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American Bible Society

Today's English Version and the Good News Bible: A Historical Sketch


I.                   INTRODUCTION 

The Bible in Today’s English Version constituted a new and extraordinarily successful method of communicating the Scriptures to a wide audience.  According to the forward accompanying the publication of the Good News Bible in 1976, the translation sought to “give today’s readers maximum understanding of the content of the original texts.”  Rather than following the “traditional vocabulary and style found in the historic English Bible versions,” the translators hoped to attract a whole new group of 20th century readers by presenting the Bible in a fundamentally new way.  They used a "standard, everyday, natural form of English" and aimed at a broad, inclusive audience.  Distribution statistics, critical acclaim, and scholarly acceptance all testify to the wisdom of their efforts.

The Good News Bible did not suddenly appear in the bookstores, nor was its success a mere historical accident.  Its production really reflected the emergence of new theories in modern translations work, the perception of new needs by the nation’s religious community, and a series of positive and carefully considered commitments by American Bible Society administrators.  While the volume’s overwhelming acceptance and commercial success surprised even its sponsors, the Society had recognized the importance, novelty, and potential impact of this new endeavor from the very beginning.  By the time the Good News Bible celebrated its 10th anniversary on 21 July 1986, that name had become synonymous with Bible study for many dedicated readers in the United States and abroad.


II.                 Initial Impulses

Today’s English Version really emerged from the coalescence of several related, yet divergent, developments in the early 1960’s.  A group of mid-twentieth century translators, connected with the American Bible Society and United Bible Societies, had been heavily influenced by, and in fact helped shape the direction of, contemporary linguistic theory.  They strove to produce versions which remained more sensitive to the need of receptor audiences than many transitional works.  Influential methodological contributions, including Eugene A. Nida’s Bible Translating (1947) and William Wonderly’s Bible Translations for Popular Use (1968) stressed a new approach to translations, summarized in the phrase "dynamic equivalence.”  Nida, who began his career with the American Bible Society in 1944 and assumed principal responsibility for the Translations Department in 1946, has defined “dynamic equivalence” as a way to “stimulate in the new reader essentially the same reaction to the text as the original author wished to produce in his “first and immediate readers.”  Bible translators hoped to produce versions in a “common language,” which Nida defined as “the language common to both the professor and the janitor, the business executive and the gardener, the socialite and the waiter.”  They worked toward defining the level of language which constituted an “overlap area” between literary discourse and ordinary, day-to-day usage.

Translators utilizing the principal of “dynamic equivalence” had been at work in Latin America since the 1940’s, attempting to construct a version for new literates, bilingual Indians, people with a limited knowledge of Spanish, and formally educated residents who desired a more “readable” version. Simplified selections from the Gospels appeared in 1947, the Gospel of Luke in preliminary form was published in 1954, and New Testament portions were translated subsequently.  The unanticipated popular acclaim accorded these portions, especially in the more cosmopolitan urban centers, testified to the desire for “common language” Scriptures by large segments of the reading public.  Work in the region continued, and in May 1966, the Bible Societies of Latin America completed the Version Popular, the first complete New Testament published in a “common” linguistic level in any language.

While William Wonderly and his colleague labored in Latin America and hammered out the communications principles which would ultimately result in the Version Popular, a very different kind of work had begun in Africa.  Annie Cressman, a missionary of the Pentecostal Assemblies of Canada stationed in Liberia, observed the need for a simplified English translation of the Scriptures geared toward new readers in that country.

Accordingly, she began a project to simplify the language of the King James Version into a common form of standard English.  Cressman made no attempt to produce a new translation from the Greek texts, but rather hoped to present the words of Mark and John in a readable format for ordinary people in Liberia.  She avoided regional dialects, used short sentences without subordinate clauses, and aimed at a common level of vocabulary.  The American Bible Society’s Translation Department cooperated with her work, reviewing the manuscript prior to her publication of the Acts of the Apostles in 1959.  The Society subsequently published Crressman’s Gospel of John under the title “He Gave His Only Son” in 1962, and the volume proved popular in Liberia and elsewhere.

By the early 1960’s, it had become apparent that “common language” versions might satisfy important needs in more industrialized countries, as well as in the nations of the Third World.  In November 1961, for example, Rev. M. Wendell Belew, a member of the staff of the Home Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention, wrote to Dr. Nida concerning new literates and foreign language groups in the United States.  Belew believed the Scriptures “translated for the 4th grade level” would constitute an important resource for English-as-a-Second-Language readers, and formally suggested that the ABS consider such work.  Similar inquiries and suggestions had been received from overseas locations for years, but the Society appeared willing to act in 1961.  The tremendous success of Spanish language common version, the popularity of Cressman’s work in Liberia, the growing ESL population on the united States, and the recognition that a “common language” translation would introduce countless new readers to the Scriptures all persuaded Bible Society administrators to undertake this new venture.  Within two week’s of Belew’s request, Dr. Nida responded favorably and recommended to General Secretary Laton Holmgren that the ABS develop “a translation of the New Testament into simple English.”  Holmgren remarked on December 4 that “any specific proposal for a simple English translation for use among new readers at home and abroad would receive the hearty endorsement of the Board of Managers,” and encouraged Nida with the exhortation “Let’s go!”


III.              Creating Today’s English Version

The concept of a “common language” English version received an enthusiastic reception from American Bible Society administrators, but work could not begin until a skilled translator agreed to undertake responsibility for the project.  Eugene Nida turned to a colleague in the Translations Office of the American Bible Society to accomplish this task.  Robert Galveston Bratcher was born in Campos, Brazil, on April 17, 1920, of missionary parents.  He received his B.A. from Georgetown College in Kentucky in 1941, and subsequently studied theology at Southern Baptist Seminary in Louisville, earning a Th.M (1944) and Th.D. (1949).  Bratcher served as pastor of Rising Sun Baptist Church in Rising Sun, Indiana, from 1943 through 1944, but his life’s labors carried him far from the rigors and routines of pastoral life.  Following a tenure as Chaplain in the United States Navy, he returned to Brazil in 1949 as a missionary of the Southern Baptist Convention.  While in Brazil, he taught New Testament Language and Literature at Rio de Janeiro’s Baptist Theological Seminary and published a book entitled Land of Many Worlds.  Bratcher began work as a research consultant in the American Bible Society’s Translations Department in 1957, following a year of graduate research at Victoria University in Manchester, England.  By 1961, Robert Bratcher had earned a solid reputation for sound Biblical scholarship.  He also gathered valuable translations experience as a member of a committee to revise the Portuguese d’Almeida version, and had coauthored a Translator’s Handbook on the Gospel of Mark in 1961.

Bratcher immediately began work on a “pilot” translation of the Epistle to Ephesians, and presented his results to a group of Translations Consultants assembled in a Sunday School room of the Madison Avenue Baptist Church in New York.  Translation Secretary Nida subsequently recalled that the room came equipped “with blackboard, chalk, copies of text, some commentaries and a good supply of coffee.”  Today’s English Version remained the primary responsibility of Robert Bratcher, but he benefited along the way from the advice, counsel, and commentary of the American Bible Society’s and British & Foreign Bible Society’s Translations Consultants.  On September 16, 1963, the ABS Translations Committee recommended the publication of Bratcher’s Gospel of Mark, and it appeared under the title The Right Time on October 16th of the following year.  The American Bible Society also sought the advice of the Protestant churches through its Advisory Council.  In November 1963, ABS officers asked the Council to consider a proposal that the Society publish the New Testament in “simplified English,” primarily for ESL users.  They circulated unidentified samples of 3 texts for the first chapter of Mark among Council members, and Bratcher’s version won overwhelming approval.

Scholarly and technical assistance also came from other quarters.  In April 1964, the Translations Committee appointed a Consultative Committee to assist Bratcher by reviewing copies of is drafts.  Members included:  the Rev. Howard M. Beardslee (formerly a missionary in West Africa); the Rev. Dr. Hugo Culpepper (formerly a missionary in Latin America and the Philippines); the Rev. Howard K. Moulton (Deputy Translations Secretary of the British & Foreign Bible Society); Dr. Frederic J. Rex (of the Literature and Literacy Department of the National Council of Churches in the U.S.A.); and the Rev. Howard Clark Kee (professor at Drew Theological Seminary).  The Society also employed Dorothy Tyler of Detroit, an experienced literary critic, to read the entire manuscript and comment on matters of correct English usage and natural style.

Bratcher also benefited from the work of a group of four internationally renowned Biblical scholars, who prepared a Greek New Testament for the United Bible Societies in 1966.  The UBS team based its work on the most ancient manuscripts available, and the resulting text remained faithful to the older and better documents than the Textus Receptus utilized by the King James translators in 1611.  Bratcher’s use of the Greek New Testament insured that Today’s English Version would rest on the best and most current Biblical scholarship, and that various changes, additions, and deletions which had corrupted Greek manuscripts over the centuries, could be eliminated.

Still, Bratcher himself carried on the actual translation work and the appearance of Good News for Modern Man on September 15, 1966, remained a tribute to his personal dedication and scholarship.  Adhering to the principle of “dynamic equivalence,” Bratcher rejected a translation tradition “in which verbal consistency and formal equivalence often take precedence over natural and idiomatic usage of the English language.” His style conformed to written, rather than spoken English, and carefully avoided slang, regional dialects, provincial phrases, and terms which restricted the version utility for general English language users.  Convinced that “it is worse than folly always to translate a given Greek word by the same word in English,” Bratcher searched the Scripture for contextual information before making final decisions on specific words and phrases.  Most important, he wished to avoid “being vague and ambiguous” and did not shy away from making choices “and more difficult choices, than those made by traditional versions, which often are (deliberately, sometimes) ambiguous.”

Today’s English Version certainly sounded very different from earlier English language translations; physically, it looked very different as well.  It contained section headings, references to other parallel passages in the Bible, notes which explained alternative interpretations of passages, information concerning the historical background, customs and cultural objects of Biblical times, a word list, a chronological table, and historical maps.  Such information did not constitute doctrinal commentary, but rather a recognition that contemporary readers did not share widespread knowledge of the cultural traditions and milieu within which the New Testament had been written.  The aim, as Nida pointed out, had been to lead “people to the text, with the hope that the text of the Scriptures may thus speak effectively to those who wish to find the way to God in the Word of God.”

Perhaps the most striking physical innovation in Today’s English Version concerned the innovative use of line drawings and illustrations by Swiss artist Annie Vallotton.  Vallotton was born in Lausanne, the daughter of a well-known Swiss Protestant writer.  Her illustrations for a selection of Gospel verses published by the French Bible Society brought her to the attention of ABS officials.  Dr. Nida had several conversations with her in Europe early in 1964, and on May 7 of that year the Board of Managers approved the inclusion of the line drawings she submitted in the forthcoming Gospel of Mark, as well as in the full TEV.  Vallotton summarizes her artistic philosophy in three very basic phrases: “use a simple line; reduce it to minimum; give it maximum expression.”  Modern literature, she observed, “is attractive, it is colourful… [it] first solicits the reader to take a glance at it, then entices him to start reading.”  Traditional Scriptures, by contrast, typically appeared “in dull grey columns of tiny characters and in a language often so terribly anarchic.”  Vallotton believed that the Bible should be given “a new loook” and hoped her illustrations might stimulate modern readers to pick it up, find that “its teaching is always relevant and useful, and to try to find parallels with men of today and their daily experiences.”  The simple lines, universal movements and gestures, and powerful renditions aimed not to replace the written word, but to force readers to react to and confront the text, viewing the language in a new way.  She provided an important visual complement to the linguistic theory informing the version’s production.

By September 1965, Today’s English Version had a text and illustrations, but it still needed a name and a cover.  General Secretary Laton E. Holmgren recalled, in a 1968 interview with the Christian Herald, that the issue of a suitable cover for the paperback edition occasioned considerable anxiety.  One night, while reading the evening paper in his Manhattan apartment, Holmgren received an inspiration: modern man obtained most of his information from headlines and newspapers.  If the Gospel announced “good news,” then the TEV might proclaim this in its title and its cover.  Holmgren quickly “jumped out of bed, threw on his clothes, hurried down to Times Square and bought an armful of out-of-town newspapers.”  Clipping apart the mastheads, he created a montage and immediately called the ABS Art Director with his own “good news.”  The issue had been settled, and the TEV translation would subsequently by identified with the phrase Good News for Modern Man.


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