Brief Thoughts on the Contemporary English Version

The Contemporary English Version was published in full in 1995 by the American Bible Society. It aims to be reader friendly and was once given a Crystal Mark award from the Plain English Campaign for its accessibility and use of simple language. But as others have observed before, clear English does not guarantee accurate translation.

Although there are many positive aspects of the CEV, it tends to leave me disappointed more often than with other similar translations. Too many of the renderings just sound plain silly, as in the following cases (note the comparison with the NLT, a very fine dynamic translation):

CEV Prov 1:8-9 My child, obey the teachings of your parents, and wear their teachings as you would a lovely hat or a pretty necklace.
NLT Prov 1:8-9 My child, listen when your father corrects you. Don’t neglect your mother’s instruction. What you learn from them will crown you with grace and be a chain of honor around your neck.

CEV Isa 14:4 Then you will make fun of the King of Babylonia by singing this song: “That cruel monster is done for! He won’t attack us again.”
NLT Isa 14:4 You will taunt the king of Babylon. You will say, “The mighty man has been destroyed. Yes, your insolence is ended.”

Yet it’s not always like this: for the most part, the CEV is much more elegant but it’s this inconsistency in style that makes it all the more disappointing. If all the verses sounded like the above, it could stand by itself as a work similar to The Message but most of the time, it reads like the Good News Bible but with occasional inelegant verses thrown in. Moreover, verses like the above do seem to crop up at particularly sombre moments, as in the following passage where God’s wrath is portrayed in far too casual terms:

CEV Lev 26:27-28
Then if you don’t stop rebelling, I’ll really get furious and punish you terribly for your sins!
NLT Lev 26:27-28 If in spite of all this you still refuse to listen and still remain hostile toward me, then I will give full vent to my hostility. I myself will punish you seven times over for your sins.

Much more could be said about other issues but I’ll just mention them quickly: there are many peculiar terms e.g. “love flowers” in place of mandrakes in Gen 30:14; elsewhere, traditional words are changed without any good reason e.g. the overly restrictive “missionaries” in place of evangelists in Eph 4:11; there’s too much sloppiness of expression when speaking of God e.g. “the LORD sneers at those who sneer at him” in Prov 3:34; and sometimes it’s just plain wrong as in Rom 16:1 which leaves Phoebe designated as a “leader” (the Greek diakonos is best translated servant)

But my main point in all of this is to say that although the dynamic equivalence approach has great value, the quality of translations within this bracket varies considerably. For those who are looking for a Bible produced in the best spirit of dynamic equivalence, I recommend first the NLT, followed by the NIrV and the NCV. In comparison to these, the CEV feels too uneven in quality but I hope a future update will smooth it out.

This is part of a series of mini-reviews of Bible translations. Andy Cheung is a PhD student at the University of Birmingham researching Bible Translation, and a tutor in New Testament at the Midlands Bible College and Divinity School in the UK.

  1. Chris Lazenby

    Thanks for this review of the CEV; I do appreciate the work you put into these brief analyses of different translations and have found them all very helpful. As a frequent user of NLT, I’m also very glad to hear that you find it stacks up well against other, similar translations as I’ve been recommending it for some time, especially to new Christians, or those without much experience of regular Bible reading. The NLT (at least for the most part) is very transparent, often acting as a commentary on more serious versions. I feel in this regard, it has a use both for giving an alternative reading of difficult texts for those who are doing in-depth study, as well as for those who want an easy, straight-forward translation for daily use. Thanks again.

  2. Chris,

    Many thanks for your reply. I like the point you make about the NLT being like a commentary since that’s exactly what I say to other people. It’s especially good in this respect when it comes to Old Testament poetry because it explains the meaning of the verse very well. I would say that my main promotion of the NLT is in this purpose and also for reading extended long passages. It is perfect as a complement to something like the ESV.

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