Stirring it up in Jamaica

A project to translate the Bible into Jamaican patois is causing a bit of a stir; even reaching to the hallowed pages of the Daily Telegraph in the UK. Probably the best places to read about the controversy are in Jamacia Gleaner or in my friend Bertram Gayle’s blog. Bertram is the project leader for this translation and has recently completed some translation courses at the European Training Programme.

If you don’t want to chase down the sources above, here is my take on the issue. There are three main arguements being raised as to why the Bible shouldn’t be translated into Patois.

Patois isn’t a Real Language.

An article in the Jamaican Gleaner from November 2003 claims that Jamaican Patois “is not a language … [but] merely degenerate English”. This sort of thing is often claimed about creole languages. Creoles are languages with clear roots in one or two other languages, but which have developed their own grammar and sound systems over time. Because Jamaican Patois uses a lot of words which are clearly of English origin, it is easy for English speakers to view it as a simplified form of English, but it is far from that. You can read more about the valid nature of Patois as a language in the Jamaican Gleaner and this interesting editorial from the Daily Telegraph points out that Patois has more of a right to be called a language than Lowland Scots, which already has a Bible Translation. Another interesting fact is that the translation of the Bible is often something which helps to regularise the way in which a language is written down, so this project will probably help to formalise Patois to some extent.

It is Too Expensive.

The project is projected to cost about $60 million over twelve years, which is a lot of money. The cartoon to the right shows what the Jamaican Prime Ministerthinks of this. Actually, I agree with the PM’s point of view, what are our priorities? For me, making God’s word available to those that don’t have it should always be one of the Church’s highest priorities. I don’t expect the state to take an interest in this – why would they? But if the Bible truly is God’s word then we will be prepared to pay what it costs to make it available to those that don’t yet have it.

It Demeans the Bible.

The Gleaner reports that people…

have spoken out against the project, either claiming that it is too expensive a venture or that translating the Bible into Jamaican, a backward and broken language, is a complete and utter waste of time. Still others have argued that the attempt would negatively affect the ‘sacredness’ of biblical texts.

This is the most misguided of all of the arguments against this project. The ‘sacredness’ of the Biblical text does not lie in the type of language that is used. The Bible was written in three languages and in lots of different literary styles. There is high flying complex rhetoric and poetry and there is down to earth story telling and not a few rude words. When the New Testament writers came to record their thoughts and experiences, they did not choose to use Classical, Homeric Greek (their equivalent of King James Bible or Shakespearian English) they used ordinary, everyday Greek. The idea that the message of the Bible can only be expressed in classical sounding language is simply wrong.

What’s more, insisiting that the sacredness of the text requires a sacred language is tied to a failure to understand who God is and what he has done. As I’ve written elsewhere (here, here and here for starters) the translation of the Scriptures is tied to the divine act of Translation when the Son of God became a man. The Son of God was born in a stable, laid to sleep in a feed trough, lived as a servant and died a criminal’s death. This is the extent to which God loves us and is willing to stoop down to our level – compared to what he has already done, translating the Scriptures into Jamaican Patois is hardly humbling God or his Word any further.

Matthew 8:1-4

1 Wen Jiizas kom dong aafa i moutn Ii did a tiich pan waa uol hiip a piipl did a fala bak a Im. 2 Roun da taim de, waa man wid waa bad-bad skin diziiz kum op tu Jiizas, bow dong in front a Im fi shuo ii rispek aa se, “Laad, ef Yu waant fi mek mi get kliin, Yu wel aa ielb fi dwiit.” 3 Jiizas trech out Ii an, toch di man aa se tu im, “Mi waa fi dwiit. Ton kliin.” Siem taim di man skin beta-op.

4 Aafta dat apn Jiizas se tu im, “Mek shuor se yu no tel nobadi bout we mi jos du; ongl go shuo yuself tu di priis aa tek wid yu di afring Muoziz se piipl fi tek wid dem wen dee skin diziiz get beta. I gwai bi a proof tu di piipl dem.  Read More.

8 thoughts on “Stirring it up in Jamaica

  1. I’ve always thought you could make quite a good case for English originating in an Anglo-Saxon / Norman French creole, so give it a few centuries and we might end up with a patois KJV equivalent.

  2. I am all for a translation. Could people (rich ones) donate money to the cause?

    Don’t Jamaicans speak, read and write French? How many people are there that would benefit from the translation?

    Is that $60 million in dollars? That is a lot of money.

  3. I can see you’ve been keeping up with the project, Eddie.

    Most persons seem to have taken issue with the second point.

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