Some churches, schools now using Patois Bible

BY RHOMA TOMLINSON Sunday Observer writer editorial@jamaicaobserver.com

Sunday, February 05, 2012

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IT'S been long in coming, but four years after the Bible Society of the West Indies embarked on its most controversial project ever, the organisation is reporting that it has translated all of the New Testament into Jamaican Patois.


Bible Society officials told the Sunday Observer that all 27 books of the New Testament were complete, and except for a few finishing touches, the books, which include the four gospels, the writings of Paul the apostle, and the prophetic book of Revelation, were ready to go to press in time for publication in August, when the country marks its 50th anniversary of Independence.


Patois Bible Project Co-ordinator Bertram Gayle said the multi-million dollar project, which started in 2008, was on schedule and in keeping with the initial five-year timeline set for the completion of the New Testament.


"We just got news that we'll be getting funding for the first print run-off. The American Bible Society will help fund the hard copy and the audio cost will be covered by Hosanna, a United States-based Christian organisation that specialises in recording scripture," Gayle said.


At the time of its announcement, officials at the Kingston-based Bible Society had said the ambitious $60-million translation project would take 12 years to complete, with the 39-book Old Testament ready seven years after the New Testament.


But the announcement that the Bible Society would pump what was seen as a gigantic sum of money and effort into translating the Bible into Jamaican Patois, sparked heated debate here and abroad. Critics largely saw it as a backward step in the country's development, saying it would set back the island's schools already fighting to get children to read and write English.


Even religious leaders and churchgoers hurled criticism at the project, describing it as an insult to the Christian religion and arguing that such "vulgar expressions" would cheapen the gospel and displease God.


But supporters, who included University of the West Indies (UWI) and Northern Caribbean University (NCU) linguists, hailed the project as a victory for Patois, with some religious leaders seeing it as a means of sharing the gospel with a wider cross section of people.


Gayle declined to say how much the completion of the New Testament had cost but said it was within the $60-million budget. He said the Society had not yet received a final quotation for the printing costs, but expected it to run "a few thousand US dollars well". The first print run-off should take about 10 to 12 weeks to be completed and the translated version would be printed in Brazil, under the guidance of the Bible Society publishing house there, he said.


"We're thinking of getting it all out by Sunday, August 19, in time for the 50th Independence anniversary celebrations. We didn't want to do it earlier in the month, as we didn't want the Government's August celebrations to overshadow the launch, but we wanted to keep in that celebration month. Right now, we're working on promotion... We're helping churches to use it in their preaching, we're considering Patois Sundays and Sabbaths in the churches, we want to take it to the prisons as a part of our prison ministries and we also want to have free distribution of the audio (CD version) text," Gayle told the Sunday Observer.


Despite the initial storm of controversy, it appears that a number churches and schools have started using segments of the translation which were released in 2009. The book of Luke, the first book to be completely translated, has been available in hard copy and on compact disc, and the Bible Society said it has sold copies to overseas Jamaicans, students studying the language and other Patois enthusiasts.


Readers 'falling in love' with Patois Bible


Gayle said some churches and schools were gobbling up the translation and using them in devotions, on special days and during their Christmas programmes.


In November last year, the Society sold 80 copies to the Spanish Town Tabernacle at Brunswick Avenue, whose pastor, Richard Kay, an American, said he tied in most of his sermons to the Patois version of the book of Luke, and called on his congregation to read some of the passages. He said the church has even had all-patois services.


"The church has been using it quite a bit. It has inspired especially the youth, who take it to school and share it with their friends. Some of our middle-aged people are loving it and reading it too... I was able to see their response and they've fallen in love with it. I've been here for 25 years and I listen to the patois all the time. It did something to my heart... I know that God speaks to people's hearts through their language," he told the Sunday Observer.


Bible Society officials said the translation was also used recently at a non-denominational church convention in Moneague, St Ann. A team from the United States, which is in the island working with children with disabilities, also ordered several copies of the Luke translation, Gayle said. It will be used to assist the children in understanding the rudiments of communication.


The multi-million-dollar project also appears to have won a number of converts. Pastor Lloyd Millen, now a key project translator, was "strongly against" it at the outset. He told this newspaper that he came on board only after reluctantly representing the Jamaica Evangelistic Mission at a function being hosted by the Bible Society, to update churches on the project.


"When my chairman asked me to attend, I went only because I thought it would be a good opportunity to voice my opposition to the project. But while on my way, I heard a voice say to me: 'Son, I've always spoken to my people in their language' and then I remembered the story in the book of Acts (Acts 2: 1-6)..."


Millen admitted he put his post as church pastor on the line to take up assignment as a translator, "because this project would impact more people". He believed that "the wind has gone out of the sails" of many persons who, like him, had originally opposed the idea.


Lost in translation


Though the New Testament translation managed to meet the four-year deadline, it was not without its translation woes. In fact, Gayle said the book of John, one of the gospels, was the last book to be translated because it posed a challenge for translators.


"John used particular phrase, figurative language. For example, 'I am in the Father and the Father in me', it was difficult to find an expression in Patois... we did not want to take away from his distinctive approach," he said.


Pastor Millen agreed. "There are certain phrases and concepts that we have to struggle with to put in the Jamaican language. We're really treading on virgin territory, we're pioneers. But we went at it until we came up with something suitable," he said.


From the very outset, the translation team has benefited from the expertise of consultants from the UWI Linguistics Department, the NCU's School of Religion and Theology, the United Theological College and the Jamaica Theological Seminary.


Though the New Testament is expected to hit the market on August 19, it is not clear when work on the Old Testament translation will begin. The Bible Society said it would wait to see how well the New Testament was received, and would use its success to gauge when the translation of the Old Testament should start.


The translation of the Bible into local creole is not unique to Jamaica. Countries in the region, such as Haiti, Dominica, St Lucia, Suriname and the Dutch Antilles have translated some or all of the Bible into their native tongues.


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