Speaking in tongues?

William wilberforceThe venerable British Bible Society (anti-slavery crusader William Wilberforce was one of its influential founders in 1804) is engaged in a project they estimate will take twelve years: translating the Old and New Testaments into patois. The compelling story around the controversial decision is given an rather negative spin by Telegraph writer Jonathan Wynne-Jones, who turns over the last part of the article to the skeptical "traditionalists."

There are serious issues here -- how much to adapt to a particular culture, how this strengthens or does not strengthen the mission of the Bible Society, whether the translation is more vernacular or a pretty strict translation of the original. But they aren't addressed much in the article.

His lede sounds sets the tone.

But now academics are working on making the books of the Old and New Testaments available in patois, a spoken language developed by West Indian slaves in the seventeenth century.

The project, which is being undertaken by the Bible Society, has upset traditionalists, who have described it as "utterly ridiculous."

The charity is working with the University of the West Indies on the translation in a bid to make the bible more accessible to the five million people worldwide who speak patois, mostly in Jamaica but also many in Britain.

I'm not sure if by "academics" Wynne-Jones means the "theologians and linguists" he mentions later in the story. It does seem a little strange that Bible scholars are mentioned nowhere in the story, since normally they would be the ones to translate the text.

Wynne-Jones illustrates his piece with a bit of translation from the Gospel according to Luke that lets the reader get a sense for the anticipated version.

One passage of the new translation reads: "Wa rait dong iina di Laa?' Jiizas aks im. 'Yu andastan i?"

The verse continues: "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."

The section comes from Luke, verses 26 and 27. In the traditional version it is: "What is written in the Law?" Jesus asks him. "How do you understand it?"

Courtney Stewart, General-Secretary for the Bible Society of the West Indies, is the only positive voice, and even he sounds ambivalent.

"The idea was initially rejected as patois wasn't considered to be a language. It was viewed as an improper mode of conveying the sacredness and solemnity of the scriptures," he said.

"This speaks to our sense of self-worth though and there are many children in Britain who speak patois and who will be able to relate more easily to what they read in such a Bible."

He said that churches in cities such as London and Birmingham with a large Jamaican constituency will find it particularly helpful.

It would really have been useful to quote one of the translators to give the reader some idea of the process.

The "traditionalists" are scathing (why are traditionalists so often portrayed in the press as being in a rotten mood)?

Traditionalists are concerned, however, that translating the Bible into patois is another example of "dumbing down."

Former Conservative Minister Ann Widdecombe, who left the Church of England to become a Roman Catholic, said: "It's one thing to turn the Bible into modern vernacular, but to turn it into patois is utterly ridiculous. When you dumb down you take away any meaning it might have."

It's our old friend, Ann Widdecombe, who had a cameo appearance in the article about the Anglicans and Darwin -- is she the "go-to" traditionalist?

Wynne-Jones does end the article by quoting Prayer Book Society chair Prudence Dailey, a moderate voice. Dailey questions whether using such a translation in public worship might "lose some of the sense of awe we should have."

That's a substantive point.

It is true that not every story is long enough to delve deeply into a controversy and allow opposing voices to speak in a way that informs rather than titillates. I just wish that there had been more of these voices in this story.

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