Jamaican Patois Bible: An age-old debate

July 7th, 2008 by Mark

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.

For more information and opinions about the project, take a look at the blog of Bertram Gayle (one of the translators), and a post by Eddie Arthur looking at some of the issues involved.

Tags: , ,

8 Responses to “Jamaican Patois Bible: An age-old debate”

  1. […] How cool would it be to go to church and hear someone speak Jamaican Patois? Praises to the most High!!! To read more about the debate, click here. […]

  2. […] on from the discussions about the Jamaican Patois Bible, another creole Bible translation that has received less media attention is that of Solomon Islands […]

  3. Bertram says:

    Thank you very much for this post. Two sentences have stood out prominent in my mind:

    1) “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.”

    2) “In light of God’s character, Bible translation is not just necessary for the church, but reflects the very heart of God’s mission.”

    Today we had a very interesting breakfast with a number of Church leaders and personnel from a number of para-church organisations. I’ll let you know more later!

  4. Wendy says:

    A friend recently sent me this link and thought that I would find it interesting. I did!!

    But I do have a few questions:

    1. Who is the target audience for this translation?

    2. Will the target audience really have use for the translations (will they be able to afford it? will they be able to read it?)

    3. I am all for using a language that will help persons build a better relationship witg God, but given the cost of this project (approx US$1m) is it really worthwhile? An “Eradicate Poverty” fundraising was held in Jamaica as recently as October 2008 – would’t the US$1m have been better spent in helping to eradicate poverty?

    4. Was there dialogue with the target audience?

    Just wondering.

  5. Bertram says:

    Wendy, you have asked some important questions. Here are some “quick” answers for you:

    1. The project is aimed at Jamaicans (at home and in the Diaspora) from different social, educational religious and regional (urban and rural) backgrounds within the 15 – 35/40 age range.

    2a. The translation will be published first in audio format. There is an expectation that a print format will follow the initial release of the audio. The specific strategies as to the release of the print format will be developed in the future in conjunction with plans to translate the Old Testament. (The text will be available online for those who can read – or want to learn – the spelling system approved by the University of the West Indies [UWI], Mona. It is our hope that the text online will help to sensitise persons to spelling conventions of Jamaican Creole. We are yet to discuss specific strategies re literacy.)

    2b. The project is being spearheaded by the Bible Society of the West Indies (BSWI) in conjunction with Wycliffe Bible Translators, Caribbean (WBTC), and the Jamaican Language Unit of the University (JLU) of the West Indies (UWI), Mona. BSWI is a member of the United Bible Societies (UBS) – a global fellowship of Bible Societies, whose aim is the effective distribution of Holy Scriptures among all people, in a language they understand best and at the most economic price possible.

    3. I see nothing wrong with spending a bit under $1million USD on a Bible translation project – investing in people’s spiritual wellbeing! Have you ever stopped to estimate how much money the church in Jamaica spends each year on “charitable” endeavours – education, medicine, “poverty eradication,” disaster relief, etc? Much more than $1 million USD I would like to think! After all, what is the church’s primary responsibility!

    It is important to remember that BSWI’s mission, like that of WBTC, is to provide people with God’s word. It cannot address every need there is in society – no one organisation can. This being said, I’m yet to read a comment on the Jamaica Observer’s report that BSWI handed over to the Office of Disaster Preparedness and Emergency Management (ODPEM) building materials and Scriptures valued at $875,000 JMD for 18 persons badly affected by Hurricane Dean last year.

    (Now this is somewhat different but significant I think – Jamaicans haven’t been critical of Stanford’s 20/20 for $20 million USD Tournament Champions as they have of our less-than-$1- million- USD -12- year project.)

    4. Fifty-six personnel from a wide spectrum of Christian constituencies in Jamaica attended a Breakfast for Clergy hosted by the BSWI on Thursday 10th July, 2008. The purpose of the breakfast was threefold: to update Clergy on recent developments concerning the proposed Jamaican Creole Translation Project; to remind them of the philosophy underlining the undertaking; and to listen to their concerns and suggestions/guidance.

    Of the 56 personnel in attendance, 35 (62.5%) completed a questionnaire that was provided. The purpose of the questionnaire was to ascertain the attendees’ response to the proposed Jamaican Creole Translation Project. I find it significant that 85% of respondents are in full support of the project. The other 15% indicated ambivalence – not opposition. (It’s a shame more persons didn’t fill out the questionnaire. Many of those who attended the breakfast and didn’t fill out the questionnaire also expressed their support of the project orally.)

    The dialogue continues….

    Bertram

  6. Wendy says:

    Hi Bertram

    Thanks very much for the valuable information.

    I’m still going through it and may have some further questions/comments, but can you please clarify the target audience for me …

    You mentioned that the target audience is “… Jamaicans (at home and in the Diaspora) from different social, educational religious and regional (urban and rural) backgrounds within the 15 – 35/40 age range”, but in response to my question of dialogue with the target audience you indicated that, “Fifty-six personnel from a wide spectrum of Christian constituencies in Jamaica attended a Breakfast for Clergy”.

    +++
    I am concerned that at times we present solutions to the perceived problems of “the needy” before asking their opinion or even allowing them to have a voice in the solution. I am not pointing fingers, it is something I (and many others in ministry) struggle with in our discernment of how we can “help” the needy.

    You are correct!! As church, our responsibility is to cater to people’s spiritual wellbeing. But I contend that it would be difficult to effectively minister to someone who is hungry. How can I TELL him that God loves him, when he is starving? Shouldn’t I SHOW him that God loves him by first providing him with a meal? Isn’t this a more effective way of spreading the Word of God?

    Thanks again for the wonderful ‘food for thought’ that you provided for me. The dialogue does indeed continue …

    Wendy

  7. […] on from a discussions about a Jamaican Patois Bible, another creole Bible interpretation that has perceived reduction media courtesy is that of Solomon […]

  8. […] reasons that the English Bible was not accepted when it was first translated over 700 years ago (as I wrote about on the Wycliffe UK blog back in […]

Leave a Reply