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A new Jerome

· Eugene Nida dies ·

“My beloved husband died 10 minutes ago”, that was how the translator and interpreter Elena Fernández-Miranda reported on 25 August the death of Eugene Nida, the American linguist considered an indisputable giant in the field of translating sacred texts. If, in fact, millions of people throughout the world have been able to read the Bible and receive its message with all of its nuances in their own language, it was made possible thanks to the meticulous work of this man.

Translation, we know, is a very difficult art and, in a biblical context, a very ancient one. The first versions in Greek of the Hebrew Scriptures — of paramount importance for their circulation — date back to the third century bc. The complexity is due to the richness intrinsic to words: in the passage from one language to another there is always the risk of losing or adding something, manipulating, integrating or impoverishing the meanings, as the Greek translator had already warned in the prologue to the Book of Sirach.

It was precisely from this obvious, yet problematic awareness that Eugene Nida constructed his method and theory: “Since there is no exact equivalence, in translation we need to search for the closest equivalent possible”. The work of a translator is that of searching for equivalences that permit him or her to act in the best way, writing as naturally as possible. In fact, for a scholar translation should not only be clear and comprehensible but also accurate.

Born on 11 November 1914, in Oklahoma City, Eugene A. Nida graduated summa cum laude from the University of California in 1936, in Greek. He spent the next three years working for his Masters on the New Testament and finally earned a doctorate in linguistics at the University of Michigan in 1943. Soon after his linguist studies he entered the American Bible Society, where he remained for more than half a century directing the translation programme indefatigably. The Society paid homage to his work in 2001 by naming the new institute for biblical translation “The Nida Institute of Biblical Scholarship”. Over the course of these decades, this Baptist minister developed the method summarized in his book: Toward a Science of Translating (1964).

Continuously interweaving theory and practice, the addition of concepts taken from studies of linguistics and anthropology has been the constant signature of the research of this linguist, anthropologist and scientist of words. In fact, the scholar — who spoke eight modern languages — spent a great deal of his time travelling to 80 countries to closely train and advise local translators in the linguistic adaptation of the Sacred Scriptures. The primary interest of this American linguist was the biblical context, his project to make a modern translation of the Bible began in 1978 and concluded in 2002. His theory was comprehensive: forming the basis for a future science able to explain general principles which govern translation.

His method of dynamic and functional equivalence was used in the complex translation that, in 1975, brought into being the Nueva Biblia Española , edited by Jesuits: Luis Alonso Shöckel and Juan Mateos. However an enormous problem became apparent to Eduardo Zurro in the Book of Ezekiel: how could one translate the allure of the visions of the temple written in Hebrew, thick with hàpax legòmena , words never used before? Since current language could not help them, the translators had a genial idea, finding the solution to their problem in the history of Castilian. In fact, when in the 16th century the first reporters, following the conquistadores found themselves before the Mayan and Aztec temples, their wonder led them to coin never-before used, new terms. It was precisely these terms which Eduardo Zurro chose four centuries later, adopting the spirit and method of the theory developed by Nida.

Phil Towner, current dean of the Nida Institute for Biblical Scholarship, honoured the American scholar, who was 96 years old when he died, by saying: “When the history of the Church in the 20th Century is written, the name of Eugene Nida will appear in capital letters”. Thus adding his name to the Christian tradition's long list of scholars and translators, beginning with Origen and Jerome.




St. Peter’s Square

Oct. 20, 2019