David Blackburn

Spreading the Word through patois

The Jamaican High Commission in London held a party last night to launch a patois translation of the Gospels. The translation, published by the Bible Society, is the culmination of 20 years work by academics at the University of the West Indies and other institutions, studying the rules of the creole created by plantation slaves and committing them fully to paper for the first time.

The project has been part-funded by donations from congregations whose primary (and often only) language is patois rather than English, the language in which scripture has always been written and read in the nominally English-speaking Caribbean. This is an important cultural moment. It is an act of religious emancipation that will enable believers to understand and contemplate the Word of God for themselves in the same way that Wycliffe and Tyndale did for English worshippers during the prelude to the Reformation by translating the Bible. Indeed, reports of Jamaican congregations reacting to the gospel in their own language are similar to historical accounts of the fervour that met the illicit work of those early reformers. “It’s almost as if you are seeing it,” said a devout Jamaican woman for the first time. There is no telling what this simple change might do to organised religion in Jamaican communities.

Most scholars of the Reformation will tell you that politics was inseparable from religion, arguing to varying degrees that the translation and official adoption of religious texts was vital to the creation of modern English and the concurrent transformation of the medieval kingdom of England into the nation state of Great Britain. Analogous claims are being made of the patois Bible and the development of an independent Jamaica, which is celebrating its 50th birthday this year. The Reverend Joel Edwards appeared on Thought

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