Eugene Nida, who traveled the world to translate the Bible, dies at 96
By T. Rees Shapiro,
The Rev. Eugene Nida, a linguist, Baptist minister and Biblical scholar who made the world’s most popular book even more widely available by helping translate the Scripture into 200 languages, died Aug. 25 at a hospital in Brussels. He was 96.
He had Alzheimer’s disease, said Geof Morin, a spokesman for the New York-based American Bible Society, where Rev. Nida worked for more than 50 years.
Rev. Nida’s major contribution to Bible translation was the concept of “functional equivalence.” Instead of using literal translations, his idea was to incorporate native culture and idiom into the Bible’s story.
Rev. Nida’s system allowed translators to rearrange sentences in the Bible to convey more clearly its meaning and intention in the native language.
Morin said Rev. Nida’s “fundamental equivalence” created “a complete paradigm shift for Bible translation that affected nearly every contemporary translation ever since.”
Rev. Nida, who spoke at least eight languages, traveled to more than 85 countries to recruit native speakers to help with Bible translations.
A project he started in 1978 to translate the bible into Inuktitut, the tongue of the Inuit people who live in the Arctic, took 24 years to complete.
The task required so much time because the Bible — whose story unfolds among palm trees and sandy deserts and includes camels and donkeys — had to make sense to the Inuit, who live around vast expanses of snow and ice and are more familiar with seals and walruses.
“You can’t translate without cultural context,” Rev. Nida explained.
Rev. Nida also helped write the Good News Bible, which has 218 million copies in print, Morin said.
Using Rev. Nida’s system, the Good News Bible and its numerous variations deconstructed large words into smaller, clearer ideas.
The word “multitude” became “crowd,” “covetous” became “greedy,” and “take heed” became “watch out.”
No matter in what language one read the Bible, Rev. Nida said, the goal was “to read it, to understand it and be transformed by its message.”
Eugene Albert Nida was born Nov. 11, 1914, in Oklahoma City. His father was a chiropractor.
He was a 1936 honors graduate of the University of California at Los Angeles, where he studied Greek and Latin. He received a master’s degree in New Testament Greek in 1939 from the University of Southern California.
He was ordained as a Baptist minister in 1943, the same year he earned a doctorate in linguistics from the University of Michigan.
His wife of 49 years, Althea Sprague Nida, died in 1993. Survivors include his second wife, Elena Fernandez-Miranda, a translator and interpreter, of Brussels.
Rev. Nida joined the American Bible Society in 1943 and became chief of the translation program. When visiting tribes and indigenous peoples around the world, he developed a system to understand their languages.
He would point to an object on the ground and ask the people what they called it. This way, Rev. Nida told the New York Times in 1955, the word was not a literal translation but a reflection of their culture.
He would then compile a vocabulary and build up his understanding of the language and culture into his translations.
Rev. Nida said the phrase “I am sorrowful” has a number of different translations in Africa, including “my eye is black,” “my heart is rotten,” and “my stomach is heavy.”
“There is no such thing as a definitive translation, since there are constant advances in Biblical scholarship as well as changes in all living languages,” Mr. Nida once said. “No major translation should last more than 50 years.”
He retired from the American Bible Society in the early 1990s but remained involved through its affiliated institute for Biblical scholarship named in his honor.
Rev. Nida wrote more than 40 books on languages and translations and Bible scholarship. Although the Bible was conceived more than two millennia ago, Rev. Nida said the book had an enduring relevance.
“People are discovering that the Bible has a significant message for the present day,” Rev. Nida told the Associated Press in 1982. “While this is an age of technology, urbanization and change, the world hasn’t invented a new sin in 2,000 years.”