Book Review: Contemporary English Bible Translation
1611 saw the first authorized English Bible translation, the famous King James Version. Fast forward to its 400th anniversary and we find a plethora of English versions to fit every taste and preference with more being written all the time. One of the newest is the Common English Bible being released in 2011, which was accomplished by over a hundred scholars from almost two dozen faith traditions. The CEB group states that the digital revolution is changing language more rapidly than ever before, and so to address this they offer a “bold new translation” (website) designed to be accessible to a broad range of people.
Bible translation is a very complicated task seeking to take ancient texts from a far removed culture and language and transfer them into another language while maintaining readability and accuracy of meaning. Three very hot topic areas as of late will be explored to see how well the CEB accomplished their goal: readability, gender issues, and theology. Examples will be limited to the New Testament as it is the only portion currently in print.
First, the CEB worked with reading specialists and reading groups during the translation process in order to have a Bible “written at a comfortable level” with an “uncommon relevance for a broad audience” (website). This is by far the greatest strength of the CEB, it is highly readable to anyone able to read the local newspaper. Take for example Ephesians 2:8, the CEB has “You are saved by God’s grace because of your faith. This salvation is God’s gift. It’s not something you possessed. It’s not something you did that you can be proud of.” While many people reading the Bible might be comfortable with longer sentences containing multiple subordinate clauses like those in the NIV and NAS, there are many who will benefit from the shortened changes the CEB has made here. This simple and straightforward language and colloquial syntax is found on every page; the CEB group is to be commended for their efforts regarding readability.
Second, the very mentioning of gender issues within biblical studies and translation methodologies sends shivers up scholars’ spines these days, as it is an important issue to address. The CEB tries to use gender neutral terms where context suggests or permits, a clear example is Matt 18:15-21. While the ESV, NAS, NIV literally follow the Greek for ‘brother,’ the CEB is probably correct to see that in context Jesus is teaching Christians to forgive both their brothers and sisters. However, the CEB oversteps the bounds of translation and at times uses gender inclusive language for theologically motivated purposes. For example the ESV, NIV, NAS, and KJV all see the context of Acts 1:21 as requiring taking the masculine noun as ‘men,’ and not twisting it to the gender inclusive ‘those’ like the CEB does. The CEB made the conscious translation choice to have Peter say that Judas could have been replaced by Mary Magdalene or any other woman as an apostle. This does not follow from the context or word choice in the account written by Luke and appears to be the theological commitment of the CEB group.
Third, the goal of an English Bible translation should be to offer an accurate text which is comprehensible while trying not to lose accurate content and theologically rich terminology. But in Rom 5:12 the CEB has “death spread to all human beings with the result that all sinned,” while the ESV, NIV, NAS, and KJV have “because all sinned.” Any cursory look at biblical and systematic studies will point out the error of the CEB, biblically proving that sin preceded and produced death rather than the reverse. Secondly, the CEB states that they want to transliterate weights and measures, bath, homer, talanta, denarion, etc, and then offer footnotes. But in Matt 12:31 where the ESV, NAS, NIV, and KJV have “blasphemy,” which is practically a transliteration of the Greek word, the CEB reduces the issue to “insult.” Such an over simplification actually distorts the text’s meaning and ends up exaggerating an “insult” into an unforgivable sin. And lastly, the CEB creates some odd phrases, instead of the familiar and accurate “Son of Man” they have “Human One.” Not only is this an odd neologism, it, like the reduction of blasphemy, robs the readers of biblical Christian language.
In conclusion the CEB is indeed in a common English translation for the day, and the translators could be commended for many of their translation techniques. But their choice to error on the side of inclusive gender language at the cost of biblical accuracy is unacceptable. Furthermore, their theologically motivated translation decisions should keep anyone from using this as their only bible. Unfortunately the CEB cannot be recommended for adoption, God’s word is too important and far too precious to allow translators to put road blocks between Christians and an accurate understanding of the text.