian, pre-industrial Mediterranean culture to the Gospels, e.g. Social-Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels (2003) by Bruce Malina. Their commentaries tend to tell us much more about the “context” than about the Gospel text.

      Personally I have found literary approaches (the text as text) more useful than historical or social science approaches to scripture. However when I use a literary approach, I probably bring a lot more social science awareness to the text, and a lot less theological awareness (bias?) than other interpreters. So maybe I already have what these conferences were designed to provide.

      1. Jack, I agree. I too find literary approaches fruitful. Although social science approaches seem to give the “envelope” they don’t seem to me to deliver the contents of the envelope very well.

        I am not quite sure what you mean however by saying that one backs off the investment in theological meaning when approaching a subject as part of culture. If you mean theology as the statement of absolutes, then perhaps I see it. But theological meaning is, as I’m sure you would agree, embodied in culture, so one doesn’t leave theology aside exactly, one rather becomes interested in seeing it more accurately by understanding it within this context. For myself, I think theology can never be purely abstract. The challenge for Christian theology is, precisely, in anthropological translation, so that what is experienced as the revelation of God that took place in Jesus and in history can become accessible for all times and places and peoples.

      2. Rita,

        Let me give you a concrete example: (Mark 1:16-20) sometimes theologically labeled the Call of the First Disciples.

        Although two pairs of brothers are called to “follow” Jesus, they are not labeled “disciples” at this point. However “brethren” is a perfectly good alternative word for Christian in the NT in both Paul as well as Acts.

        “Disciple” of course is also used in Acts (but never in Paul) as a word for Christian, i.e. a believer. However, in Mark its meaning is usually that of an “apprentice, understudy, assistant” to a teacher. e.g. Jesus withdrew with his disciples to the lake, and a large crowd from Galilee followed. (Mar 3:7 NIV). The crowds followed but they were not his assistants. In fact as many scholars have noted “disciples” (i.e. assistants) are often portrayed in a negative light in Mark.

        Disciple and discipleship have become rather positive theological words in the last several decades. e.g. Dulles “community of disciples”. However, most of the occurrences of “disciple” in Mark are rather matter of fact neutral descriptions of a function which is easily seen if we substitute “assistant.”

        I would from a literary social science point of view connect the call of the pairs of brothers out of their natural kinship to their appearance in Mark 1: 29 On leaving the synagogue he entered the house of Simon and Andrew with James and John. This sentence likely captured the experience of Mark’s fellow Christians of forming “house” churches of “spiritual brethren” around but in some tension with synagogues.

        So I see (1-16-20; 21-28, 29-33) as one of the many literary sandwiches in Mark, in this case focusing upon “gathering” with strong social words “brethren” “house” “ synagogue” “town.” These lay the foundation for an ecclesiology of calling that unlike recent popular notions of “discipleship” is less individualistic and heirarchical (e.g. a better class of Christian).

  5. Thanks, Rita – was also struck by the force of his analysis. It truly does appear that LA, etc. enforces an “ideological” approach vs. what came out of VII and the original ICEL/ICET.

    Referenced Nida’s comments in the post above about Ranshaw’s analysis. She appears to use his points in her review of LA and the 2010 MR.

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