Eugene A. Nida is not a household name, but the 84-year-old resident of Belgium has influenced the Bibles read by most Christians around the world. The "premier linguist and translation consultant," as the Evangelical Dictionary of World Missions styles him, writes mostly about technical topics: descriptive linguistics, cross-cultural communications, translation theory, and semantics. However, the translations he helped shape in over 200 languages make it easier for many millions of lay Christians and nonbelievers to grasp the meaning of the Bible.
He taught at the Summer Institute of Linguistics (now SIL), the educational alter ego of Wycliffe Bible Translators, and eventually became executive secretary for translations at the American Bible Society.
He coined the term dynamic equivalence translation to describe a "meaning-based" approach to translation—one that looks for functional equivalence rather than formal resemblance in translation. The American Bible Society's 1976 Good News Bible and its 1995 Contemporary English Version show his influence, as do other prominent translations, such as the New Living Translation.
CT editor David Neff talked with Nida when the outspoken linguist visited the United States earlier this year.
What do you consider your most important contribution to Bible translation?
To help people be willing to say what the text means—not what the words are, but what the text means.
How did you develop your ideas about Bible translation 50 years ago?
When I was at the University of California, Los Angeles, our professors would never let us translate literally. They said, "We want to know the meaning. We don't want to know just the words."
I found that a number of the Greek classics had been translated ...