[lg policy] Eugene A. Nida, Who Spurred a Babel of Bibles, Is Dead at 96

Harold Schiffman haroldfs at GMAIL.COM
Sun Sep 4 16:55:07 UTC 2011

Eugene A. Nida, Who Spurred a Babel of Bibles, Is Dead at 96


The Rev. Eugene A. Nida, a linguist and Baptist minister who spurred a Babel
of Bibles, recruiting and training native speakers to translate Scripture
into a host of languages around the world, died on Aug. 25 at his home in
Madrid. He was 96.

The American Bible Society, his longtime employer, announced the death. Mr.
Nida, who also had a home in Brussels, had lived in Europe in retirement.
Widely considered the father of modern Bible translation, Mr. Nida
(pronounced NYE-duh) was for four decades the head of the Bible society’s
translation program. He was known in particular for developing an approach
to translation — and a method of training translators — that has influenced
translators of religious and secular literature.

What defined Mr. Nida’s work was his insistence that Bible translations be
accessible to the people for whom they were intended. After joining the
Bible society in 1943, he visited scores of countries, where he recruited
native speakers and trained them as translators.

Previously, most Bible translations had been done by Western missionaries,
who rarely had great familiarity with the local language. Not surprisingly,
the word-for-word translations that resulted were often stiff, unpalatable
and largely inaccessible.

“The genius of Nida was that he also developed a pedagogical approach,”
Philip C. Stine, the author of a biography, “Let the Words Be Written: The
Lasting Influence of Eugene A. Nida,” said in a telephone interview on
Friday. “You could take people with very unsophisticated linguistic
backgrounds and actually train them, using Nida’s methods.”

Drawing on linguistics, anthropology and communication science, Mr. Nida
devised an approach to translation known as “dynamic equivalence.” (It was
later called “functional equivalence.”)

Dynamic equivalence was intended to produce translations that read
naturally, were rooted in the local idiom and yet retained fealty to the
original Scripture. The approach, which took as its starting point Hebrew
and Greek biblical texts, centered, quite literally, on the art of faithful

Traversing the globe by plane, train and canoe, Mr. Nida set in motion the
painstaking process of translating Scripture into more than 200 languages,
among them Navajo; Tagalog and Ilocano, spoken in the Philippines; Quechua,
an indigenous language of Peru; Hmong, spoken in Southeast Asia; and
Inuktitut, an indigenous language of the Canadian Arctic.

Mr. Nida also played an active role in creating the Good News Bible, a
colloquial English-language edition produced by the Bible society and
published in two volumes — the New Testament in 1966, and the combined Old
and New Testaments in 1976.

Sometimes criticized for its linguistic simplicity (“Behold the fowls of the
air,” for instance, became “Look at the birds flying around”), the Good News
Bible was originally intended for speakers of English as a second language.
Embraced in unanticipated droves by native English speakers, it has sold
millions of copies.

Eugene Albert Nida was born in Oklahoma City on Nov. 11, 1914. He earned a
bachelor’s degree in classics from the University of California, Los
Angeles, followed by a master’s from the University of Southern California
in New Testament Greek. In 1943, he earned a doctorate in linguistics from
the University of Michigan and was also ordained as a minister. One of his
first tasks at the Bible society, as he recounted in a memoir, “Fascinated
by Languages” (2003), was evaluating a translation of the Gospel of Mark
into Yipounou, a language of Gabon, in West Africa.

In linguistics, Mr. Nida did important early work in morphology, which
studies the internal architecture of words. Mr. Nida’s first wife, Althea
Sprague, died before him. His survivors include his second wife, Elena
Fernandez-Miranda, and stepchildren. Information on other survivors was not

Translated back into English, some of the Bible passages produced using Mr.
Nida’s method yield a resonant poetry. As The New York Times reported in a
1955 article about his work, “ ‘I am sorrowful’ gets a variety of
translations for tribes within a small area of central Africa: ‘My eye is
black,’ ‘My heart is rotten,’ ‘My stomach is heavy’ or ‘My liver is sick.’ ”



 Harold F. Schiffman

Professor Emeritus of
 Dravidian Linguistics and Culture
Dept. of South Asia Studies
University of Pennsylvania
Philadelphia, PA 19104-6305

Phone:  (215) 898-7475
Fax:  (215) 573-2138

Email:  haroldfs at gmail.com

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