No new understanding

After the dedication of the Jamaican New Testament in Jamaica, a ceremony was organized in London to introduce it to the sizable Jamaican community there. The organizers didn’t know what kind of reaction they would get. After all, those attending would have an excellent command of English. In addition, some have been critical of doing a translation in the Jamaican language also called Patwa. Critics contend that the language is too crude and undeveloped for a translation.

As part of the ceremony in London, they read some short passages from the translation. The Jamaicans present shouted with joy. They all stood. They waved their arms and jumped some with eyes full of tears of joy.

This reaction is a bit surprising. After all, they were hearing passages they had heard in English many times. There was nothing new. They were not getting a first, new or better understanding because the passages are so well-known in English. The passages nevertheless had a dramatic, fresh effect when packaged in the heart language – their mother tongue.

That is interesting and moving, but is it important? I think so. After all, Jesus said we are to love God with all our heart, all our soul, and all our mind, implying that the soul and heart are as important as our understanding. Words that activate our emotions – that touch our hearts – are more likely to change our behavior and our thinking – to align our hearts with God’s. Without those effects, understanding isn’t worth much.

The Bible in the mother tongue goes so much deeper than mere understanding – just imagine those Jamaicans in London waving their arms and dancing around with eyes full of tears.


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.


There is a controversy brewing in Jamaica. The Bible Society is translating the Bible for the first time into Patois, the Creole language of Jamaica. This is welcomed by some and opposed by others. Those who oppose it want priority put on English. Some consider Patois to be substandard and even backward. While they see English as the language of development and access to the international world.

Congolese study the Bible in their languages in Ariwara

Congolese study the Bible in their languages in Ariwara

The Patois controversy is recycled. At various times and places, people have opposed the translation of the Bible into the common language for exactly the same reasons. Those arguing for English in Jamaica may not know, for example, that in the 14th and 15th centuries, educated people made the same arguments but in favor of Latin and against English. At the time, it was clear that Latin was the language of world affairs, that it had a fine literary tradition, and that anyone wanting to get ahead would not do so by learning English.

Paul Hema reads the Bible in front of his humble dwelling in Burkina Faso

Paul Hema reads the Bambara Bible in front of his humble dwelling in Burkina Faso

Nevertheless, reformers like John Wycliffe and William Tyndale translated the Bible into English and even wrote theological books and articles in English for the first time. The famous Swiss reformer, John Calvin, first wrote his well-known theological work, “Institutes of the Christian Religion”, in Latin. When he revised it, he wrote in French, his mother tongue, shocking much of the world. But today, even among those who know his “Institutes”, few remember than he first wrote them in Latin.

In a BBC News article on the controversy, their religious affairs correspondent, Robert Pigott, reports that when the Gospel of Luke in Patois was read for the first time in one of the churches it had an electrifying effect. One woman, referring to the passage where Jesus is tempted by the Devil, said:

“It’s almost as if you are seeing it. In the blink of an eye, you get the whole notion. It’s as though you are watching a movie…”

Traditional leader reading Gospel of Mark in Kaakye

Traditional leader reading Gospel of Mark in the Kaakye language of Ghana

Nevertheless, more conservative Christians say that translating the Bible into Patois dilutes the Word of God. That too is an argument recycled from controversies in other times and places. Historically, those who make that argument have always been wrong, because when the Bible was eventually translated into the “substandard” language it proved to be effective for evangelism and discipleship.

As someone involved in Bible translation into minority languages, you will guess on which side of this controversy I am aligned. I have no doubt that, in the end, some of the lowly men and women who read the Bible in their insignificant languages will be found to be very wise, dignified and worthy by the final Judge of such matters.

I suspect that those promoting English think that they have a high view of the Bible. But I think that it needs to be even higher. It is not the Bible, but the language that is in danger. You see, a humble language cannot drag the Bible down, but the Bible does elevate a humble language.

But God chose the foolish things of this world to put the wise to shame. He chose the weak things of this world to put the powerful to shame. (I Cor :27 CEV)

Congolese study the Bible in their languages in Ariwara

Congolese study the Bible in their languages in Ariwara

For a story of the impact the Patois translation is already having, see

You might be interested in checking out the Hawaii Pidgin Bible website.