Labor Day seems an appropriate time to express thanksgiving for the work of Eugene Nida, without whom millions of people might yet be waiting for a Bible they could read. Nida (pronounced Nye-duh), who died August 25 at the age of 96, was a native of Oklahoma City and a citizen of the world. As a tireless employee of the American Bible Society, Nida contributed directly to what the New York Times called “A Babel of Bibles,” translations into more than 200 languages and dialects — and to training scores of Bible translators from around the globe.
In America, everyone who has benefited from the Good News Bible (also called the Today’s English Version) owes something to Gene Nida, who supervised the project. And, like his translating colleague Bob Bratcher, who died in July 2010, Nida was an ordained Baptist minister who loved the Bible deeply without making an idol of it.
Perhaps Nida’s most memorable contribution to Bible translation was his effort to put the Bible into words that people could understand within their own language and culture. While some translators seek a rather literal rendering of the words while adapting sentence structure to the target language (the New American Standard Version is a good example), Nida insisted that the idea conveyed by scripture was more important than the particular words that were used.
He called this method “dynamic equivalence,” though today it is more commonly called “functional equivalence.” This technique recognizes that every culture has its own stock of idioms and its own manner of expressing things. While one tribal language might express sorrow as having a heavy stomach or a rotten heart, for example, others might express sadness as a black eye or a sick liver. Incorporating familiar idioms makes a translation easier to understand.
Nida collated insights such as these into a very useful series of “Helps for Translators” books for the American Bible Society, writing many of them and supervising others. His influence will be felt for many years to come.
All of us who love the Bible can think of translators, interpreters, teachers or proclaimers whose labors have made positive contributions to our lives. This Labor Day could be a good time to rise up and call them blessed.
[Photo from American Bible Society.]
Professor of Old Testament at Campbell University Divinity School in Buies Creek, North Carolina, and the Contributing Editor and Curriculum Writer at Good Faith Media.