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

Guru Careers: Software Developer / Web Developer

£30 - 40k + Benefits: Guru Careers: A Software / Web Developer (PHP / MYSQL) i...

Guru Careers: Account Executive

£18 - 20k + Benefits: Guru Careers: An Account Executive is needed to join one...

Guru Careers: Software Developer / Software Engineer

£35 - 40k + Benefits: Guru Careers: A Software Developer / Software Engineer i...

Reach Volunteering: Volunteer Trustee with Healthcare expertise

Voluntary and unpaid, reasonable expenses are reimbursable: Reach Volunteering...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Fifa president Sepp Blatter  

Fifa corruption arrests: A syndicate so removed from reality that it may yet destroy the thing it loves

Oliver Duff Oliver Duff
Since 2004, evening and weekend GP care has been provided by a variety of NHS, private and not-for-profit providers  

Before you complain about your GP, this is what you need to know about actually doing the job

Emma Nash
Raif Badawi: Wife pleads for fresh EU help as Saudi blogger's health worsens

Please save my husband

As the health of blogger Raif Badawi worsens in prison, his wife urges EU governments to put pressure on the Saudi Arabian royal family to allow her husband to join his family in Canada
Birthplace of Arab Spring in turmoil as angry Tunisians stage massive sit-in over lack of development

They shall not be moved: jobless protesters bring Tunisia to a halt

A former North African boom town is wasting away while its unemployed citizens stick steadfastly to their sit-in
David Hasselhoff's new show 'Hoff the Record': What's it like working with a superstar?

Hanging with the Hoff

Working with David Hasselhoff on his new TV series was an education for Ella Smith
Can Dubai's Design District 'hipster village' attract the right type of goatee-wearing individualist?

Hipsters of Arabia

Can Dubai’s ‘creative village’ attract the right type of goatee-wearing individualist?
The cult of Roger Federer: What is it that inspires such obsessive devotion?

The cult of Roger Federer

What is it that inspires such obsessive devotion?
Kuala Lumpur's street food: Not a 'scene', more a way of life

Malaysian munchies

With new flights, the amazing street food of Kuala Lumpur just got more accessible
10 best festival beauty

Mud guards: 10 best festival beauty

Whether you're off to the Isle of Wight, Glastonbury or a local music event, we've found the products to help you
Unai Emery’s passion for winning and eye for a bargain keep Seville centre stage in Europe

A Different League

Unai Emery’s passion for winning and eye for a bargain keep Seville centre stage in Europe, says Pete Jenson
Amir Khan and James DeGale’s remarkable Olympic performances were just the start of an extraordinary journey - Steve Bunce

Steve Bunce on Boxing

Amir Khan and James DeGale’s remarkable Olympic performances were just the start of an extraordinary journey
Abuse - and the hell that came afterwards

Abuse - and the hell that follows

James Rhodes on the extraordinary legal battle to publish his memoir
Why we need a 'tranquility map' of England, according to campaigners

It's oh so quiet!

The case for a 'tranquility map' of England
'Timeless fashion': It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it

'Timeless fashion'

It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it
If the West needs a bridge to the 'moderates' inside Isis, maybe we could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive after all

Could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive?

Robert Fisk on the Fountainheads of World Evil in 2011 - and 2015
New exhibition celebrates the evolution of swimwear

Evolution of swimwear

From bathing dresses in the twenties to modern bikinis
Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

Sun, sex and an anthropological study

One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf