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Philip Hensher

Philip Hensher: Thank God for the Bible Society

We can certainly admire the zeal which will preserve a language

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."