Interview with Dr. Brent Strawn on the Common English Bible

Dr. Brent A. Strawn is an Associate Professor of Old Testament at Emory University in the Chandler School of Theology.  He is widely published, and also happens to be one of the co-editors of the Common English Bible.  Dr. Strawn has been kind enough to address some of my questions about the Common English Bible as they relate to the translation of the Old Testament/Hebrew Bible.

For the English speaking world there are a plethora of translations of the Bible available, why the need for another translation? What does the CEB bring to the table that other translations do not?

Several things come to mind. First and foremost is the natural change that happens to all languages over time. Our parlance is far from Shakespeare’s of course (and thus from the KJV, which is contemporaneous), but it is also far from the language used in the RSV of the mid-20th century. Every so often, then, we need new translations to reflect changes in our language. This leads to a second, not unrelated reason (and an answer to your second question), the concern of the CEB with “common English” (the title says it all!). By this title we mean only that the language used is normal, everyday English (at least of the North American variety; the translators and reading groups were all from North America, not, say, the UK or other parts of the English-speaking world) and common also in the sense that it is highly accessible. Indeed, attention to reading level, and a reading level that meets the needs of the vast majority of English speakers, whatever their age (or even their first language), is a distinctive contribution of the CEB. Put simply, many readers—even adult, native English speakers—do not feel comfortable with the reading level of many other translations because the language used in those translations is too high or formal or “non-common.” The CEB helps correct that problem. Finally, let me add that the CEB brings to the table the largest and most diverse (in terms of denominational/theological tradition, ethnicity, and gender) team of translators and reading consultants ever assembled.

What is the translation philosophy of the CEB (i.e. formal equivalent, dynamic equivalent, or free translation)?

Translation philosophy and practice is a moving target. One person’s formal equivalent is another’s dynamic equivalent and perhaps yet another’s borderline paraphrase! Internally we often used the phrase “functional equivalent” which is not in your list above, but would correspond most closely, in your categories, to that of dynamic equivalence. I think it is safe to say, however, that at times, and when appropriate, translators “leaned” (but no more than that!) toward the freer end of the functional/dynamic equivalent spectrum. The result is something that is more dynamic than, say, KJV/RSV/NRSV/ESV, but far more constrained (by the original) than freer translations like the NLT or paraphrases like the Message. This is a difficult balancing act, but I think the CEB got it right more often than not.

The CEB is billed as a fresh translation, and not an updating of a previous version. I would imagine that means that your translators are not tethered to a particular reading, and that they are free to explore different translation options. Are there any CEB renderings in the Old Testament that readers of other modern English versions might be surprised by?

Your surmise is correct. Unlike, say the NRSV (or even the KJV!), there was no preexisting translation that the CEB was beholden to, that we were updating, revising, etc. That said, translators were free to consult any and all preexisting translations, if they so desired. I did that frequently, not only in my translation work but also in my editorial work for the CEB. Such use was more sporadic and random, I suspect, than systematic so there is no one (or two or three) “relay translations” (in the technical sense). Instead, the CEB has truly fresh translations from the original texts with the full benefit of the latest in biblical scholarship as that is manifested in other translations or in scholarly commentaries. To speak directly to your question, though, yes, there are a host of fresh renderings in the OT that I’m sure readers will be surprised by, but hopefully in the best and most-pleasing way! There are too many to list here, but 1 Kings 19:12 jumps immediately to mind. In the NRSV what Elijah hears is the “sound of sheer silence”; in the NIV, it is a “gentle whisper”; in the KJV/NKJV, it’s a “still small voice.” The CEB translates as follows: “After the earthquake, there was a fire. But the LORD wasn’t in the fire. After the fire, there was a sound. Thin. Quiet.”

That’s quite different than most other translations and the surprise comes not only in the word-choices but also in the punctuation. The result is something very fresh and evocative, not to mention accurate.

Do you see any unique challenges specifically related to translating the Old Testament/Hebrew Bible into a modern readable style?

Translation is difficult work period. I don’t know if one language is more difficult than another per se, though each presents its own set of problems. The lack of correspondence between the English verbal system, which is temporally based on “tenses,” vs. the Hebrew verbal system, which is not based on tense, is well known and probably the largest difficulty facing translators of the Old Testament/Hebrew Bible into English.

Were you directly involved with translating any Old Testament books? If so which book(s) did you work on?

I was on the translation team for Deuteronomy. I was also academic editor for 11 books of the Old Testament (Leviticus, 1-2 Samuel, 1-2 Kings, 2 Chronicles, Psalms, Ecclesiastes, Song of Solomon, Lamentations, Daniel).

How large was the team of scholars working specifically on the Old Testament?

Large! I don’t have the figures in front of me, but the translation team total was about 120. The majority of that belongs to the Old Testament and Old Testament Apocrypha.

Metaphors from another language, culture, and time are notoriously difficult to translate into a new context. I know metaphor and metaphoric theory is an academic interest of yours. Would you mind explaining to my readers how you personally translate Hebrew metaphors, and (if it differs) how the CEB translates Hebrew metaphors?

I don’t have a quick response to this question but, in the main, I wouldn’t treat metaphors any differently, translation-wise, than any other bit of text. That is, in all cases a translator is concerned with adequate understanding of the source language and adequate expression (under the guiding translation theory) of the same in the target language. I will say that in the case of the CEB we paid particular attention to imagistic language. We didn’t want to flatten such language, even though we wanted to translate it.

The last question is not about the CEB, but do you have any future publications that we can expect to see in the future?

I am working on a number of other projects right now, including a number of editorial projects. One of the latter that should appear later this year is an edited collection devoted to the Bible and the study of happiness. That should be fun!

I’d like to take this opportunity to thank Dr. Strawn for interacting with my questions about his work, and helping us better understand what the CEB is all about.  Thank you, Dr. Strawn for your time and input.

You can win a free copy of the CEB to explore on your own, by leaving a comment under this post.  For an additional entry into this drawing, make a hyperlink to this post on your personal blog.  The winning entry will be drawn the following Monday.

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