I’m on a roll. Two posts in a single day! It’s clearly the end of term. I’m also avoiding a paper I have to read because I know it will make me think too hard. That said, I think the time I’ve spent thinking through the new translation of the New Testament into what the Montreal Gazette refers to as Jamaican patois was worth my effort.
So, without further ado….
I read in the paper yesterday that the New Testament has been translated into Jamaican patois, the Creole language developed and spoken by slaves.
I was struck by the layers in the story. First of all, there is the unsurprising – but disappointing – resistance to the project, resistance based on the language’s presumed “unsuitability” for Biblical translation. According to both the Gazette article and a Jamaica-based publication called The Gleaner, critics have argued that this translation would “water down” the text. This translation would bring an oral tradition into a highly revered written tradition. It would substitute “street talk” for the poetry of the King James Version. It would bring the language of the poor, the working classes and the illiterate into contact with the language of the Anglican elite.
Class, race, education, colonialism. A tangly mess, to be sure.
There are more than a few ironies here. The only reason the English (and other) versions of the Bible exist is because a range of religious activists felt strongly that “the faithful” should base their faith on a personal relationship with their God, a relationship unmediated by a priest, but rather, developed through personal reflection and consideration of the biblical texts. How, I might ask, is this project different? Did Wycliffe’s and Luther’s critics make similar arguments?
And yet, we take the act of Bible translation for granted today. I don’t read Greek. Do you?
But there’s a second irony. Language exists within the culture in which it is used. Language is alive. It’s constantly shifting and moving. Its meanings shift and change depending on the context in which language is used. Translation, too, is a tricky, chameleon-like art profoundly shaped by the translator’s place, history, sex, class, race, etc.
The King James version first appeared in 1611. It’s widely recognized for its poetic approach; it’s not nearly as well accepted for the accuracy of its translation. That’s not surprising, really. It was created four hundred years ago. The social, cultural, and political context in which it was written, and then published, is long gone. We’re in an entirely different space; our frames of reference shaped by completely different experiences. So why is the King James held up as the “standard” against which which the Jamaican version is being measured?
Finally, while I fully appreciate that religious belief plays a strong role in the formation of identity, and while I can accept the centrality of Christian faith in the lives of many Jamaicans, I can’t help but consider the whole Bible project itself – King James or otherwise – as a colonial project. Let’s not forget that colonial projects often started with Bible translation. How else to control the “savages” of newly colonized lands?
That said, in the context of Bible translation, I don’t at all see this translation as problematic. I’m actually surprised that it took so very long. Audre Lorde stated famously that “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.” She had a point. And certainly, when she spoke those words, they were a necessary rallying cry. But tools change when they’re used by different hands. This tool, too, a book used to oppress, subjugate and erase; a tool designed – in a Canadian context – to “kill the Indian in the child,” can also, perhaps – when imagined, written, spoken and thought in new words, new grammars, and new languages – lead to new understandings and new ways of believing. Fingers crossed.