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: Home Care / Support Workers

£7 - £10 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This care provider is looking for Home ...

Recruitment Genius: Web Team Leader

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: One of the UK's leading web des...

Recruitment Genius: Client Manager

£27000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A growing, successful, friendly...

Recruitment Genius: Property Negotiator - OTE £20,000+

£16000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This family owned, independent ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Separate lives: Boston’s streets illustrate the divide between the town’s communities  

Migrants have far more to offer than hard work and wealth creation, yet too many exist in isolation from the rest of society

Emily Dugan
Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird has sold 40 million copies  

Go Set a Watchman: Harper Lee’s new novel is more than just a literary event

Joseph Charlton
Greece says 'No': A night of huge celebrations in Athens as voters decisively back Tsipras and his anti-austerity stance in historic referendum

Greece referendum

Greeks say 'No' to austerity and plunge Europe into crisis
Ten years after the 7/7 terror attacks, is Britain an altered state?

7/7 bombings anniversary

Ten years after the terror attacks, is Britain an altered state?
Beautiful evening dresses are some of the loveliest Donatella has created

Versace haute couture review

Beautiful evening dresses are some of the loveliest Donatella has ever created
No hope and no jobs, so Gaza's young risk their lives, climb the fence and run for it

No hope and no jobs in Gaza

So the young risk their lives and run for it
Fashion apps: Retailers roll together shopping and social networking for mobile customers

Fashion apps

Retailers roll together shopping and social networking for mobile customers
The Greek referendum exposes a gaping hole at the heart of the European Union – its distinct lack of any genuine popular legitimacy

Gaping hole at the heart of the European Union

Treatment of Greece has shown up a lack of genuine legitimacy
Number of young homeless in Britain 'more than three times the official figures'

'Everything changed when I went to the hostel'

Number of young homeless people in Britain is 'more than three times the official figures'
Compton Cricket Club

Compton Cricket Club

Portraits of LA cricketers from notorious suburb to be displayed in London
London now the global money-laundering centre for the drug trade, says crime expert

Wlecome to London, drug money-laundering centre for the world

'Mexico is its heart and London is its head'
The Buddhist temple minutes from Centre Court that helps a winner keep on winning

The Buddhist temple minutes from Centre Court

It helps a winner keep on winning
Is this the future of flying: battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks?

Is this the future of flying?

Battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks
Isis are barbarians – but the Caliphate is a dream at the heart of all Muslim traditions

Isis are barbarians

but the Caliphate is an ancient Muslim ideal
The Brink's-Mat curse strikes again: three tons of stolen gold that brought only grief

Curse of Brink's Mat strikes again

Death of John 'Goldfinger' Palmer the latest killing related to 1983 heist
Greece debt crisis: 'The ministers talk to us about miracles' – why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum

'The ministers talk to us about miracles'

Why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum
Call of the wild: How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate

Call of the wild

How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate