Bible translator Barclay Newman tells us why

A new generation of Bible translations has recently appeared on bookstore shelves. With names like the New Revised Standard Version, New Century Version, and Contemporary English Version (CEV), they have settled into the crowded space occupied by the best-selling Living Bible, King James, and New International versions. Why so many?

Barclay Newman, chief translations officer for the American Bible Society (ABS), which copublished the CEV with Thomas Nelson Publishers, has more than academic interest in the answer. An ordained Southern Baptist minister, Newman has a Ph.D. from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He discussed Bible translation with Pepperdine University professor Ken Waters.

Some Christians ask, “Why a new round of translations?”

I asked myself that question when the CEV project started in 1984. The short answer is that each contemporary translation meets a different need. With the CEV, we wanted a mission-driven translation.

The CEV began as a translation for children. What seemed missing was a Bible for children eight to nine years old that could easily be read aloud without stumbling. We tested the draft translation here in Springfield, Missouri, where the ABS core translation team lives. We used it with evangelical and Roman Catholic schoolchildren and their teachers. We found that the adults praised the translation for enhancing their own biblical understanding. In sharing the draft translation with more adults—including street people our church ministers to—we found that the most responsive folks were those with limited English skills, those turned off by traditional Christian jargon, and the unchurched.

Reading theCEVand the New Century Version requires only a fifth-grade education. How does one manage that?

For starters, we used a simpler, but not simplistic, sentence structure. We used contemporary words and phrases, cutting out unnecessary and archaic words and phrases. We translated thoughts, expressions, and feelings as they would be expressed by a contemporary English writer. This is a so called functional equivalent translation, although I prefer to use the term contemporary translation.

We are doing what the biblical writers did. The Old Testament was written in the spoken Hebrew of the day. The New Testament writers used koinē Greek, the vernacular of the day. Our translation team likes to say we are doing our work in the spirit of the King James Version, whose translators were concerned to “deliver God’s book unto God’s people in a tongue which they can understand.” Further, one of our main goals is to present a Bible translation that can be easily understood when read aloud.

Article continues below

So you are striving for both reading ease and listening comprehension?

Yes. More people hear the Scripture read than read it for themselves.

After the Catholic bishops adopted the CEV for a new lectionary for children, a Catholic reporter dubbed it “The Sesame Street Bible.” Did that hurt?

I’ve spend a lot of time watching “Sesame Street.” It’s part of my research on how people talk to each other. We’ve tried to incorporate that into the translation.

In the same article, the writer notes that the bishops asked us to change “feed box” (Luke 2:7) back to “manger,” because they couldn’t imagine singing “Away in the Feed Box.” We weren’t happy with “feed box,” but it seemed to capture the essence of the Greek word traditionally translated as “manger.” Later someone suggested, “They laid him on a bed of hay.” It’s a great solution, so we’ll incorporate it into the next printing.

As the fine tuning continues, will you return words like grace to theCEV?

Grace was in our draft translation. But one weekend I met with 40 leaders of a Presbyterian church here in Springfield. I wrote Acts 20:32 on the board, which speaks of “the word of his grace.” Even though these people had attended church for years, the very first comment was, “I don’t understand the meaning of the word grace.” In discussing this, the translation team realized an English equivalent to the Greek word for grace really doesn’t exist. Even the King James translates it differently in a few places (e.g., in 1 Pet. 2:19–20 it comes out as thankworthy and acceptable). We decided people would best understand the concept if we used phrases such as undeserved kindness (John 1:17).

What of the charge that simple translations are helping fuel the decline in biblical literacy and the appreciation of the formal beauty of the Bible?

Ours is a mission-driven translation. If a text is awkward to read or the style contradicts contemporary English usage, the reader and the listener may have difficulty understanding and responding to the text.

I have a lawyer friend who says when he comes home at night he doesn’t want to struggle with difficult language like that he faced all day. He wants to get directly into the Word of God and understand it. He is a typical reader of new translations. There is a tremendous need to fill.

Article continues below
For A Thousand Tongues To Read

Today, with Scripture portions in some 2,000 languages, at least one book of the Bible is available to four-fifths of the world’s population. But for much of Christianity’s history, most people had no part of the Bible in their own language. Until 1450, every copy of Scripture was made by hand, and part or all of the Bible was available in only 35 languages.

In 1450, the European reinvention of movable-type printing made producing the Bible easier and cheaper. That meant much wider distribution and use of translations. The Renaissance, with its interest in scholarship and concern for local languages and cultures, stimulated further Bible translation. And beginning in the sixteenth century, the Reformation emphasis on the vernacular and Luther’s German translation of the Bible gave rise to further translations. From 1450 to the end of the eighteenth century, portions of the Bible became available in 39 new languages.

But that was only the beginning. During the nineteenth century, Bible translation skyrocketed. The Bible society movement began in 1804 with the founding of the British and Foreign Bible Society. At about the same time, the modern missionary movement got under way. Hand in hand, the two movements stimulated accelerated Bible translation. By 1900,446 new languages were added, a 1043 percent increase over the previous three centuries’ total.

By far, the largest increase in the number of translations has taken place during the twentieth century. The process, explains William A. Smalley in Translation as Mission, has become increasingly professional, interconfessional, and nonmissionary.

• Professional. Before midcentury, Bible societies advised translators and monitored the quality of translation as much as possible, but often without theoretical basis. Many believed all it took was an academic knowledge of the Bible and a firm handle on the “receptor” language. But thanks largely to the work of two American scholars, Kenneth Pike and Eugene Nida, most translators now learn and apply basic and universal translation principles as well.

• Interconfessional. Vatican II (1961–65) encouraged wider dissemination and study of the Bible, insisted on native-language worship, and authorized Catholics to work with other Christians in Bible translation. The resulting Roman Catholic contribution to Bible translation has been great. Interconfessional cooperation has increased rapidly and with little conflict, despite some hesitant factions on both sides. A 1968 agreement between the Catholic Church and the United Bible Societies (UBS) alone has resulted in over a hundred translation projects.

Article continues below

Nonmissionary. From the beginning of the nineteenth century until recently, most translating was done by nonnative speakers. Though indigenous peoples were often closely involved, missionaries often initiated and directed translation. But during the last third of this century, nonnative domination of translation has declined. In many parts of the world, more and more native speakers have become church leaders and, in some cases, Bible scholars. Others have undertaken translation efforts without a missionary presence and sometimes even without theological training. Currently, less than 25 percent of translators with the UBS are missionaries.

Still, the task of translating God’s Word into the world’s languages is far from over. The estimated number of languages in need of a Bible translation is over 4,000.

But it is that very need that has brought Bible translation as far as it has come. “In today’s world people are desperately looking for hope, and the Bible is where they find it,” explains International Bible Society’s vice-president of translations, Eugene Rubingh. “That is what drives us.”

By Thomas S. Giles.

Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.

Our digital archives are a work in progress. Let us know if corrections need to be made.