Translating the Bible for Today

By Allen, Michael | The Saturday Evening Post, March 1995 | Go to article overview
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Translating the Bible for Today


Allen, Michael, The Saturday Evening Post


Organizations customarily celebrate an important anniversary with champagne. Not so the American Bible Society. This venerable institution has chosen to mark its 180th year with a new translation of God's Word designed specifically for the American family of today.

Since its foundation in 1816, this New York-based, nonprofit organization (supported by such historical figures as John Quincy Adams, John Jay, and Francis Scott Key) has already distributed more existing Bibles than the world's population of some 5.3 billion. Which leads to the question, If the Good Book is already doing this well, was a new version really necessary?

The idea for the new translation grew out of an expressed need for a Bible "for persons who depend upon hearing text," says Dr. Barclay Newman, senior translations officer of The American Bible Society. "This differentiates the Contemporary English Version from all other English translations which depend upon eye contact with a written text."

Examined by educators, publishers of children's literature, parents, and others, the CEV Bible for Today's Family (New Testament) was published in 1991, and The New Testament with Psalms and Proverbs in 1992. Research later proved that young people and adults are sometimes confused by certain portions of the Bible. Many, Dr. Newman tells us, are finding this version to be more "user-friendly" and clearer than any other translation. Both young and old will thus find a full, user-friendly translation in the 1995 Contemporary English Version.

"In dealing with the Word of God, you do it with fear and trembling," Dr. Newman, who heads the team of 100 translators, English-language specialists, and biblical authorities, explains. "The words are 'holy.' The phrasing is much beloved. The stories are ancient. And these people want to change them! The translator has a tough job."

The CEV translators spent hours reading their work aloud. "We were concerned with the sound of the words," Dr. Newman says. "The simple fact is that more people hear the Bible read than read it for themselves."

Remember how the men sent to bring in Christ explained their failure by saying, "Never a man spake like this man"? Well, no other Bible speaks like this Bible. Examples stand out on every page.

The New Revised Standard Version translates Matthew 6:1-2: "Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them...So whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you as the hypocrites do...." In the new Contemporary English Version, this passage is translated: "When you do good deeds, don't try to show off....When you give to the poor, don't blow a loud horn. That's what showoffs do...."

In the CEV, the "litter," or grand chair of Solomon, is out, because the word might conjure up trash-related images in the minds of modern readers. Also, acknowledging contemporary concern for sexually inclusive language, "sons of Israel" has been translated according to its actual meaning: "people of Israel." Masculine pronouns about God, however, are not eliminated. "We often shift to a 'you' form of address for God, which avoids the problem of a constant string of masculine pronouns," Dr. Newman explains. "For example, Psalm 23, which is 'the Lord...he' in others; we have 'you, Lord.'" And, picky-picky perhaps, but the biblical exclamation "O Lord" at the beginning of a sentence could sound profane, so the phrase is moved to the inside of the sentence. Here again, Dr. Newman explains: "'O Lord' is never used; as a noun of address, 'Lord' is imbedded."

Traditional translations of John 1:1 read: "In the beginning was the Word." The CEV people believe that readers unfamiliar with the theological connotations of "Word" will not realize the reference is to Christ.

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