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?
SPONSORED FEATURES
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Administrative Assistant / Order Fulfilment

£14000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An exciting opportunity to join a thrivi...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Uncapped OTE: SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consulta...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Uncapped OTE: SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consulta...

Recruitment Genius: Production Operative

£13000 - £17000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Due to a period of sustained an...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Syria's Kurds have little choice but to flee amid the desolution, ruins and danger they face

Patrick Cockburn
A bartender serves two Mojito cocktails  

For the twenty-somethings of today, growing up is hard to do

Simon Kelner
Refugee crisis: David Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia - will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi?

Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia...

But will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi, asks Robert Fisk
Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

Humanity must be at the heart of politics, says Jeremy Corbyn
Joe Biden's 'tease tour': Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?

Joe Biden's 'tease tour'

Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?
Britain's 24-hour culture: With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever

Britain's 24-hour culture

With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever
Diplomacy board game: Treachery is the way to win - which makes it just like the real thing

The addictive nature of Diplomacy

Bullying, betrayal, aggression – it may be just a board game, but the family that plays Diplomacy may never look at each other in the same way again
8 best children's clocks

Tick-tock: 8 best children's clocks

Whether you’re teaching them to tell the time or putting the finishing touches to a nursery, there’s a ticker for that
Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

The Arab Spring reversed

Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
Who is Oliver Bonas and how has he captured middle-class hearts?

Who is Oliver Bonas?

It's the first high-street store to pay its staff the living wage, and it saw out the recession in style
Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
60 years of Scalextric: Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones

60 years of Scalextric

Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones
Theme parks continue to draw in thrill-seekers despite the risks - so why are we so addicted?

Why are we addicted to theme parks?

Now that Banksy has unveiled his own dystopian version, Christopher Beanland considers the ups and downs of our endless quest for amusement
Tourism in Iran: The country will soon be opening up again after years of isolation

Iran is opening up again to tourists

After years of isolation, Iran is reopening its embassies abroad. Soon, there'll be the chance for the adventurous to holiday there