Finally, after years of work, tons of controversy, and reams of arguments, but with ever increasing support, the New Testament in the Jamaican language is being launched this Sunday, December 9, 2012. Jo and I are delighted that our grandson, Tyler Vanderveen, worked in Jamaica for the past seven months under Wycliffe Caribbean to promote the use of the Scriptures in Jamaican.
For generations the Jamaican Creole language, usually referred to as patois or patwa, has been looked down on, scorned, and not considered a real language. No wonder the word “patois” is never written with a capital letter.
During the years the Bible translators were working, letters to the newspaper editors and callers to radio phone-in programs presented the usual objections to translating the Bible into patois—the language spoken by about two million Jamaicans: “Jamaican patois is not good enough to express the concepts of the Bible.” They also urged the usual advice, “Speakers of patois just need to learn English better.”
Those days are finally over. From now on, what used to be disparagingly called broken English will be called the Jamaican language. While English is the official language ofJamaica, most children grow up speaking Jamaican and learn English in school.
For centuries, every new translation of the Bible was criticized. Jerome translated the Bible from Greek into Latin around 400 AD. It was criticized because he had not translated it into the classical Latin used by orators and poets, but into the common, everyday Latin spoken by people on the street and at home. That is why they called Jerome’s translation the Vulgate. It was vulgar, not in the sense of being indecent, but of being common.
Disapproval of new translations is routine. Even the partial Bible that my wife and I translated—with the help of gifted and trained Canela associates—was disparaged. Imagine that! Whenever I showed the Canela Bible to Portuguese speaking Brazilian pastors, they automatically assumed that the translation in Canela was not as clear, as accurate, or as good as the Bible they used in preaching to their Portuguese-speaking congregations.
I did not argue with them, but I knew from sitting in their church services that when they read the archaic three-hundred-year-old Portuguese Ferreira de Almeida version, they had to take most of the sermon time to explain to the congregation what the passage meant before making an application. Meanwhile no one needs to explain what the Bible in Canela says—it speaks clearly right off the page.
Wherever in the world the Bible is translated into minority languages, someone will level criticism at it. In having their work scorned, the translators of di Jamiekan Nyuu Testiment, as well as the translation teams currently working in nearly two thousand other minority languages around the world, are in good company. John Wycliffe, who did the first major translation since Jerome’s Vulgate a thousand years earlier, was strongly criticized for translating the Bible into English. A contemporary historian and fellow clergyman, Henry Knighton spoke for the clergy of his day when he criticized the translation into English as follows:
“Christ gave the Scriptures to the clergy and doctors of the Church so that they could use it to meet the needs of lay people and other weaker (uneducated) persons. John Wycliffe has now translated it into common English which has laid the Bible more open to literate laymen and women than it has formerly been to the most learned of the clergy. The jewel of the Church, hitherto the principal gift of the clergy and the divines, has now been cast abroad, and trodden under foot of swine, and is now made ever more common to lay people.”
Henry Knighton used the wrong metaphor. The Word of God is not a jewel to be preserved in a glass case, admired, and taught about by the well-educated chosen few. Jesus Himself called God’s Word not a jewel but seed which is meant to be scattered generously everywhere and to sprout in prepared soil.
The Creator made men and women in His own image, with the capacity to hear Him and communicate with Him irrespective of their educational level. God looks for people with receptive hearts—hearts that will respond when they hear His Word in the language they understand best.
Jamaicans everywhere on earth can finally read and hear God’s Word clearly. May they respond in faith and understanding as never before.