Fierce debate has raged over the past few days about a Bible translation project into Jamaican Patois – mother-tongue of millions of Jamaicans (see here and here for coverage in the UK press). Should God’s word be translated into Patois? Should we be encouraging people to use “lesser forms” of English?
Interestingly the same debate happens all over the world in hundreds of translation projects, just without the media spotlight that has fallen on Jamaica due to the fact that the language involved is one that has developed from English.
One of the issues highlighted by the press – the fact that the scriptures could be diluted – is a common opinion when the target language is seen by some to be of lower prestige than the existing language of the Bible. When God has been speaking a foreign language your whole life, to hear him speaking as a close friend or a next-door neighbour can be a disconcerting and even shocking experience.
But to reject translation on these grounds is to misunderstand what Jesus did in coming to earth. He took on the form of a man, and became one of us. As Christians we believe that Jesus was God, and the fact that he was born in human form didn’t make him any less divine. He was God in human form, in a way that we as humans can relate to and understand.
Which is surely what Bible translation is all about – God presenting himself in a form that we can relate to and understand, in a medium that is used in every day life. The very heart of Christianity is that God became one of us, and is calling all people to himself, regardless of nation, language, social status or education.
Another objection is that Jamaicans should be encouraged to speak standard English and not a “modified version”. But this underestimates the tendency of languages to constantly evolve with new languages being born and others dying, and is especially ironic given the fact that English itself developed from other dominant languages of the time and was considered a low-prestige variety when it was first written down.
In many parts of the world governments push education in the official national language, often to the detriment of minority local languages, many of which are facing extinction. Although these language policies are often with good motives – to preserve national unity and facilitate higher education and business – the end effect of suppressing minority languages is the loss of rich cultural diversity and the loss of identity of minority peoples.
Those of us who have the Bible in our language know of a God who became one of us, who wants to relate to us on a personal level, who has created us with incredible diversity, and who longs to lift up the poor and marginalised. In light of God’s character, Bible translation is not just necessary for the church, but reflects the very heart of God’s mission.