With the Common English Bible (CEB) officially entering a crowded translation market tomorrow, five mainline publishing houses producing the new version hope initial New Testament sales are a harbinger of the reception of the finished product.
After giving away 20,000 copies this summer, total distribution to sales channels is expected to surpass 100,000 this fall. Paul Franklyn, associate publisher for the CEB and the United Methodist Church's Abingdon House, calls the Bible's readability—forged through widespread use of translation team reading groups—a primary distinctive.
"We brought extensive field testing to bear on the process before it went to editors," Franklyn said. "That's starting to pay off."
The question is whether the public is ready for another translation when no one seems sure how many exist. The American Bible Society says there are 32 translations on the North American market, while Christian Book Distributors offers over 50. BibleGateway.com offers 23 English versions. In his research for a book on translations, Phoenix Seminary professor Paul Wegner identified nearly 100 English versions by 1950. He estimates there are twice as many now, although only a handful controls a dominant share of the market.
"We've probably reached the saturation point," Wegner said. "It may be doing more damage than good. It's gotten to the point that people are making money." In other words, profit may be prompting more translations than readability concerns demand.
Leland Ryken, literature professor at Wheaton College and a member of the translation oversight committee of the English Standard Version, labeled the CEB's title "ironic," saying numerous versions have created a lack of common understanding of Scripture.
"With the proliferation of Bibles, the public has become confused," Ryken said. "There's no longer a genuine search to find an authentic Bible."
Its projected publication date of October 2011 means the CEB will emerge seven months after the premiere of the revised edition of America's most popular translation, the New International Version (NIV).
"Any publisher faces challenges [emphasizing] the distinctives of any particular translation," said Scott Bolinder, president of global publishing for Biblica, which owns the rights to the NIV. "The clearer one can be about the distinctives, the more helpful that is to the end user."
Bypassing the NCC
The new Bible also raises questions about the relationship between mainline denominations and the National Council of Churches (NCC), which owns the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV), the translation used by half of mainline churches pastors. According to CEB research of 4,200 laity, 13 percent of members use the NRSV.
Franklyn said some observers have speculated that the new version arose from frustration with publishing the NRSV (licensed in 2006 to HarperOne). But he attributes the CEB to a desire for innovation that arose from Abingdon's New Interpreter's Bible, which contains the full text of the NRSV and the NIV. The 12-volume commentary and an earlier version have sold more than 300,000 copies.
"The New Interpreter's Bible Commentary and New Interpreter's Dictionary of the Bible drove us to realize that we could assemble hundreds of scholars and reading consultants from more than 20 diverse denominations to deliver a major publishing resource," he said. "We realized from those projects that we had the intellectual assets, intellectual tradition, and the product development skills to tackle a significant new Bible translation."
(Changes in usage and biblical interpretation over the past 20 years are another reason for the CEB, Franklyn said. "Language in the postmodern era is much more evocative, imagistic, and emotional than it was 30 or 50 years go, when biblical idioms were translated with more systematic, 'dignified,' and sometimes propositional equivalents. Some translations tend to flatten metaphors into doctrinal propostions and thus reduce the ambiguity that is present." So the Greek word sarx that many versions translate as flesh is translated as geneology, selfish desire, physical body, human standards, and other idioms in the CEB.)
NCC spokesman Philip Jenks doesn't think the production of a Bible outside of the council's jurisdiction is the best barometer of the organization's influence, but acknowledged the CEB reflects a church-wide trend toward decentralization.
"I think it's where we've been heading since the decline of the Sunday school movement in the 1970s," Jenks said.
Others attribute a financial advantage to the CEB, since mainline publishers might wish to avoid paying royalties on the NRSV. Franklyn questions that assertion, saying the publishers—Abingdon, Chalice Press (Disciples of Christ), Westminster John Knox Press (Presbyterian Church [U.S.A.]), Church Publishing Inc. (The Episcopal Church), and Pilgrim Press (United Church of Christ)—will only save several thousand dollars a year compared to several million dollars spent to produce and market a new translation.
However, Wegner said the savings could add up over the lifespan of a translation.
"Every time you pay royalties, you're cutting into your profit margin," Wegner said. "In time, you could recoup significant payments."
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The Common English Bible New Testament is available from ChristianBook.com and other book retailers.
Earlier Christianity Today articles on Bible translation include:
Correcting the 'Mistakes' of TNIV and Inclusive NIV, Translators Will Revise NIV in 2011 | "We fell short of the trust that was placed in us." (Sept. 1, 2009)
Translation Tiff | Some Jamaicans aren't eager to see a Bible in the country's majority language. (Aug. 14, 2008)
The Whole Word for the Whole World| Fewer than 10 percent of the world's languages have the Old Testament. But that's about to change. (Sept. 2006)
The Word from Geecheetown| Gullah-speaking slave descendants welcome New Testament translation. (Jan. 2006)
Wycliffe in Overdrive| Freddy Boswell describes the most audacious Bible translation project ever. (Feb. 2, 2005)
Meaning-full Translations | The world's most influential Bible translator, Eugene Nida, is weary of 'word worship.' (Sept. 16, 2002)
What Bible Version Did Jesus Read? What does the knowledge that Jesus used different versions of Scripture mean for us today? (Apr. 26, 1999)
And the Word Was … Debatable | All those who take up the daunting task of Bible translation step into a force field of tension. (May 18, 1998)
Confessions of a Bible Translator | In this article, Daniel Taylor, and English professor at Bethel College in Minnesota, gives us a glimpse into that most daring of undertakings—humans translating God's Word. (Oct. 27, 1997)
'Your Sins Shall Be White as Yucca' | Wycliffe missionaries Gene and Marie Scott gave nearly 40 years of their lives translating the New Testament for a small tribe in the jungles of Peru. Was it worth it? (Oct. 27, 1997)