The debate about the Bible translated into Jamaican language continues unabated. Months ago the Bible Society of the West Indies once again made its intention clear to translate the entire Bible into the Jamaican language commonly called Patwa (patois), Jamaican Creole, or simply, Jamaican.
The announcement sparked a heated discussion in the form of a flurry of letters to the editors of our leading print media. Most of the responses express the view that the project is ill-conceived, and, if carried through, it will be a colossal waste of time and money.
A few writers, mostly academicians, have come out in support of the idea, pointing out that a possible reason for the poor performance of many of our young people in their English examinations is the failure of the education system to recognize Jamaican Creole as the mother tongue of the majority.
They also point out that in other countries like Haiti and the ABC islands, where the languages of the majority are duly recognized, the learning of French and Dutch, colonial languages like English, is made far easier. One seemingly strong argument for the continued marginalization of the Jamaican language is the ubiquitous character of English and the contrasting narrow confines of Patwa.
Some prominent individuals who have spoken or written on what is now becoming the Patwa-English impasse include the Prime Minister, Bruce Golding. He is a representative of those who strongly feel that the promotion of the Jamaican language at this time may be counter-productive to the proper grasp of English, the official language since independence.
But perhaps the most worthwhile contribution to the debate so far is that of Dr Gosnell L. Yorke, professor of Religion at the Northern Caribbean University and also New Testament professor extraordinarius at the University of South Africa. Dr Yorke spent about 15 years in Africa and was for 10 years a Bible translation consultant with the United Bible Societies. In a recent Gleaner article, Dr Yorke informs us that our region is witnessing what he calls a linguistic phenomenon in that the four European languages that were imperially imposed on our African ancestors are now undergoing a process of “creolisation”.
What he means by this is that the early slave settlers of Jamaica, for example, ‘were forced to creatively adapt’ the language of their European overlords and their adaptation blended with the various west African languages to produce before long a new authentic language we now call Jamaican Creole . Professor York goes on to say that:
Since the various Bible translation agencies in the Caribbean are driven by the defensible conviction that all 6,000 or so languages currently spoken in the world at large are equal, that English is only one of them, and that God does speak most compellingly to each of us in our mother tongue or heart language . . . it is not at all surprising that the Haitian Bible Society, the Bible Society of The Netherlands Antilles, and the Bible Society in the Eastern Caribbean have already translated and published . . . the complete Bible or at least the New Testament in some of the Caribbean creoles.
We are informed as well that ongoing translation work is also going on in Belize and the French Antilles—and, further a field, in many parts of Africa.
A few contributors to the debate, some as far as Canada and the USA, who are largely in disagreement with the likes of Yorke, appear to say that Jamaica Creole only has entertainment value. For instance, where else in the world do they go to a shop and order “wan drinks and two patti!” Or where on earth do competent speakers of their mother tongue drop their aches at ARBA Street and pick it up at HEAST Street?
However, all this does not do away with the notion that Patwa is indeed a language in its own right. The present attitude toward the Jamaican language is strikingly similar to that toward English in the Middle Ages. Thus Alister McGrath in his book, The Story of the King James Bible and How it Changed a Nation, a Language, and a Culture could write:
“It is not generally realized that the languages of the elite in English society in the early fourteenth century were French and Latin. English was seen as the language of the peasants, incapable of expressing anything other than the crudest and most basic of matters. . . . How could such a barbaric language do justice to such sophisticated matters as philosophy or religion? To translate the Bible from its noble and ancient languages into English was seen as a pointless act of debasement.”
In this regard, a Jamaican proverb comes readily to mind: ol’ time sinting cum bac hagain! Or in the language of King Solomon, ‘There is nothing new under the sun.’ Again we cite professor Yorke’s insightful comments on the matter:
“After all, Jesus himself is known to have spoken Aramaic, his own mother tongue, and not only Hebrew, the language of the Jewish Scriptures but (and if He did at all) also the two dominant languages of his day, namely, the commonly-spoken Greek which was made possible by the colonial exploits and exploitation of Alexander, the Great, who lived and died before His time or Latin, the official language of the conquering Romans-those who ruled the world when He both lived and died; when He uttered His life-changing words and performed His life-changing works. And if Jesus showed no hesitation in embracing Aramaic, His mother tongue, in His conduct and conversation with others around Him, including when dying on the cross, then why should one hesitate do so in Jamaican-if that just happens to be one’s mother tongue?”
In John 3:7 this same Jesus is reported to have said to Nicodemus: “Marvel not that I said unto thee, Ye must be born again.” This, of course, is the King James translation of a fairly well known text. What apparently is not fairly well known is that modern English has not really improved on this rendition due to the fact that its pronominal system is sometimes quite vague, especially in the second person. Therefore, one finds the same verse translated in the New International Version (NIV) as: ‘You should not be surprised at my saying, You must be born again.’
In the King James language of 400 years ago the distinction between ‘you’ singular and ‘you’ plural is clearly marked by the pronouns ‘thee’ and ‘ye’ respectively; but in the NIV there is no such clarity, except for a footnote to the effect that the second occurrence of the pronoun in question is plural.
This is not the fault of the NIV translators; it is the weakness of the Queen’s English in modern dress. Other Europeans languages such as German, French and Spanish, can make the distinction and so bring a better understanding to the verse. There is still another language that says it better than modern English: ‘No badda friten seh mi a tel yu dis: unnu haffi bawn agen!’
The same insight can be gained from passages like Genesis 3:1 and Luke 22:31 where the word ‘you’ is also plural and where the Jamaican ‘unnu’ would make better sense than its official counterpart. We therefore can’t wait to see what other insights the full Patwa Bible will bring.