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Lost in translation

Published:Monday | March 9, 2015 | 12:00 AMDexter Wharton

In 2012, the people of Jamaica and, indeed, the wider world were introduced to a version of the New Testament produced in Jamaican Creole (or 'Patois', as it is known by its native speakers). For several years prior, there was substantial opposition to this necessary project. There were those who feared that such a project would have added to the continued erosion of the English language as spoken in Jamaica. For others, they saw it as downright sacrilegious to translate the Word of God into a tongue viewed by many as inferior.

One must remember, for many a Caribbean native, English is not the vernacular. English was not spoken on the region's shores prior to the visits of the Europeans, Africans and Asians centuries ago. Those who brought their languages along with their religions played key roles in reshaping the linguistic and religious nature of these island societies.

But the Bible as we know it today has been translated many times before. From Aramaic to Hebrew to Latin to Greek to hundreds of other established languages, the message of the Bible has been shared with humankind for centuries. How much of it has been lost in translation?

 

genuine effort

 

Any translation of the Good News of Jesus Christ and, to a lesser extent, the carefully crafted history of the Jewish people and their relationship with their God, should be embraced if it aims to offer a genuine effort in representing the text accurately.

Jamaican Creole is a language, a living language that is the vernacular of Jamaicans. Except to the keen ear of the linguist, its nuances make it hard to grasp and understand by outsiders. This, however, is not exclusive to Jamaican Creole, as all languages have to be learned to some extent.

The major challenge facing the person speaking Jamaican Creole is writing it in a standardised form. Language educators and policymakers have to combine their efforts in further developing and putting into practice an accepted way of writing Jamaican Creole to achieve a level of literacy in the language that will aid in propelling its elevation towards an official status.

The Caribbean is a multidimensional environment in which languages assimilate and metamorphosise on too regular a basis to ignore. Greater care has to be taken by those having the responsibility to document and instruct on language practices regionwide.

The man or woman at the pulpit also is expected to play his or her role in sharing the message of the Bible in a clear and compassionate manner. It will profit the congregation nothing if it does not understand the message because of a language barrier. Take, for example, the King James translation of the Bible. The language of the KJV is archaic to most Caribbean speakers, yet there are many who would swear to its authenticity as the word of God in its entirety.

There is much that gets lost when attempting to translate from one language to another. It is always incumbent on the translator to approach his or her work with painstaking precision and due diligence. And even then, not everything gets translated accurately.

 

much lost

 

There is insurmountable evidence in the case for mistranslation in the Bible. Indeed, much has been lost from the utterances of the original manuscripts and some amount has been added - deliberately or otherwise to further particular agendas.

Nonetheless, the Bible has to be translated so that language speakers across the globe are able to tap into its vast collection of stories - imagined and factual. And though its content may not be representative of all people, it does offer insight into the lives of those who have gone before us.

The greater injustice, though, does not lie in its mistranslations through the many languages, it has passed but rather in the tampering of the essence of the message. For too often and for too long, man has played God by adjusting the written word to serve a selfish agenda. And it is man's deep desire for power and the ability to control that has him guilty of twisting the original Word into the callous misrepresentations we have today.

Translate if you must. But in so doing, do so with honesty and dignity.

- Dexter Wharton is a linguist, theologian and communications officer at the Global Interfaith Council. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com and dexterwharton@gmail.com.