Back in June, I praised the NABRE Psalms for their beauty and lyrical quality. Another one of my favorite translations of the Psalms is the Common English Bible (CEB) — for very different reasons. The CEB Psalms wear raw emotion on their sleeve. None of it is masked under formal language or poetic style. If the Psalms sometimes seem distant to you, or if you find yourself distracted while reading a familiar psalm, I highly recommend the CEB for a change of pace. Given the formal language that most translations use in the Psalms, you might find the CEB off-putting, but if you can get past the contractions and the conversational tone, the punchy language can be truly moving. I remember the first time I read Psalm 22 in the CEB, I was at the point of tears. Here’s a snippet, but I recommend reading the psalm in its entirety (you can look up any passage of the CEB for free on the CEB website).
But I'm just a worm, less than human;
insulted by one person, despised by another.
All who see me make fun of me --
they gape, shaking their heads:
"He committed himself to the LORD,
so let God rescue him;
let God deliver him
because God likes him so much."
But you are the one who pulled me from the womb,
placing me safely at my mother's breasts.
I was thrown on you from birth;
you've been my God
since I was in my mother's womb.
Please don't be far from me,
because trouble is near
and there's no one to help Psalm 22:6-11 CEB
As a more upbeat example, take a look at the first few verses of Psalm 91, which is used every Sunday for night prayer in the Liturgy of the Hours:
Living in the Most High's shelter,
camping in the Almighty's shade,
I say to the LORD, "You are my refuge, my stronghold!"
You are my God -- the one I trust!"
God will save you from the hunter's trap
and from deadly sickness.
God will protect you with his pinions;
you'll find refuge under his wings.
His faithfulness is a protective shield.
Don't be afraid of terrors at night,
arrows that fly in daylight,
or sickness that prowls in the dark,
destruction that ravages at noontime. Psalm 91:1-6 CEB
The CEB psalms are unmistakably raw prayers from the heart. Check them out! I highly recommend them.
13 thoughts on “In Praise of the CEB Psalms”
I have tried reading the CEB, and I found the language so bad that it was offputting and it became almost physically painful to read. I am not a fan.
Amen to that!
The CEB is definitely a polarizing translation, and I think a lot of people would agree with you. The word choices are simply too pedestrian and idiosyncratic for many readers. I find the use of contractions throughout the entire text to be off-putting. They seem out-of-place and too informal. I’m puzzled by why they chose to use them so widely, since modern writers usually don’t use contractions unless they’re writing dialogue (or informal internet comments!). But on the other hand, I don’t find them unbearably grating. I think the CEB Psalms are worth a try for readers who are willing to put up with a very unusual style and language. The power of the language can be truly startling and moving.
One thing to keep in mind is that the CEB, like the NLT, the GNT, and several other modern translations, is not actually written with adult readers in mind, it is not so much a children’s Bible, as it is a Bible designed for people who can’t read at an adult level, which is why the language is so simple. It is written at about a 6th-grade reading level, compared to the RSV, NRSV, and ESV which are written at a 12th-grade reading level.
I guess it is a trend that concerns me that so many modern Biblical translations, and indeed, books are written for a general audience, seem to be written at a lower and lower reading level. Compare, for example, an author like Stephanie Meyer or Dan Brown to authors that were popular at the time the RSV was published, authors like Flannery O’Connor, Graham Greene, Evelyn Waugh, and it is difficult to deny that there has been a decline in the quality of popular writing. Bible translations seem to be following that general trend.
I think that the simplistic language of version like the CEB or the NLT may be helpful for people who are Biblically illiterate and are trying to study scripture for the first time, but I think once you gain some familiarity, it is good to move up to a more challenging translation like the RSV or ESV. I am concerned about Christians who read something like the NLT as their only Bible and never beyond it.
Actually, I’, now starting to think that I may have been a little unfair, in comparing literary luminaries like Flannery O’Connor, Graham Green and Evelyn Waugh with Stephanie Meyer or Dan Brown. After all, I just compared high literature with popular slop. Graham Green et al were popular, but were they popular with mass audiences or only with the educated elite? Hard to say. Surely, there was a lot of popular slop being written and sold even in the 1950’s, Mickey Spillane for example. And was the RSV really popular with general audiences the way that something like Stephanie Meyer novels are today? Again, I’m not sure that’s a valid comparison.
While I may have made a bad analogy, I think my point remains, it is a little distressing to me that the trend in Biblical translation these days is to try to make the language more and more ‘simple’ and lowering the reading level as a result. Surely, these ‘simple’ translations have always been around, but they haven’t always been dominant like they are today.
It seems there is a ‘brain drain’ in contemporary Christianity, there is too much anti-intellectualism. While not a Catholic, nor addressed to a Catholic audience, Allan Bloom’s ‘The Closing of the American Mind’ and Mark Noll’s ‘The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind’, both about an apparent intellectual decline in contemporary society, come to mind.
I take a little bit of issue with the NLT being lumped in with the CEB and GNT as a translation, “not actually written with adult readers in mind.” I did appreciate however, BC, that you did nuance your point, specifying that you aren’t necessarily implying that these are children’s translations.
I will admit that I have no skill to speak of in reading any of the original biblical languages, but I am someone who cut his teeth on translations like the RSV, KJV, Douai-Rheims, and finally the Knox, among others, as well as being a fan of classic literature like the Divine Comedy and the Brother’s Karamazov, before coming to the NLT. I had heard all the criticisms of it has a overly simplified translation, but I had the chance to pick up an Indian copy of the NLT:CE on the cheap so I thought I’d check it out.
Once I did, I was shocked at how nuanced I found the translation could be. I whole series of posts has been done on this site about the positives and negatives of translation, so I’ll refrain from a passage by passage citation, but suffice to say, that analysis seemed to indicate to me that the NLT has its moments of triumph as well as its some dramatic falls from grace, just like any other translation.
I guess to me, the NLT doesn’t strike me as aggressively simplified as the CEB or the GNT. It seems like its just trying to smooth out some difficult to understand passages from time to time. As evidence, I’d cite the fact that while the NLT does use contractions on occasion, it doesn’t seem to use them anywhere near as much as the CEB or GNT. And while I know it is a controverted topic as to whether translators even SHOULD be trying to smooth out difficult passages, I think, if as a reader you’re going to go for a translation like that, you could do a lot worse than the NLT.
When I switched in the NLT as my daily reader, I was struck by how often it seems to read like a much more formal translation most of the time, like the RSV or NAB. It’s only on occasion that I catch it’s attempts to smooth out passages, which I will admit, it does to varying degrees of success.
That all being said, I do like to switch up my daily reader about once a year or so, so I’d be curious to know if you, BC, or others have recommendations for other translations.
Good points. As the media expands the practice of speaking to the ‘least common denominator’, the average intelligence keeps moving downward. I run into too many young people who do not read anything past facebook. The current trend is to watch videos. Life has become too easy.
A little effort can go a long way. An example that comes to mind are the sets of bible book tabs that some people have sticking out from the edge of their bible. With a little bit of familiarity with the biblical table of contents, and a bit of practice, one can usually find a book in the bible within 3 tries. Develop this little skill and the tabs become more of a hinderance than a help. That being said, I have found a use for the thumb tabs on my latest New Oxford Annotated Bible: the extra scallops help select a single page to turn of that very thin paper !!!!!
There, I ended on a positive note.
“I take a little bit of issue with the NLT being lumped in with the CEB and GNT as a translation, “not actually written with adult readers in mind.”
It is important to note the historical origins of the Living Bible. It originated when Kenneth Taylor was trying to read the King James Bible to his children when they had difficulty understanding it, he switched to the American Standard Version, when they had difficulty with that, he tried the Revised Standard Version, when they didn’t understand that either, he decided to paraphrase the American Standard Version, these paraphrases became the basis for the first edition of The Living Bible.
In the 90’s, when straight out paraphrase started to become unfashionable, he decided to sponsor a translation which would be in the same style and have the same readability of The Living Bible, this became the Living Translation in 1996. This 1996 edition, long out of print, has been criticized as being not a real translation at all, but merely a revision of the 1971 text with the word ‘translation’ slapped on the front of it. There is a degree of truth to this, as the 1996 version carries over significant portions of the 1971 text virtually unchanged, but sometimes the critics did exaggerate the degree to which this happened.
However, further revisions in 2004, 2007 and 2015 significantly improved the text, fixing many of the problems of the 1996 text and improving its accuracy considerably, and also increasing the sophistication and the reading level of the text.
The current 2015 text of the NLT is not a dramatic improvement over the 1996 and 1971 texts and is a much better translation (I think by now it is fair to call it a real ‘translation’), but it does remain that the original intent of the Living Bible and its successors was to produce a ‘simpler’ Bible that would be easier to understand.
However, I think it is important to acknowledge the limitations of the NLT. The publishers recommend it only for private reading, they do not think it is appropriate to be read in church, and they do not think it should be anyone’s sole Bible, and they actually recommend supplementing it with a more literal version, like the RSV, the ESV or the NASB.
Bible scholar Craig Bloomberg, who was one of the main translators of the NLT, has actually gone so far as to say that he thinks the NLT is kind of a ‘training wheels’ translation, so to speak, that it is good for people who don’t have great reading skills, or are reading the Bible for the first time, but over time, they should move on to a more literal version.
I don’t agree fully with this critic’s views, in fact, I disagree with him on many points, but here is one critic’s assessment of the NLT:
I very much agree with your view of these psalms. Since these are prayers, reading them in contemporary conversational english seems to make them more personal. One’s mind seems to automatically take on the first person role of the speaker appealing to our Lord. Interesting.
I’ve read a sampling of some other OT books in the CEB online and decided it was not for me. I would rather seek understanding by reading several mainstream translations with their notes.
Great discussion! I’ve enjoyed reading the responses. It sounds like Mark and I have had a similar reaction to the CEB. The CEB Psalms are really interesting and useful for prayer. Their stark language and raw emotion can be powerful. But throughout the rest of the Bible, I’m not quite happy with the CEB. I think its broad use of contractions and informal language in places where it seems out of place are a turn-off.
I share BC’s preference for retaining complexity in a translation and not trying to smooth out all the rough edges. That’s one reason why I like the REB: it uses excellent English style, but it doesn’t attempt to dumb-down the language. It’s a translation that readers of excellent literature could love.
With all that said, BC, I’m going to push back on your point here: “I think that the simplistic language of version like the CEB or the NLT may be helpful for people who are Biblically illiterate and are trying to study scripture for the first time, but I think once you gain some familiarity, it is good to move up to a more challenging translation like the RSV or ESV.” I think a worthwhile caveat is: it depends on what the reader is aiming for. If you want to do in-depth, verse-by-verse study, then the RSV, NRSV, ESV, etc are good choices. But if you’re doing daily devotional reading or lectio divina, I think a simplified dynamic translation is just fine — or maybe even better, depending on the circumstance.
Scholars often recommend that people not rely solely on a dynamic translation. Eugene Peterson famously said that The Message should be used as a companion to another more traditional translation. But I believe those recommendations often discount the impact of hearing scripture expressed in more natural English. Dynamic translations often bring out the emotional power of a passage in stark relief, while literal translations might require a reader to intellectually study a passage to understand its emotional power. That’s a huge difference. Even if a person understands the power of a passage intellectually, the experience of reading the raw words of a well-done English translation is striking. So I maintain that even a well-studied Bible reader can glean value from a simplified dynamic translation.
The problem with that is that dynamic translations are simply not as accurate as more literal ones. Now, there are degrees of dynamism, some dynamic translations are not really very dynamic at all, while others, like The Message, are so dynamic that they sound like they are translating a completely different book from the Bible. I would place the REB and the Jerusalem and New Jerusalem Bibles on the ‘very light dynamism’ side of the scale, followed by the NIV, then the NLT, the GNT, and the Message.
There are certain features in any form of writing that cannot really be translated from one language to another, and one is forced to resort to some degree of paraphrase, but there is also stuff that cannot really be translated at all, except in a strictly literal sense.
One example of something that can really only be accomplished in a very literal translation is when a book is deliberately echoing itself. A good example of this would be L Frank Baum’s book ‘The Wonderful Wizard of Oz’. People who have never read this book often don’t believe me when I say that just like the movie, the book also starts out in black and white and then turns to color, but it’s true. In the opening chapter, the word ‘gray’ is repeated over and over again, but when Dorothy gets to Oz, he starts describing vibrant colors. If you were to translate this book into another language, it would be necessary, for the sake of accuracy, to use the same word, over and over again.
Now, this is a strict literary work, not the Bible, but the Bible often does the same thing, intentionally using the same word or phrase, over and over again. When this happens in the Bible, and it happens a lot, dynamic translators often say ‘well, this constant repetition of the same phrase over and over again is just bad writing, it may have been okay in Greek or Hebrew, but not in English’, and so everytime the word or phrase occurs, they translate it differently, for the sake of ‘diversity of expression’, when this happens, a great deal of meaning is lost.
An excellent example of this is the Gospel of Mark, in Mark, the action is always very fast, very swift, the transitions are brief to the point of being virtually nonexistent. Mark constantly says ‘immediately’, someone called for Jesus and ‘immediately’ he was there. Dynamic translations often remove the word ‘immediately’ because they think that a story in which everything happens ‘immediately’ is bad writing. Well, maybe it is, but that is what Mark wrote. Only literal translations which are concerned with trying to preserve as much of the original wording as possible really accurately reflect the sense of urgency in Mark.
Everything else being equal, a literal translation is going to be more accurate than a dynamic one.
Great discussion so far. I want to throw in my own question.
What do you all think of the Revised Grail Psalms?
Personally, I think they are the best translation when I compare them to the NAB, RSV, and even the NJB. In fact the Revised New Jerusalem Bible has incorporated them in its New Testament/Psalms volume that came out late last year. I find the Revised Grail Psalms excellent for prayer.
I’d love to hear your feedback.
Until now, I haven’t spent much time with the Revised Grail Psalms apart from hearing them sung at Mass. I’m waiting on purchasing the complete RNJB when it becomes available in early 2019, and I don’t have a standalone copy of the Revised Grail Psalms to refer to. I did some searching, though, and they are available for free online on the GIA Publications website here:
I spent some time reading through a variety of psalms on the GIA website. Overall, I’d say I like them. In some cases (such as Psalm 88) they are very similar to the original Grail Psalms from the US Liturgy of the Hours with only a few minor changes. Overall, I think they are very rhythmic, similar to the new NABRE psalms.