Monday, 26 December 2011

Common People

Intrigued by the work of the Bible Society's work in translating the Bible into Jamaican Patois. The article describes the effect that hearing the Bible in their own language has on its hearers.

But some aren't so happy. A bishop complains that patois is too limited to describe the nuances that English is capable of carrying:

"Even those (Patois) words that we would want to use to fully explain what was in the original, are words that are vulgar."
And yes, English is a nuanced language. Our Anglo-Saxon, Norse, French and Latin heritages give us many, finely-gradated words that can describe the same thing. That's the kind of power most other languages don't possess. I don't suppose Hebrew or even Greek could manage that.

Especially not the Greek of the New Testament, called "KOINE". Which you would translate as "common", as in "shared". You could use the sort of play on words we use in English, and interpret "common" as vulgar - but that only works in English, I suspect.

Then we have the Latin Vulgate - the commonly-used Bible. That surely must be "vulgar", given it's the Vulgate.

And then we have this comment in the 39 Articles of the Church of England - not a work I would think the Portmore Holiness Church uses, but still good advice on this kind of matter. Article 24 tells us that "It is a thing plainly repugnant to the word of God and the custom of the primitive Church, to have public prayer in the Church, or to minister the sacraments in a tongue not understanded of the people." Which I would take loosely to mean - if you're gonna have religion, have it in your own language. So if you speak English, don't learn Latin to read the Bible (I'll let you off Greek and Hebrew here). And if your language is patois - well, 'nuff said. We don't live our lives in no fancy language. And the Bible weren't written in no fancy language. So let's not read it in one.


  1. I find it ironic that Jamaican patois is considered too common and limited to carry the meaning of the Bible. We've just celebrated Christmas, when God took on human flesh to show us the truth about himself.

    This was an act of self-limiting - kenosis - on God's part, taking on a form that is too limited to transmit the full extent of the truth about him and his love for all he has made.

  2. More than ironic really, taken to the extreme how many other languages/idioms should be excluded from having the text translated? How about cultures where things like sheep and wine don't exist...

    Are they suggesting that we only read the KJV whose language though beautiful is often unintelligible to many... Is God an Englishman????

    As for the self limiting kenosis of God- the incarnation surely challenges us to live out and preach the possibilities of that, to make it accessible to all!

  3. To be fair the BBC always tries to find two opposing sides to every story. If someone invented a perpetual-motion machine the BBC would find someone to stand up for the poor power workers. So they may be overplaying the opposition.

    In response to your question, Sally. In heaven we are told that everyone will stand around in white, forever. Since that's quite a good description of cricket, yes of course God is English!

  4. Continuing the “God is English” theme AE, I suspect we should present the Ten Commandments thusly: 1. “I am the Lord thy God…anything else is not cricket” Etc.

    With all the recent to-do and hand wringing about translations, I think the words of St. Francis may have a bearing: “We should preach the Gospel always…sometimes even using words.”

  5. Am I wrong in thinking that the KJV uses thee and thou language because it was the common language of the time?

  6. CB - I'm English, and I sure as heck don't want to be associated with that murderous fanatic, Cromwell. That's the trouble with God, he'll accept anyone.

    RB - I think you're right. There are rumours that in some parts of Yorkshire they still do. But even in 1611 I believe some of the KJV was probably already slightly archaic - which would have given it that nice "traditional" feel.

  7. Cromwell was a man of his times and incorrupt, at a time when both parliament and king were totally corrupt.

    As for what he did in Ireland - both sides were equally murderous at a time when decimation was common practice in war.

    When analysing the past, we usually use the mores of today, which is a mistake.

  8. CB, your open-mindedness does you proud. I shall therefore express myself in a 17th Century viewpoint.

    Cromwell was a regicide who lifted up his hand against the Lord's Anointed. Being dragged, already seriously dead, around London and then undergoing a mock-execution was too good for him. Long live King Charles II! Oo that Nell Gwynn!

  9. The Old Testament was (mostly) writ in Hebrew. This is an "impoverished" language, with a limited vocabulary where one word can have several meanings (contrast English where several words can nuance a central meaning).

    So perhaps it's easier to get a good translation for the OT in Jamaican.

  10. I come from a County Durham mining family, and 'thees' and 'thoos' ('oo' not 'ow') were normal speach for my dad's generation. I had to learn English when I came south to University. Those early experiences probably led to me becoming a translator!

    God isn't English. He's Northumbrian!

  11. Eddie, story has it that the Sunderland Library used to have its entrance sign in three languages - English, Norwegian and "Gang in Frei" for the locals!


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