Eugene A. Nida, a linguist known especially for his work on translation, died on August 25 at the age of 96. An ordained Baptist minister, he had long associations with the Wycliffe Bible Translators, the Summer Institute of Linguistics, and the American Bible Society. At the same time, he made major contributions to linguistics, via his 1943 Ph.D. dissertation at Michigan (published in 1960 by the Summer Institute of Linguistics), A Synopsis of English Syntax, an extensive phrase-structure grammar (the first such grammar of a major language); his huge textbook Morphology: The Descriptive Analysis of Words (1st ed. 1946, mostly known through the influential 2nd ed. of 1949), with its many exercises; and his work on componential analysis in semantics.
But it was Bible translation that occupied most of his life. He traveled the world on translation projects and published widely on translation theory, advocating an approach centered on “dynamic” (or functional) equivalence, rather than formal equivalence. From the Washington Post obit:
A project he started in 1978 to translate the bible into Inuktitut, the tongue of the Inuit people who live in the Arctic, took 24 years to complete.
The task required so much time because the Bible — whose story unfolds among palm trees and sandy deserts and includes camels and donkeys — had to make sense to the Inuit, who live around vast expanses of snow and ice and are more familiar with seals and walruses.
“You can’t translate without cultural context,” Rev. Nida explained.
Some personal notes: I first met Gene in the early 60s (when I was impressed by his energy and enthusiasm as well as by his linguistic knowledge) but didn’t spend extended time with him until 1985, when we both happened to be teaching in Beijing (at different institutions) and staying at Friendship Hotel there. So we had a week of dinners together, with wide-ranging conversation.
In my experience, missionary linguists, including those who have put their mission experiences behind them or even left the church, tend to exhibit two personal qualities: enthusiasm (even joy) and tolerance. I’ve already mentioned his enthusiasm, so obvious in his presentations at linguistics meetings and, I am told, in his preaching. The tolerance came out in our time together at Friendship Hotel, when he asked matter-of-factly about Jacques (my domestic partner), adding that it was a shame that Jacques couldn’t come with me on this trip — not exactly what I might have expected from an evangelical Christian (though Wikipedia tells us that “In spite of his conservative background, in later years Nida became increasingly ecumenical and New Evangelical in his approach”).
At the Palo Alto Sacred Harp singing on Sunday, I led Primrose (47t) in Gene’s memory. Here’s the music (with the more somber Idumea as a bonus):