Rest in Peace, Eugene Nida

by Michael Potemra


I just learned that Eugene Nida, a titan of 20th-century Bible translation, died a few days ago. He was in charge of the Bible-translation department at the American Bible Society, and was the key figure in the creation of the modern dynamic-equivalence style of translation.

In brief, “dynamic equivalence” means translating thought for thought; “formal equivalence” means translating word for word. Because I grew up loving the formal-equivalence KJV, and had (and still have) literary interests, I still today generally favor formal-equivalence translations: More of the literary power and original flavor of the text is preserved when words are allowed to stand for words, and such explanations and clarifications as are needed are relegated to footnotes. But I have over the years come to be really impressed by the achievements fathered and grandfathered by Eugene Nida.  When I read the Good News Bible, for example, which grew directly out of Nida’s theories, what amazes me is not how much is lost in the freer translation, but how much is preserved. Every so often something clangs to my ear, for example calling the Ark of the Covenant “the Covenant Box”; but when this happens I can’t help feeling that my objection is based largely on residual snobbery. (Very little of the meaning is lost, after all, in that example; it’s just that I personally have heard “Ark of the Covenant” so often that a new rendering sounds wrong to me.) Especially when I consider how many millions of people around the world have been able to read the Bible with great spiritual profit precisely because Eugene Nida, and those who have followed in his path, have taken the trouble to render the eternal message of God in the non-antique, non-specialized vocabulary of man.

In the 16th century, Bible translator William Tyndale famously rebuked a partisan of the papacy with the words: “If God spares my life, ere many years, I will cause the boy that driveth the plow to know more of the Scriptures than thou dost!” Tyndale succeeded in his effort — much of his English rendering of the Bible was adopted in the KJV and reached many millions, princes and plowboys alike. Eugene Nida did something similar, helping the Bible reach a very broad audience in our own times by translating it into the language of today’s people. When I hear the Tyndalean cadences tomorrow morning at St. Thomas Episcopal Church, I will spare a thought for Eugene Nida, with some high praise indeed: Tyndale would have been proud of him.