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Nida sought to make Bible accessible

Photo by Vicki Harris

Photo by Vicki Harris

Eugene Nida died this week in Brussels, Belgium, age 96. Though unknown to many, The Rev. Nida was a groundbreaking leader in the field of biblical translation. Trained as a linguist, this brilliant scholar fulfilled a life-long calling of making the Bible accessible in hundreds of languages by translating the original biblical texts by a principle Mr. Nida called “dynamic equivalence.”

There are two basic methods of translating the original languages into any other language. The translator can faithfully translate each word as closely as possible to the original Greek or Hebrew word thus offering a “literal” translation. Such a translation, though, is often wooden, cramped and even incomprehensible because the sentence structure and thought structure of the ancient world is radically different the way we form sentences and paragraphs today. Furthermore, many words in the ancient languages carry different meanings than today; metaphors and figures of speech that made sense to the original reader, if translated word for word, are confusing to the modern reader.

The second translation strategy involves translating the original language by helping the reader understand what the original text meant rather than translating the exact words. The strategy is “meaning for meaning” rather than “word for word” so the reader can grasp the original thought and intent.

Every translation today falls somewhere on the spectrum between these two approaches, any given version tending to fall closer to one end of the spectrum than the other.

Nida’s refreshing Good News Bible (1976), offered through the American Bible Society, remains one of the finest examples of a translation relying heavily on dynamic equivalence. Here are some excerpts from the Good News Bible:

“And so the whole universe was completed. By the seventh day God finished what he had been doing and stopped working. He blessed the seventh day and set it apart as a special day, because by that day he had completed his creation and stopped working. And that is how the universe was created.” (Genesis 2: 1-4)

“The Lord is my shepherd; I have everything I need. He lets me rest in fields of green grass and leads me to quiet pools of fresh water. He gives me new strength ...” (Psalm 23: 1-3)

“This then is how you should pray: Our Father in heaven: May your holy name be honored; may your Kingdom come, ... Do not bring us to hard testing, but keep us safe from the Evil One.” (Matthew 6: 9, 10, 13)

Those who prefer the poetic cadences of the King James Version of the Bible will never warm to such a translation; certainly there are occasions where nothing but the King James Version will do. But Nida’s passion was to make accessible the scriptures so that people could understand what the words meant. The above examples do just that. Without meaning, after all, one may know the lofty language of the King James without ever grasping how it matters in that person’s daily lives.

Contact the Rev. Creede Hinshaw at Wesley Monumental United Methodist Church in Savannah at creede@wesleymonumental.org.