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The Word made plain - New Bible takes risks to be reader-friendly Sam Hodges, Jul 29, 2011
PHOTO ILLUSTRATION BY CHERRIE GRAHAM
The Common English Bible enters a crowded marketplace, but the scholars behind it (including United Methodists) believe its accessibility will be a big selling point.
By Sam Hodges Managing Editor
`Tis the gift to be simple, the Shaker hymn goes, and the makers of the Common English Bible couldn’t agree more.
Their new translation—a multi-denomination effort done with considerable United Methodist input and support—puts the Bible at a seventh-grade reading level.
To do that, they dropped lots of familiar phrasing, beginning with “In the beginning.” The Common English Bible kicks off Genesis instead with, “When God began to create the heavens and the earth …”
In this Bible the Beatitudes say “Happy are those” instead of “Blessed are those,” and Jesus calls himself “Human One” instead of “Son of Man.”
These days Paul Franklyn, associate publisher and project director, is busy making the case that the Common English Bible combines “readability” with rigorous scholarship, and thus can reach the masses effectively and responsibly.
But in the blogosphere era, he also is having to explain and defend specific word choices.
“Bible translation is not for people with weak hearts,” he said.
The Common English Bible is making its full print debut this summer, with the paperback out and the hardback on the way. The New Testament translation came out last year, and a digital version of both Old and New Testaments went on the market in June.
Five mainline Protestant denomination presses joined in sponsoring the $3.5 million project, with the self-supporting United Methodist Publishing House providing the largest funding share, Dr. Franklyn said.
United Methodist scholars have been deeply involved, notably Joel Green, a professor at Fuller Theological Seminary in California. He’s New Testament editor for the Common English Bible.
But the project is nothing if not ecumenical, with 24 denominations represented among the 120 scholars who helped translate from the Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek texts. They come from a wide range of universities and seminaries, representing Pentecostalism, evangelicalism, and the mainline denominations.
Diversity didn’t stop there.
“This is the first major translation to have a significant number of women involved, about 35 percent of the translators,” said Dr. Franklyn, an Old Testament scholar and a veteran editor for the United Methodist Publishing House’s Abingdon Press.
He added that 15 percent of translators and editors were “persons of color,” with ethnic diversity being another strategy to curb bias. “Translation is always a matter of interpretation,” Dr. Franklyn said. It really depends a lot on who you bring to the table.”
The Common English Bible is notable for other reasons, including how fast it came together. Thanks to Internet communication and a “matrix” (as opposed to linear) process, the job got done in four years.
Probably what most distinguishes this translation is the care taken to make it easy to read.
“This Bible, from first to last, was concerned with everyday Christians,” Dr. Green said.
Other Bibles, notably the Good News Translation (originally called Today’s English Version) have had that emphasis.
But the Common English Bible team took a sophisticated approach to simplicity, attacking the problem with technology and reading groups. Dr. Franklyn even recruited a readability editor—Elizabeth Caldwell, a professor of pastoral theology at McCormick Theological Seminary in Chicago.
“He wanted to bring to the table not just translators but an educator who could think about how it’s going to sound,” she said.
The scholars put proposed translation sections through Dale-Chall Readability software, which calculates the grade level of prose based on sentence length and number of “hard” words. (The Dale-Chall system derives from the work of readability pioneer Rudolph Flesch.)
Meanwhile, Dr. Caldwell oversaw 77 reading groups, consisting of 500 people from 13 denominations. They too represented different ethnicities, and Dr. Caldwell insisted on age diversity, with young people fully in the mix.
Each group got a section of the translation as produced by scholars. They read it aloud for clarity, and spoke up when anything seemed unclear.
“One of their favorites was, `This is clunky. Can you do something with it?’” Dr. Caldwell said. “Or, `This is way too long still.’” It’s easy to imagine scholars bristling at pushback from readability experts and reading groups. But Dr. Caldwell and Dr. Green agreed that wasn’t the case here.
“We did a lot of sitting and listening to each other,” Dr. Caldwell said. “There weren’t any fights.”
Dr. Green said that everyone involved understood that accuracy of translation could not be sacrificed. But he added that in choosing an English word for, say, a Greek one, there is usually a range of acceptable options.
“They didn’t tell us what to say,” he said of the reading groups. “They just told us what we were trying to say wasn’t as clear as it could be. That just sent us back to the text to see if there might be a more accessible way.”
That meant,often, shorter words and shorter sentences. (Notable exceptions include John 11:35, usually translated “Jesus wept.” The Common English Bible has it as “Jesus began to cry.”)
It also meant dumping words that have become obscure or hard for many contemporary readers. So “alien” lost out to “immigrant,” and “sackcloth” to “funeral clothing.” Even “repent” got dropped, replaced by “change your hearts and lives.”
The Common English Bible also claims to be the first major translation to make extensive use of contractions. That kept the text conversational, and helped make it about 30,000 words shorter than most translations, Dr. Franklyn said.
He added that the team worked hard to preserve literary quality. Dr. Green agreed, pointing to the Psalms, which he did not work on.
“I have just been amazed at what my colleagues have done with the imagery and with the metaphors, with the liveliness of these texts,” he said.
Still, the goal remained to put the Common English Bible on a comfortable reading level for nearly everyone.
“We were aiming for seventh- to eighth-grade, which is about the same as a good newspaper,” Dr. Franklyn said. “We hit seventh right on the nose.”
But to translate the Bible is to pick a fight, especially if you’re willing to translate boldly.
The choice of “happy” for “blessed” in the Beatitudes made some early readers unhappy enough to write to Dr. Franklyn or post complaints on blogs.
Dr. Franklyn took to the blog on the Common English Bible website to defend “happy” against the charge that it’s a superficial, happy face substitute for “blessed.”
“We might concede that it is possible to trivialize the meaning of happiness in our culture, to mistake happiness for personal self-gratification, but the CEB editors are not willing to let a trivial misapplication of the word derail the correct use of the meaning from the Greek,” he wrote.
Dr. Franklyn and his team clearly anticipated flak over “Human One” for “Son of Man.” They address the choice in detail in the Bible’s preface, with references to Greek, Hebrew, Aramaic and the Book of Daniel.
But some readers of the Common English Bible are still hung up on it. One is the Rev. Dave Nichols, pastor of Bethel UMC, in Spartanburg, S.C. He’s a big fan of the translation overall, but took to his blog to complain about “Human One.”
“If ‘Human One’ is such an accurate way to translate this, then why have no other translations done it this way?” he wrote. “I wonder if this ‘Human One’ isn’t more politically correct than accurate.”
The Common English Bible is in the recent tradition of gender-inclusive Bibles (while retaining male pronouns for God, Lord, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit), but Dr. Franklyn said “Human One” has nothing to do with that. Rather, he said, it was a text-supported effort to reflect Jesus’ fully human nature.
The Common English Bible has gotten warm endorsements from a range of scholars and pastors, and a strong review from Library Journal. Fuller Theological Seminary recently approved it for course use.
The Common English Bible New Testament has sold 200,000 copies, and demand for the 70,000-copy first printing of the full paperback edition has been strong.
“They’re pretty much spoken for,” Dr. Franklyn said. “Were going back to press.”
The market is crowded with translations, including the New Revised Standard Version, generally considered the top choice of mainline Protestants. But Dr. Franklyn said the NRSV—written at an 11th grade level—is more popular with seminary professors and pastors than with people in the pew.
He sees an opening for the Common English Bible to win over readers at all levels. And he’s not chagrined that its full debut coincides with the 400th anniversary of the King James Version.
“There’s a lot of attention to translating because of that,” he said. “So it’s not a bad time. It’s kind of the year of the Bible.”
VERSE BY VERSE
Samples from the Common English Bible:
The Lord is my shepherd. I lack nothing. He lets me rest in grassy meadows; he leads me to restful waters; he keeps me alive. He guides me in proper paths for the sake of his good name. Psalm 23, 1-3.
God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him won’t perish but will have eternal life. John: 3:16
Now we see a reflection in the mirror; then we will see face-to-face. Now I know partially, but then I will know completely in the same way that I have been completely known. 1 Corinthians. 13:12-13.
I know the plans I have in mind for you, declares the LORD; they are plans for peace, not disaster, to give you a future filled with hope. Jeremiah: 29:11