KINGSTON, Jamaica, Wednesday December 12, 2012 – After years of meticulous translation from the original Greek, the Bible Society in Jamaica is releasing print and audio CD versions of the first patois translation of the New Testament, or “Di Jamiekan Nyuu Testiment.”
The development provides vindication for English teacher Faith Linton, who was greeted with astonishment and opposition when she first proposed translating the Bible into Jamaica’s patois tongue in the late 1950s.
“There was shock at the mere suggestion,” said Linton, now an octogenarian and a longstanding board member of the Bible Society of the West Indies. “People were deeply ashamed of their mother tongue. It was always associated with illiteracy and social deprivation.”
The opposition has diminished somewhat in the intervening years, but patois in the pulpit remains a highly controversial issue.
Critics fear it will dilute Scripture and further erode the weak grasp that many poor Jamaicans are said to have on Standard English.
Advocates, on the other hand, view it as a bold, empowering move that will finally affirm the indigenous tongue as a distinct language in Jamaica.
Patois expert Hubert Devonish, a linguist who is coordinator of the Jamaican Language Unit at the University of the West Indies, sees the Bible translation as a big step toward getting the state to eventually embrace the creole language.
“We’ve now produced a major body of literature in the language, whatever people may think about it one way or the other. And that is part of the process of convincing people that this thing is a serious language with a standard writing system,” Devonish said.
Reverend Courtney Stewart, general secretary of the regional Bible society, said there is a widespread conviction that Scripture is best understood in a person’s spoken tongue. He predicts many Jamaicans will be inspired to hear and read the translation.
“It’s extremely powerful for people to hear Scripture in their own language, the language they speak and think in. It goes straight to their hearts and people say they are able to visualize it in a way they’ve never experienced before,” Stewart said.
Some religious leaders and other critics nevertheless characterize Jamaican patois as a rowdy, ever-changing vernacular that is fine in informal settings but inappropriate in a place of worship.
“Patois is not potent enough to be able to carry the meaning of the Gospel effectively. It just does not have the capacity to properly reflect the word of God,” said Bishop Alvin Bailey, leader of the evangelical Holiness Christian Church in Portmore.
The New Testament translation was recently released in England, home to a large Jamaican diaspora.
In the British town of Northampton, the Reverend Dennis Hines of the New Testament Church of God said the patois Bible has been received well, especially in prisons where he works as a chaplain and inmates of Jamaican heritage are clamouring for a copy.
“Just to know that there was a Bible in their native tongue has made people feel really proud and excited,” said Hines, a Jamaican who moved to England as a boy.
The translation is a stickier subject in Jamaica, where activists are pushing for patois to be granted official status alongside English and used in classrooms.
Clive Forrester, who teaches the Jamaican tongue at Canada’s York University, said the biggest obstacle to launching a patois Bible on the island has always been a psychosocial one, not a linguistic one.
“The language can handle any concept or idea in the New Testament. It’s the average Jamaican speaker who has a hard time accepting Jamaican Creole in written contexts and especially one as formal as the Bible,” Forrester said.
The Bible has already been translated into hundreds of obscure languages and dialects, among them the Ga language of Ghana, the Mi’kmaq spoken mostly by Indians in eastern Canada, and Gullah, which is largely spoken by African-Americans in isolated coastal areas of South Carolina and Georgia.
Now, the advocates of Jamaican patois are thrilled to see their time finally arrive, particularly with the island marking its 50th anniversary of independence.
With Christmas in the air, the time may be right to reflect on the depiction of the angel Gabriel’s visit to the Virgin Mary that foretold the birth of Jesus.
The New King James Bible’s version of Luke reads, “And having come in, the angel said to her, ‘Rejoice, highly favoured one, the Lord is with you; blessed are you among women.”’
The patois version reads: “Di ienjel go tu Mieri an se tu ar se, ‘Mieri, mi av nyuuz we a go mek yu wel api. Gad riili riili bles yu an im a waak wid yu aal di taim.” Click here to receive free news bulletins via email from Caribbean360. (View sample)