A couple of readers have sent me links to this BBC News story about a new translation of the Bible into Jamaican patois (apparently the usual name for what linguists call Jamaican Creole); it provides the usual warring sound bites (“Mr Stewart says the project is largely designed to bring scripture alive, but it also has another important function – to rescue patois from its second-class status in Jamaica and to enshrine it as a national language” vs. “Bishop Alvin Bailey, at the Portmore Holiness Church of God near Kingston, argues that Patois is too limited a language to represent the nuances of Biblical text, and has to resort to coarse expressions to makes its meaning clear”) but is an interesting read and of course quotes the text, though not as much as one would like. (Jamaican Creole previously on LH: Language Barrier, Pullum on Jamaican Creole.)


  1. Coarse expressions? The whole New Testament was written in koine. What language or creole is going to be any coarser than a market jargon?

  2. michael farris says

    But that fact is hidden from view since the most revered English translations have the patina of arhaicism to obscure the coarse nature of the original.

  3. J.W. Brewer says

    It’s obviously unfair to judge a whole NT translation by three verses, but the ones highlighted suggest this may be a lousy translation, which says nothing about the linguistic or literary possibilities of Patois as much as the bad methodological choices of the translators. Item one: is it really the case that Patois is so lexically impoverished as to lack a word like “virgin” to render Greek “parthenos” and instead needs an eight-word paraphrase (put back into standard English spelling, it’s “young woman . . . what never sleep with no man yet”)? I find it hard to believe that all fluent Patois speakers need eight words to communicate that concept. Item two: what the heck happened to “blessed among women”? Now, it could be they’re using a dodgy/heretical/modernist version of the Greek text that omits “en gynaixin” altogether and thus doesn’t need it translated, but the quotes from the Rev’d Mr. Stewart suggest that the Patois quoted is supposed to be equivalent to an English translation with “blessed among women” included.
    I quite like the way a lot of old reggae records mix Patois syntax/lexicon with Scriptural exhortations or imprecations that are word-for-word King James Version or KJV as modified to fit the peculiar Rastafarian theological perspective. This is not to say that there is no use for a Patois rendering, but the notion that Jamaicans without a lot of formal education shouldn’t be using the KJV if that’s what they and their ecclesial communities prefer (on whatever grounds) is patronizing social-worker crap. (Whether respelling the overwhelmingly English-based lexicon of Patois in accordance with some invented phonetic system is an advantage or more patronizing social-worker crap could, I suppose, be debated. To the extent the people behind this translation came up with their own system that is not fully consistent with what has been used to previously render Patois semi-phonetically, that seems unfortunate and possibly arrogant.)

  4. komfo,amonan says

    I agree with Michael’s point about the patina, but the coarseness? Is that so? There had been at least a century of literary tradition in koine by the time Paul started writing. Did it seem coarse to, say, Attic-writing contemporaries? Does it seem coarse to moderns who are familiar with both?

  5. J.W. Brewer says

    Oh, and the “patina of archaism” can trend coarse as well as refined, as seen for example in the King James Version’s use of the good old English verb “to piss” which is omitted in the same verses in those modern translations that pride themselves for being all hip and with-it. Or in the fact that more modern editions of the Anglican wedding service have delicately omitted the phrase “for the avoidance of fornication” in the explanation of the causes for which holy matrimony was ordained.

  6. The Book of Revelation, at least, is written in a variety of Greek theretofore unknown to human kind, pretty much the Greek a native speaker of Aramaic who hadn’t really learned the language would write down out of his head without bothering to check any of it afterwards.

  7. “The Book of Revelation, at least, is written in a variety of Greek theretofore unknown to human kind, pretty much the Greek a native speaker of Aramaic who hadn’t really learned the language would write down out of his head without bothering to check any of it afterwards.”
    A pidgin of a patois. Maybe rendering
    “I agree with Michael’s point about the patina, but the coarseness? Is that so? ”
    komfo, I was making a classist joke about the market origins of koine. I consider the financial jargon they use on TV financial shows to be revoltingly coarse, and the the expensive suits do nothing to refine it.
    “Or in the fact that more modern editions of the Anglican wedding service have delicately omitted the phrase “for the avoidance of fornication” in the explanation of the causes for which holy matrimony was ordained.”
    That may have less to do with an avoidance of coarseness than because that ship has usually sailed a long time ago.
    J.W. you make a good point, but you are describing a state of diglossia that might exactly what the translators are trying to supercede. And also as Mr. Stewart said one of the translators’ aims was to establish jamaican Creole as a language in its own right and Bible translations are a time honored way to do that. Alfred thought so.

  8. komfo,amonan says

    Enlightened. Although/because I first studied Greek at a Jesuit high school, we never read much N.T.
    I found the orthography jarring as well, but I found that of Haitian creole jarring when I first encountered it, and eventually got used to it.

  9. And who has figured out how to translate Revelation (whether into English or Patois or something else) in a way that captures the weirdness of its idiolect? I remember the professor in my undergraduate NT Greek class a quarter-century back explaining to us that St. John the Divine kept doing non-standard things with his case endings that would have gotten us a bad grade had we done them on assignments or tests in our own intro Greek classes, but nonetheless he was in the canon and we (and I suppose by extension the Classics professors who had taught us properly pagan Attic grammar) were not.

  10. Re: “blessed among women”: not in the best sources (my copy of the RSV notes “Other ancient authorities add “Blessed are you among women”)
    It’s sometimes a difficulty of acceptance with vernacular translations that they are judged against long-established translations in “major” languages rather than against the latest scholarship.
    I love reading or hearing vernacular versions of Scripture: they always remind me that the Gospels were written in the language of the manger, the stable, the field and the vineyard – rather than that of the palace or the tax collector’s office. (Mind you, I enjoy the KJV for its literary qualities).
    Much of one’s reaction to a version of the annunciation story depends on whether one pictures Gabriel the messenger as some sort of supernatural winged apparition or as a passing human traveller who, moved by the Spirit, stops by and delivers the good news.
    And at this season, I have been particularly enjoying the Scots Language Centre’s series of New Testament readings with audio: http://www.scotslanguage.com/articles/testament/ (online until 6th January 2012) The annunciation according to Luke in Scots is here: http://www.scotslanguage.com/articles/testament/3115

  11. The KJV wasn’t a de novo translation, though it was not intended to be a work of literature either. Rather, it is one member of a line of revisions descending from Tyndale’s ur-translation of 1525-36, corrected against the originals. As such, its language is conservative even for 1611.
    But I think it’s reasonable to suppose that Tyndale was writing, a century before, in the “language of the manger, the stable, the field and the vineyard”.

  12. J.W. Brewer says

    Tyndale’s announced goal was famously to provide a translation that would enable “the boy that driveth the plow” to know scripture better than whatever learned cleric he was fulminating against at the time he came up with that line. I saw one of the few surviving copies of the first printing of the Tyndale NT a decade or more ago in a vitrine at the N.Y. Public Library during some special exhibition, and I found it more moving as a physical object than a Gutenberg Bible.
    I wouldn’t have minded if the Patois NT followed the lead of the Herr Doctor Professors who have resolved conflicts in the manuscript evidence by omitting “among women” from their recommended Greek vorlage (although “best sources” requires a theory of betterness that has lots and lots of contestable methodology built into it), but the BBC story was grating in comparing the Patois rendering of that verse against an English example which included “among women” – it could have been ordinary journalistic incompetence but it seemed to be paraphrasing the quotes they got from the interviewee who was a clergyman and a touter of the Patois translation, which made it more irksome to me.

  13. The quoted English rendering appears to be from the New King James Version (NKJV). So, not a particularly apt choice for comparison, I’d suggest.

  14. Let’s cut to the chase and get to the point — the essential truth with its historical basis.
    Both the Old Testament and the New Testament relied on the Septuagint (which employed an Alexandrian Greek dialect — a “common” tongue or patois, described fancifully as “koine”) to deliver as faithfully as possible the “Word of God” to those early worshippers (primarily Jewish folk and later Gentile communities inhabiting the Alexandria region of Egypt and in the surrounding Levant area where Greek and Latin were the language of government, business, and commerce) who, many of them distanced by diaspora from their native tongue (Aramaic or Hebrew), employed the koine Greek as a “common” tongue to conduct their worship. So the precedence for use of a common language or “patois” (koine Greek and later the Vulgate/”Vulgar” Latin, with its basis in both Hebrew and Aramaic) was long established at the turn of the first century. Even today, more than two thousand years since the publication of the Septuagint — the Greek Old Testament and the Greek New Testament– we can still find strong linguistic traces of both Aramaic and Hebrew in both the style and grammatical usage adapted in the koine Greek of the Bible. By translating the Bible into Jamaican (qua, “patois/patwa”), we are merely continuing the long established precedence of good and worthy scholarship. May God be the Glory!

  15. Hear, hear!

  16. SFReader says

    Had a look at this Jamaican patois:

    1 Jiizas did baan iina Betliyem, wan toun iina Judiya. Dem taim de, a Erad did a king iina Judiya. Nou, iina dem siem taim de, som waiz man fram di Iis said did kom a Jeruusilem an a aks, 2 “We di pikni de we baan di ada die, we fi kom ton king fi di Juu piipl dem? Wi si im staar iina di Iis, we shuo se im baan, an wi kom fi shuo im nof rispek.” 3 Nou wen King Erad ier dis ya, dis bada bada im ed, an it bada uol iip a piipl iina Jeruusilem tu. 4 Erad kaal evribadi tugeda iina wan miitn — aal a di ed priis an di man dem we tiich Muoziz Laa — an im aks dem a wich paat di Krais — di king we Gad pramis, fi baan.

    I suppose average Jamaican reading standard English Bible would understand about as much as we can understand this.

    If it’s true, then Jamaicans definitely need Bible translation into language they can understand.

  17. Well, it’s not the same, since Jamaicans get a lot more exposure to standard English than other speakers get to the patois. But yes, it’s always good to have it in the language closest to you.

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