Philip Hensher: Thank God for the Bible Society

We can certainly admire the zeal which will preserve a language

Share
Related Topics

The Bible Society of the West Indies has embarked on an ambitious project to translate the Bible into Jamaican patois, or patwa as it is often spelt. The time and cost, some $60m (£35m), are being underwritten by the United Bible Society, an organisation which, for evangelical reasons, sponsors the translation of scripture into languages all over the world.

It's going to sound something like this: "Di man se, 'Lov di Laad Yu Gad wid aal yu aat, yu suol, schrent an main, an lov yu nieba laik ou yu lov yuself.'" ("...with all your heart, your soul..."). In the past, pidgins, creoles and even dialects of English have had their own translations of the Bible – in Solomon Islands pidgin, St John's Gospel begins "Stat kam long stat blong everisamting. Toktok hemi stap finis nao". There has been more than one translation of the Bible into Scots, or Lallans.

I have in front of me a perhaps more satirically intended translation of the Bible into Polari, the post-war gay slang, carried out by the Manchester branch of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, the gentlemen in nun-drag. Ecclesiastes begins, enchantingly, "The lavs of the cackling homie, the homie chavvie of Davina, dowriest homie in Jerusalem; Spanglie of Spanglies, saith the cackling homie, spangly of spanglies, all is spangly."

Some people, tragically, have actually chosen to speak out against the wonderful project of the Patois Bible. Ann Widdecombe said "It's one thing to turn the Bible into modern vernacular, but to turn it into patois is utterly ridiculous." I don't see why. It's a language which people speak. French and Italian, after all, began life as patois versions of Latin.

The translations of the Bible are a rare example of a round of our favourite game, Unintended Consequences, where the consequences are entirely benevolent and virtuous. Anyone who proposes the suppression, or the non-beginning of a translation into a language or dialect is speaking out against learning and knowledge. In many cases, what we know of a language is preserved by the thankless labours of a missionary, putting the gospels into the language of click and whistle of some troglodytic tribe, and we are all the richer for it.

Translations of the Bible go an extraordinarily long way back, and not always into the most obvious languages. There are partial translations of the Bible into Persian in 1546. Some now extinct languages are preserved for our interest and study by early Bible translations – Massachusetts, an indigenous North American language now extinct, had a translation in 1655, and Ethiopic, an Ethiopian language which has also disappeared, had a partial translation as far back as 1513.

The urge to translate the Bible has gone on ever since. Sometimes, languages have had a translation which seems entirely unrelated to rational efficacy. Auhelawa, a language of Papua New Guinea spoken by no more than 940 people, had a partial translation in 1986; Palikur, with 1,200 speakers in Brazil and French Guiana, had a New Testament in 1982. To the Christian evangelist, those are still 2,000-odd souls for salvation; though the rest of us cannot admire some of his other motives, we can certainly value the zeal which will preserve a fragment of a language when all its speakers are gone.

The same is true for the Patois bible – what we would give for a bible translated into 17th-century London slang! Send a donation to the United Bible Society immediately; and, just to even things out, to the naughty old transvestite nuns of Manchester, whose work also has some linguistic interest.

All together now: "And Gloria cackled, Let there be sparkle, and there was sparkle. And Gloria vardad the sparkle, that it was bona."

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Recruitment Assistant

£19000 - £21000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you a friendly, confident i...

Tradewind Recruitment: Primary Teaching Assistant

Negotiable: Tradewind Recruitment: At Tradewind Recruitment we are currently l...

Tradewind Recruitment: Physics Teacher

Negotiable: Tradewind Recruitment: Tradewind Recruitment is currently working ...

Recruitment Genius: Case Manager - Occupational Therapist / Physiotherapist

£28000 - £34000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

If I were Prime Minister: I would tackle our looming dementia crisis

Susan Greenfield
 

Letters: NHS data-sharing is good for patients

Independent Voices
Isis hostage crisis: The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power

Isis hostage crisis

The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power, says Robert Fisk
Missing salvage expert who found $50m of sunken treasure before disappearing, tracked down at last

The runaway buccaneers and the ship full of gold

Salvage expert Tommy Thompson found sunken treasure worth millions. Then he vanished... until now
Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

Maverick artist Grayson Perry backs our campaign
Assisted Dying Bill: I want to be able to decide about my own death - I want to have control of my life

Assisted Dying Bill: 'I want control of my life'

This week the Assisted Dying Bill is debated in the Lords. Virginia Ironside, who has already made plans for her own self-deliverance, argues that it's time we allowed people a humane, compassionate death
Move over, kale - cabbage is the new rising star

Cabbage is king again

Sophie Morris banishes thoughts of soggy school dinners and turns over a new leaf
11 best winter skin treats

Give your moisturiser a helping hand: 11 best winter skin treats

Get an extra boost of nourishment from one of these hard-working products
Paul Scholes column: The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him

Paul Scholes column

The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him
Frank Warren column: No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans

Frank Warren's Ringside

No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans
Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

Homeless Veterans appeal

MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

Comedians share stories of depression

The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

Has The Archers lost the plot?

A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

14 office buildings added to protected lists

Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee