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"We affirm and avow that the very meanest translation of the Bible in Engli containeth the Word of God, nay is the Word of God."

If this judgment—taken from The Translators to the Reader of the 1611 King James Version—is true, then what ultimately distinguishes one English translation from another is the matter of style.

With rare exception, modern English translations of the Bible use the same scholarly Hebrew and Greek texts, though for various reasons translators frequently decide upon different readings. This is perfectly legitimate, especially in the translation of those passages that the KJV translators described as either "difficult or doubtful." However, in modern English Bibles there is frequently less agreement in the restructuring than in the choice of text, except when translators prefer to be "as literal as possible" and/or reflect certain linguistic features of the KJV tradition.

When I was invited by the American Bible Society to initiate the Contemporary English Version, my first response was, "Why another translation?" Then I examined a number of English Bibles and discovered that none of them—ancient or modern—were truly "ear-oriented" translations.

Style was the clue for the new translation! This involved creating and crafting a text with features that other English translators are yet to consider, such as: (1) poetry lines improperly broken often result in misunderstanding on the part of the hearer, (2) punctuation marks cannot be heard, and (3) a sequence of more than three unaccented syllables is difficult to read aloud. However, the most unique stylistic feature of this translation is found in its poetic format, which does not slavishly reproduce the repetitious and often monotonous a-b-a-b pattern of biblical Hebrew, but instead introduces a variety of line arrangements as in present-day poetry, while simultaneously aiming at economy of words and exactness of language.

The good news is that translation projects in Latin America, Africa, Asia, and Europe are now enthusiastically embracing these and other CEV principles that aim at oral readability, aural comprehension, and aesthetic appeal.

Barclay M. Newman

Senior Translations Officer

American Bible Society

Citation: Barclay M. Newman, " What Translation Is," SBL Forum , n.p. [cited July 2005]. Online:


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