Nov. 30, 2011
The Bible is the best-selling book of all time, but if surveys of biblical literacy in the United States are any indication, few Americans actually read their copy. The Common English Bible, a brand new translation that posted its half-millionth sale in November, aims to change those dismal statistics by making the biblical text more understandable while maintaining accuracy. Six members of Candler School of Theology’s faculty worked on this translation.
“Every translator thinks their translation is the most accurate, but I really feel that we got it right,” said David Petersen, associate dean of faculty and academic affairs and Franklin N. Parker Professor of Old Testament at Candler. “The Common English Bible is accessible to a broader readership yet also has a greater breadth of scholarly investment than other versions.”
Petersen served on the Common English Bible’s Board of Editors as Old Testament editor. Brent Strawn, associate professor of Old Testament, also served on the board as Hebrew associate editor. Between the two of them, they edited 33 of 39 Old Testament books in the Common English Bible. Strawn also served as first translator for the book of Deuteronomy.
Other Candler faculty serving as translators include Luke Timothy Johnson, R.W. Woodruff Professor of New Testament and Christian Origins; Gail R. O’Day, former A.H. Shatford Professor of Preaching and New Testament; Walter Wilson, associate professor of New Testament; and Jacob Wright, assistant professor of Hebrew Bible. William Gilders, associate professor in Emory’s Department of Religion, was also a translator.
These Candler scholars, representing the largest faculty involvement of any seminary, joined a group of 120 biblical experts from 24 denominations throughout the country. The translation process was highly collaborative, with each biblical book receiving multiple rounds of review.
The first translator produced a draft from the original texts; a second translator reviewed that, editing it and providing additional feedback. Next, the book was sent to a reading group composed of 5 to 10 people of various ages and denominational affiliations from all across the United States. Their task was to read the translated text aloud and make note of passages that were unclear. A readability editor collated these notes and applied additional comments on style and language. Finally, the work was sent to a member of the Board of Editors, who reviewed and reconciled all the comments.
Strawn, who experienced the process as both a translator and an editor, said that the collaborative effort of the large number of people involved, as well as their remarkable diversity, is what makes this translation special: “When I received the electronic file of a manuscript, it was a multi-colored document with comments from several people, from translators, to reading groups, to readability editors, to project editors. It was fascinating to watch these many people talk to each other through the comments and edits and to see how the translation was bettered through this remarkably complex process.”
Petersen agrees that the reading groups, which comprised 500 people, were invaluable. “Those comments were uniformly useful in clarifying translation issues. The groups helped create a translation that is more readable, which makes the Bible available to a younger and larger demographic.”
The Common English Bible was produced at roughly a 7th to 8th grade reading level (by comparison, USA Today reads at the 6th grade level), and it is the first translation to use contractions extensively in the text. Yet Petersen notes that translators were able to provide readability without sacrificing accuracy.
“If you look at a book like Psalms,” he said, “you’ll note that the poetry remains vivid and the metaphoric quality remains intact. There are shorter sentences, though, which makes it easier to read.”
The translation process began in 2007, and the complete Bible – Old Testament, New Testament, and Apocrypha – was made available in print and electronic versions in summer 2011. The Common English Bible Committee, an alliance of five denominational publishing houses, sponsored the translation.
Strawn believes this interdenominational effort on the part of the translators and the publishers has produced a Bible that everyone – regardless of faith or age – can read and enjoy.
“It was a great privilege to work on what will hopefully be the version of the Bible that many people will treasure. I’m thankful for the opportunity to be part of something that will represent God’s word in their lives.”