On November 11, 1914, Eugene Nida was born in Oklahoma City. He was to have more impact on Bible translation than any other person in the 20th century.

Eugene Nida

After graduating from the University of California, he was exposed to Bible translation at Camp Wycliffe, a training program for Bible translators run by the founder of Wycliffe Bible Translators. He stayed in Bible translation, but worked with the American Bible Society. However, he became a founding member of Wycliffe Bible Translators when it was formed a few years later.

If you read the Bible, or hear it read from the pulpit, you have probably encountered Eugene Nida. This is because Nida pioneered the theory of translation which is used, even if in modified form, in many modern translations. The principles of that theory have guided Bible translators across the world in making translations that are understandable to people in the most varied languages and cultures.

More than a theorist, he wrote practical books about communicating the Gospel across cultures. He also developed practical techniques. For example, he developed a method of breaking words down into components of meaning. The word bachelor can be broken down into the components male + unmarried. This method is widely used to find the best translation when doing the very first translation into a language. It is particularly useful for translating key terms such as faith, sin and salvation. Methods he pioneered lead to translations which better conveyed the true meaning of the text, avoiding problems such as that of I John 5:12 in the Luganda translation which many take to mean that a person who dies without a male child will not have eternal life. If you are on Facebook, see this described by Enoch Wandera.

My reading of I Cor 12:28 is that God gives specially gifted people to his church.

First, God chose some people to be apostles and prophets and teachers for the church. But he also chose some to work miracles or heal the sick or help others or be leaders or speak different kinds of languages.

There was an explosion in Bible translation in the 20th century. The number of languages with some translation in print went from about 500 to over 2200 during that century – rate of a new language every three weeks! And that was when Nida graduated suma cum laude from university, went on to get a doctorate in linguistics and entered the field of Bible translation. Thousands of missionary translators were fanning out across the globe and the Bible . They needed training and some guiding principles. his writing, teaching and theories provided that. I believe that he clearly was God’s gift to his church to support the rapid expansion of Bible translation. His gifted life is yet another sign that God is creating an unprecedented, worldwide push to translate the Bible into all languages. While Nida’s story is not exciting, without it many of the exciting stories of Bible translation would not have happened.

Dr. Nida passed away in 2011.

If you liked this, you might also like Who would have guessed?, Not just anyone can translate, or Another kind of KP.


The span is amazing. In fact, the span is spectacular – every bit as much as this bridge in France.

Across Africa, learned believers with strings of letters behind their names are working on the same teams with believers with no formal education. Their purpose? To translate the Bible into African languages.

Without the learned members of the teams, some parts of the job would be impossible – such as developing an alphabet for the many previously unwritten languages. In some cases, African churches have started their own translation efforts only to find them stymied. They rightly realized that using just the English alphabet their language could not be written in a way that could be read back. But they did not have the scientific knowledge to know what to do about that. When we sent them a linguist specialized in such matters, the problem was solved.

Siwu traditional authorities

Siwu traditional authorities, near Hohoe, Ghana

The team members without formal education bring another kind of expertise which is just as valuable – they know their languages and what their people believe. Their role is to make sure that the translation communicates clearly. I saw this powerfully a few weeks ago when a paramount chief congratulated us on producing a translation that spoke deeply to them. Of course, it was not because of us, but because of the hard work of some his own subjects.

I saw it again in the Congo when we showed the Jesus Film (which is really an abridged translation of the Gospel of Luke). When Jesus would speak, people were saying, “I can understand clearly!”

In fact, sometimes “educated” people bring in English words and that can obscure the meaning. For such reasons, an “uneducated” viewpoint can bring clarity.

I can’t think of another endeavor which benefits from the direct involvement of people of such divergent educational levels. The span really is amazing. God’s very diverse gifts and callings working together in a beautiful way with powerful impact.

The unlearned believers translating the Bible and putting it into practice are the foundation of the explosion of the church in Africa. Yale historian Lamin Sanneh (himself from The Gambia) has called the results of their work “incalculable”.

God seeth not as man seeth. He hath chosen the foolish things of the world, the weak things of the world, the base and despicable things of the world, men of mean birth, of low rank, of no liberal education, to be the preachers of the gospel and planters of the church.
(Matthew Henry Commentary, regarding I Cor 1:27)