Patois Bible a valid translation

Courtney STEWART

Saturday, October 08, 2011

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THE Bible Society of the West Indies noted with interest recent commentaries about the Jamaican Bible appearing in the printed and online versions of The Jamaica Observer. Particular note was taken of a column by Dr Franklin Johnston, "Lost in translation - is the Patois Bible a waste?" published on September 23, 2011, as well as the subsequent feedback from readers. While we appreciate the writer bringing the whole matter of the Jamaican Bible to the fore once again, his column is ill-researched.

Dr Johnston's commentary opens with a question that demonstrates the writer's very weak knowledge of Bible history. The King James Version of the Bible is only 400 years old, therefore posing the question "What did the KJV's "Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour's ass mean 2,500 years ago?" is a non-question.

Second, had Dr Johnston taken the time to research the Jamaican translation project, his column would not be woefully wanting in relation to factual information concerning this project. We point out the following statement by Dr Johnston, which is inaccurate: "The Bible Society of Jamaica (sic) translated the gospel of Luke in patois but not from Greek." We hasten to point out that the source text utilised for the Jamaican translation is the Greek New Testament, published by the United Bible Societies. This publication also happens to be the most respected Greek New Testament used across the world.

The Bible Society of the West Indies has been particularly careful to address the issue of accuracy by ensuring that the Jamaican translation is supported by the best scholarship. Experts brought on board for the project include a translation consultant provided by the United Bible Societies and theologians from the Jamaica Theological Seminary and the United Theological College of the West Indies. Their combined credentials as Bible scholars are beyond question. While it is unclear what Dr Johnston meant by "removing the Bible from a prayerful scholarship tradition", what is certain is that this translation of the Bible has been subjected to the same kind of rigorous, intellectual and theological scrutiny directed to other translations. More information about the team supporting the project is available at

The plethora of concerns and criticisms surrounding the Jamaican translation is not unexpected. A number of translations, including those which are now revered, went through a baptism of fire. The King James Version, which followed the Latin translation of the Bible, the Vulgate, are just two examples. In fact, the English word vulgar is derived from the Latin "vulgate" meaning common, crude, lacking in sophistication. As we are sure Dr Johnston is eminently aware, the original language of the New Testament was not Classical Greek but the ordinary, common, everyday Greek spoken by the ordinary folk.

The Bible Society of the West Indies can understand the concern expressed by many Jamaicans about the writing system utilised for the Jamaican New Testament. Often we see attempts to imply that the writing system used for the translation makes impossible reading. Dr Johnston's juxtaposing of an extract from the translation and an excerpt from one of Miss Lou's poems falls within this vein. There is the tendency of many people to think that patois should be written using a modified form of the English spelling system. Situations where an evolving language borrows from the dominant language are commonly encountered phenomena in the evolution of languages. Most Jamaicans, being unaware of a writing system developed in 1961 by Frank Cassidy, a Jamaican linguist, would therefore not know that this is the system used in scholastic institutions, such as the University of the West Indies, York University in Canada and the University of Birmingham in the UK. It is this Cassidy system that is used for the Jamaican translation. The Bible Society is aware the public is not yet familiar with this system and it is for this reason that the Jamaican Bible will be released primarily in audio format.

We note that several of those objecting hold the view that the Jamaican translation will undermine literacy and the use of Standard English. The Bible Society notes in the over 1000 language communities in which translations in the mother tongue have been introduced, the official language has not been displaced, nor has people's ability to read and write been adversely affected.

The Bible Society of the West Indies believes that the Jamaican New Testament will be a great buttress for local evangelism and discipleship and continues to work diligently in conjunction with its partners toward release of this translation in 2012.

Rev Courtney Stewart is general secretary of the Bible Society of the West Indies,





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