In particular, Paul Franklyn claims that “[r]eading measurements are a measure of the writer’s clarity.” The CEB, he claims, aims for a 7th-8th grade reading level not because of their readers’ intelligence, but because the editors of the CEB wanted to create a translation that offers a “smooth, natural, and clear reading experience.” In other words, their goal is not (just) a translation for poor readers, but rather a better translation for all readers.
As with any new translation, two questions present themselves: Is the approach valid, and does the translation succeed in achieving the theoretical goals? If the answer to the first question is “no” — that is, if the goals aren’t desirable in the first place — the second question becomes less interesting.
So the first question for the CEB is this: Do we always want the translation to be simple? My view is that we do not, because I think part of accuracy in translation is conveying the reading level of the original.
I understand that this is exceedingly difficult in practice: How do we determine the level of the original Hebrew and Greek? What counts as the same level in English? If the Hebrew of the OT (or part of it) was aimed at an elite class, do we look to the elite today and similarly write the translation for the elite? Or do we recognize that reading is (probably) more widespread today than it once was, and look to the parallel reading class of today? Is it possible that complex Greek was the norm, and that simple English is (becoming?) the norm? If so, should normal Greek become normal English, or should complex Greek become complex English? And so forth.
But in spite of these obstacles, I think we have a general sense that some parts of the Bible are simple prose, some more complex prose, and some poetry. Some of the text is simple, and some is complex. I think these distinctions — among others — should be preserved, and I think that the goal of a “smooth, natural, and clear” translation makes it harder to capture these variations. In other words, I think parts of the Bible may have been at what we would call a 7th-8th grade reading level, but other parts are more complex. Shouldn’t the translation reflect those differences?
Some translations have (rightly, in my opinion) been criticized for being overly complex, archaic, or even ungrammatical in standard English. But that doesn’t mean that the fix is simply to simplify these translations. Just as an idiomatic translation can be wrong, so too can a simple one.
I’ve only just glanced at the new CEB translation of Matthew (available on-line here), so I’ll have more organized and thorough thoughts soon, but as I was paging through it, I saw this:
After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judah during the reign of King Herod, magi came from the east to Jerusalem. [2:1]
This surprised me, because one of the goals of the CEB is to provide a translation in elementary English. The preface notes:
The CEB is presented at an average 7th grade reading level, with most books (e.g., Matthew) scoring in the 6th grade range. [Emphasis in original.]
So I have to wonder: Is an irregular plural of a rare word compatible with the goals of the CEB? What were the other considerations that made more common English translations undesirable here? Wouldn’t “maguses” work just as well (or as poorly)? Should “magi” (or maybe even the Greek magoses?) be italicized, to give readers a clue that it’s not an English word (which for most people it isn’t)?
While we’re at it, I also have to wonder if the point is “magi came from the east,” or “magi from the east came….” I tend to think it’s the latter, that is, that “from the east” describes where the people were from, not where they were coming from.
(And by the way, I think the version on-line is still a draft. For example, still in verse 2:1 ioudaia is translated “Judah” — perhaps having been confused with ioudas — even though in 2:5 it’s the more common “Judea.”)
[Update: More more about the CEB is available on BBB here.]
Not long ago, I asked about the merit of tailoring translations to children. When I starting reading about the new CEB translation, and in particular that “[t]he new Bible translation would be pitched at 7th-8th grade reading level (compare 11th-12th grade reading level for the NRSV),” I started thinking about what children’s translations and poor-readers’ translations have in common.
Clearly some of the issues are different: Unlike children, adults with poor reading skills may still be able to understand the adult topics of the Bible. (Barrenness was one example I gave regarding children.) Reading skills may or may not correlate with aural comprehension. And so forth.
But in many ways the two questions are alike. Should poor readers be given the impression that it doesn’t take much to understand the Bible? Is there merit to teaching people that they will understand the Bible better if they learn to read better? Can the messages of the Bible be accurately conveyed in 7th-grade-level writing?
Does the Bible have an inherent reading level? (I think it must — though I think it varies from passage to passage.) And if so, isn’t the reading level of an accurate translation already determined by the original text?