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The Patois Bible: Relevant or irreverent?

Desrine Bogle

Sunday, January 06, 2013    

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THE debate around what is commonly referred to as the Patois Bible that began in 2010 was reignited with the December 9, 2012 release of the New Testament in both written and audio forms of Jamaican Creole. However, do most persons enter the debate dispassionately?

Unfortunately, as Jamaicans, we still do not want to recognise that what we speak is in fact a language. It has been given many disparaging names, the most dignified of which is "the dialect". From a linguistic standpoint, a dialect is nothing but a regional variety of a language. Thus, for example, American English is a dialect of Standard English. Mexican Spanish is a dialect of Castilian and Canadian or Senegalese French are dialects of Standard French. Jamaican Creole is not a dialect of English; speakers of English cannot readily comprehend it, despite its having some English words.

So, what value does this Patois Bible have? For linguists, the translation of the Bible into Jamaican Creole seeks to deflate the argument that Patois is a corrupted, vulgar or a broken form of English, devoid of scholarly merit and inappropriate for written texts, moreover the sacred word of God.

For translation specialists, the Jamaican Bible translation project, dubbed the Patois Bible, has significant merit because of the historical relevance of Bible translation. Some facts will undoubtedly clear the air and hopefully make the project more acceptable.

For centuries, Christianity, and more precisely Roman Catholicism, was the only religion in many parts of the then known world including Europe. From the late fourth century until the Reformation, the only authorised translation of the Bible, called the Vulgate, was available in Latin. However, Latin was not understood by the masses, which spoke their vernacular, which were forms of Latin that were considered, at the time, corrupted, broken or vulgar. Sounds familiar?

Despite this unpopular view towards the vernacular languages, Great Reformers like the German Martin Luther and the Englishman William Tyndale saw the need to render the Inspired Word into the language of the masses. They set about to translate the Bible into the vernacular language of their compatriots.

On September 21, 1522, Martin Luther published the translation of the New Testament. This translation became known as the September Bible. In 1534, Luther completed the translation of the entire Bible from the original Greek and Hebrew, which was known as the Luther Bible. In 1526, William Tyndale published his translation of the New Testament, which was referred to as the Tyndale New Testament.

In 1535, he completed the translation of the first half of the Old Testament. He was strangled to death and burnt at the stake before being able to complete the translation of the entire Bible.

The Bibles of these two Reformers are significant for several reasons, chief among which is the fact that their translations were done from the original Greek and Hebrew and not from existing translations. The Patois New Testament, like these great translations, uses the original Greek and Hebrew and not English translations.

During the Reformation, the significance of translating the Bible into what was considered broken, corrupted or vulgar languages was to make the Word accessible to the masses that did not master Latin. The translators of the Reformation were wholly concerned about the people accessing the Word to enrich their spiritual experience; they did not spend time questioning the validity of their native language for expressing the Sacred Word of God. The move also demonstrated that these vernacular languages were no less worthy than Latin to express the Holy Word.

The Bible translations into English and German were met with staunch opposition by the clergy of the Roman Catholic Church, of the time that felt, for various reasons, that the act of translating the Sacred Word into these vernacular languages was sacrilegious. What was the price for translating parts or the entire Bible? Surely not praise.

The translations were banned and the translators were ex-communicated and killed, being deemed heretics. Tyndale printed 3,000 copies of his translation. They were banned and burnt. Only two copies remain today.

Translating the Bible was a victory for the Reformers who gave the common man an opportunity to understand the Word in his own tongue. Was not the goal of Pentecost to have every man hear the Word in his own tongue?

Translating the Bible into vernacular languages was also a victory for those languages that were considered corrupted versions of Latin. The translations helped in the standardisation of those vernacular languages. The Luther Bible was written in Early New High German. This translation was influential in standardising the German language.

The Tyndale New Testament, written in early modern English, greatly influenced future versions of the Bible, especially the King James Version. Tyndale's translation had an indisputable influence in shaping modern English.

The standardisation of Jamaican Creole will, contrary to popular belief, not mean the death of English. It will give credence to a language that has existed and has been used by Jamaicans of all social classes for over a century, but which has been demonised as vulgar, corrupted or broken English.

The translation of the Bible into Jamaican Creole follows a similar trajectory to German and English Bible translations. Many scoff at the move, deeming it sacrilegious and a waste of time and money. Others see in this translation a more sinister motive to oppress the masses by depriving them of mastering English.

Linguists see the translation of the Bible into the Jamaican language as a victory in efforts to standardise it. Like the Great Reformers, translation specialists believe that the Bible can, and should, be translated into vernacular languages, just as into any other language. Why not into Jamaican?

Desrine Bogle holds a PhD in Translation Studies. She is the chair of the Department of Humanities at Northern Caribbean University in Mandeville.

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