The Rev Dr Eugene Nida teaching at the Translators’ Institute, Manila.
1950s : Bible translation at the heart of a growing mission
As a new decade dawned in 1950, the 4-year-old United Bible Societies was facing a rapidly changing world. For the first time, the literate world population outnumbered the illiterate. A global vision was required and Bible translation needed to be at the heart of it.
Historically, most translation work throughout the world had fallen to missionaries who, with varying success, were required to learn the language into which they sought to translate the Scriptures. The 1950s saw Bible Societies increasingly rely on native language speakers to serve as the primary translators, with support from a team of translation consultants from regions around the world. There was growing cooperation in translation among Bible Societies, and interconfessional collaboration, too.
Behind much of this work was the influential figure of Dr. Eugene Nida, a linguist and biblical scholar who joined American Bible Society in 1943. Profoundly devoted to communicating the Word of God, Nida became a pioneer of this new, locally driven approach to Bible translation, and it guided his service within the United Bible Societies Fellowship.
Drawing on linguistics, anthropology, and communication science, Nida realised the importance of the role of the local community in the translation process and the need for cultural contextualisation.
Using the source texts, the local community, with the support of translation consultants, would work to find the closest natural equivalent in the target language. This approach of “functional equivalence”—using a ‘sense-for-sense’ translation with readability in mind—was a revolutionary change in Bible translation; one that has impacted a majority of contemporary translations.
Through the process, the goal was, Nida explained, “to read the Bible and to be transformed by its message.”
The unfinished task of translation
The translation model adopted by United Bible Societies with the pivotal leadership of Nida bore much fruit. Dr. F. D. Coggan, the Archbishop of York, speaking at the Third Assembly of the World Council of Churches in 1961 reported the impact of the focus on translation: “Before the Bible Society movement began, the number of languages in which Scriptures had been published was seventy-one. It is now 1,165.”
Today, around 5.7 billion people have the full Bible in their language, 70% of these translations being completed by Bible Societies. And yet, with almost 4,000 languages with no Scripture, there remains much work ahead.