Patwa

I have been following the translation of the Bible into the Jamaican language, often called Patwa or Patois. The translation has stirred a controversy that is not typical. New translations of the Bible are often criticized for “faults” in the translation. But that is not what is happening with Patwa. Instead, the critics are unhappy that there is a translation in the language at all. They think that Patwa is not a real language, or not a language worthy of a translation, or they think that people should read the Bible in English instead of Patwa.

In the reformation era in Europe, controversies of this kind were common. Church leaders, kings and others opposed the translation of the Bible into English in principle. In his book Reformation Europe: 1517-1559, historian G.R. Elton notes one of the reformation-era objections to translating the Bible into English and other European languages:

It ‘put [the Bible] into the hands of the commonality and interpreted no longer by the well-conditioned learned, but by the faith and delusion, the common sense and uncommon nonsense, of all sorts of men.’

But since the reformation, objections in principle to translating the Bible have been rare in the West. But they are surfacing again in Jamaica. Those making the objections probably are mostly unaware that they are saying many of the same things that were said against translation into English before and during the reformation.

Some of the objections are just silly. When the Jesus Film in Patwa was released, a number of people objected that Jesus never spoke Patwa. Of course, those same people have no such objection to the Jesus Film in English. But many sincerely feel that a translation in Patwa is offensive. They cannot imagine any good reason for putting holy, divinely-inspired words into a simple and sometimes reviled language like Patwa.

C. S. Lewis addressed the same concerns about modern English translations. He noted:

Some people whom I have met go even further and feel that a modern translation is not only unnecessary but even offensive. They cannot bear to see the time-honoured words altered; it seems to them irreverent.

His response to their concerns is relevant to the discussion in Jamaica today.

The only kind of sanctity which Scripture can lose (or, at least, New Testament scripture) … is an accidental kind which it never had for its writers or its earliest readers. The New Testament in the original Greek is not a work of literary art: it is not written in a solemn, ecclesiastical language, it is written in the sort fo Greek which was spoken over the eastern Mediterranean after Greek had become an international language and therefore lost its real beauty and subtlety. … It is a sort of ‘basis’ Greek; a language without roots in the soil, a utilitarian, commercial and administrative language.

Does this shock us? It ought not to, except as the Incarnation itself ought to shock us. The same divine humility which decreed that God should become a baby at a peasant-woman’s breast, and later an arrested field-preacher in the hands of the Roman police, decreed also that He should be preaching in a vulgar, prosaic and unliterary language. If you can stomach the one, you can stomach the other.

We sometimes run into this same objection in Africa. Christians in African countries were English is the official language and who are used to the time-honored phrases of the King James Version, can find the translation in their language too commonplace, lacking solemnity. The same happens in French-speaking countries with the revered Louis Segond translation. As Lewis points out, the supposed “solemnity” is an invention, something that did not exist in the original New Testament, but something that we have added. The expectation that God speaking will be in a more solemn and holy language than ordinary is aided and abetted when we use an older translation. The archaic language sounds flowery and solemn leading some readers to associate that style with Scripture. We forget that God came down in very, very ordinary form and that we should expect his Word to be the same.

So, in order to see translations widely used, we sometimes have to address the concerns of those who find them too commonplace, especially if they are in positions of authority. It’s not a part of being in Bible translation that I expected. I’m following the developments in Jamaica to see how proponents of the translation answer the critics. I might borrow some of their arguments. On the other hand, it looks like maybe the positive impact of the translation in peoples’ lives will be more powerful than any logic.

Its starting 

A very special event took place last November – something we have been working towards with others for a few years. Ghanaian Christians organized a fundraising event in support of translating the Bible into all Ghana’s languages. To date, almost all the money for Bible translation in Ghana has come from Christians in the West. The Ghanaians we work with and others want to change that. If they do, Ghana will become only the second county in Africa, after South Africa, to fund translation mostly or fully from within the country.

The event was special in several ways. The one that most impressed me was that it was organized by Ghanaian business people who are not dirrctly involved in translation. Two of Ghana’s leading Christian business people organized the event and invited their friends.

One hundred and fifty thousand dollars were raised in cash or pledges. That’s way beyond what has been raised in any year to date. It is not yet enough to cover all the translation projects in Ghana for one year, however. To be effective this needs to be a start, not a one-time thing, and it needs to grow.

It has been amazing to see the impact of simple activities like getting out basic information about translation and working with Christian leaders who influence others. The Spirit blessed those efforts in amazing ways.

Now our Ghanaian colleagues are involved in follow-up; another simple, if time-consuming, activity. I’m asking God to multiply their efforts.

Two blessings; two mandates

Through the ages, Christians have noted that the Bible gives humans two great mandates:

* The dominion mandate in Genesis 1:26-28, also called the cultural mandate or the creation mandate
* The great commission found throughout Scripture, and summarized in Matthew 28:18-20

The dominion mandate concerns the place and role we have in creation. The text reads;

So God created human beings in his own image. In the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. Then God blessed them and said, “Be fruitful and multiply. Fill the earth and govern it. Reign over the fish in the sea, the birds in the sky, and all the animals that scurry along the ground.” – Genesis 1:27-28

Some have read this text as a command, but it is more properly understood as a blessing and a mandate, after all the text says “God blessed them.” To be sure, we can fail in fulfilling our mandate or in reaching God’s intended blessing, and we do. But this text is less like a mother telling a reluctant child to go clean their room, than it is like a proud parent telling their child that they have potential to develop into whatever they put their mind to. Some have understood “be fruitful and multiply” in relationship to having children. While it certainly includes that, I believe that the mandate to be fruitful is much wider. When we raise children to be productive members of society, create businesses that serve the needs of the community, do our work with a view to serving our fellow human beings, or act in politics and civic organizations for the benefit of all, we fulfill this primary mandate. We make our heavenly father proud because these are all ways that we can be fruitful by creating good.

Sin came along, tarnishing and deforming this mandate; severely limiting man’s ability to achieve it. Laziness, unwarranted dependency on others, greed, narcissism, workaholism, crime, addictions, and oppression are among the ways the blessing is thwarted and the mandate distorted by sin.

Enter the second mandate. It. reads:

And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” Matthew 28:18-20

This text is sometimes read as a command to evangelize, and that is included. But the verbs are “teach” and “make disciples”. Fulfilling Jesus words brings a salvation that frees people to fulfill the first mandate – pulling them out of greed, materialism, addictions, oppression and belief systems that dehumanize; making them truly fruitful.

Formal evaluations and ordinary observation of the effects of translating the Bible into Ghana’s languages confirm that effects are not limited to personal salvation. Women, for instance, have gained a greater voice in their families and communities, and the are more likely to undertake new initiatives such as small businesses. They spend less money on traditional religion, and they are more likely to cooperate with others in economic activities. Their children are more likely to be enrolled in school. These changes come in addition to seeing more women in church in joyful and enthusiastic praise to God. Translating the Bible, it turns out, is a way to fulfill both mandates.