Prior to William Cameron Townsend founding Wycliffe Bible Translators, God moved in the heart of a brilliant young man to join the Bible translation movement. His name was Eugene Nida.
Born in 1914, Nida grew up in a diverse neighborhood in California surrounded by a multi-lingual family. Early on he became fascinated with languages and studied Latin in high school. He pursued his passion at UCLA graduating summa cum laude in 1936. Nida was also elected to the prestigious Phi Beta Kappa society, one of the highest honors available to undergraduates.
After graduation from UCLA, Nida attended Camp Wycliffe and, with much enthusiasm, headed to Mexico where Wycliffe’s field organization, SIL, was beginning work. In a letter dated December 1936, Townsend praised Nida lavishly. He wrote “Nida is covering himself with laurels. He is a genius linguistically and is able to take ‘roughing it’ as few can.”
Indeed, Nida had chosen one of the most remote and difficult posts in Mexico. The assignment eventually broke his health, and he was forced to return to the United States. But in his short time in the mountains among the Tatahumara people, he accumulated an immense amount of linguistic data. In just two months, he memorized 2,000 words.
Despite the hardships, the venture into Mexico and life among the native people confirmed for Nida his calling to serve God. But he would do this as a visiting consultant in language and anthropology rather than as a long-term field worker. Townsend too, saw that Nida’s gifts were invaluable to Bible translation. In late 1937 he wrote to the American Bible Society (ABS) promoting Nida’s skills. With Townsend’s strong endorsement, Nida became part of the Bible Society.
Nida went on to earn a Masters degree in Greek New Testament and then a PhD in Linguistics in 1943, completing the program in only two years! He continued his work with Wycliffe, but in an auxiliary role under the ABS. During his 40-year career, he made some 200 trips to numerous parts of the world to aid Bible translators in their difficult work.
Throughout his travels as a consultant, Dr. Nida urged translators to learn the culture as well as the language of the people they served. He was also concerned that they understand the culture of the Bible so they could translate the meaning of the text from one culture to another, rather than attempt a literal word-for-word translation. This led him to write several landmark books on what is now termed “functional equivalence” or “dynamic equivalence.” While there is debate about “literal” versus “functional equivalence” translation methods, there is little doubt that Nida’s influence has allowed millions of people around the world to read the Word of God in a language that speaks to their hearts.
Nida, now in his late eighties, is retired and living in Belgium. Although he never translated a Bible himself, few people have had a more profound affect on Bible translation worldwide. His legacy is lasting, and his reward will be great.