Tuesday, 22 July 2008

The Hegemony of Kingston & the Jamaican Bible

To me, it seems as if many Jamaicans will not accept/appreciate a reality unique to us – one that isn’t shared elsewhere. I have found this to be true in regards to our language and its varieties. Thus, in speaking to persons about Jamaican Creole, I’ve always found it helpful to point out that within any (sizable) speech community there are several language varieties or “dialects.” So, in Britain, for example, inhabitants of Birmingham speak a dialect of English different from that of Sunderland, and the dialect in Cardiff differs from that of Edinburgh – the list goes on almost indefinitely for within these groups there are sub-groups.

“Im a go se;” “Im gwai se;” “Im wi se;” and “Im o se” are four different ways of expressing “future tense” in Jamaican Creole – depending on your geographical location. Now, even the “ordinary” Jamaican “knows” there are dialects of Jamaican Creole; however, believe it or not, no one has ever done a systematic study of the Island’s dialect variety. All that the University of the West Indies’ Jamaican Language Unit has got is a superficial projection of what these verities are and where they are located! I found this surprising given the fact that Jamaican is one of the most researched Caribbean English Creoles – and perhaps the most prestigious.

What has all this got to do with the Jamaican Creole Translation Project? Well, not a few persons would like to see their dialects reflected in the translated text; however, they are fearful the Bible Society will adopt a “Kingston dialect” variety. If this language policy is adopted, it is believed, the Bible Society will be asserting the hegemony of Kingston – a problem “country” people (including myself) have had with “Kingston” for a very long time. By adopting a “Kingston dialect” (uptown?) the Bible Society will be in danger of alienating the rest of Jamaica.

On 16th July 2008, the Jamaica Gleaner published an article by Rev’d Peter Espeut, a sociologist and a Deacon in the Roman Catholic Church. In his article (never mind the factual errors for now), Rev’d Espeut cautions that “an uptown St Andrew Creole Bible, the Mona Version” may defeat their Bible Society’s purpose. Peter posed a pertinent question: “If the idea is to reach the Jamaican people with a creole Bible, which Jamaican people will be targeted?” He challenges the translators (by “translators” I guess he is referring to the Bible Society) “to avoid the obvious pitfall of the creation of an urban uptown Creole Bible. Do not be afraid of using deep rural expressions. Like at Pentecost, rural people need to hear God's Word in their own language too.”

How will be Bible Society of the West Indies go about addressing this issue? Can we learn anything from other translation projects? – for certainly, there is nothing new under the sun. It is important that a solid research project be undertaken in order to ascertain the distinctions which exists, so that the Society can address the issue intelligently and make allowance for me and my fellow “rural people” who “need to hear God’s Word in their own language too.”


Ron said...

The comment about the hegemony of Kingston and the translation of the Bible into Jamaican Creole is perceptive, pertinent and interesting and one we first addressed seven or eight years ago. What about the other Jamaican dialects? And what about those spoken in Belize, Bocas del Toro, San Andrés, etc. It might be illuminating to see how other major translations have dealt with this same issue. The King James was translated into the language of contemporary southern England. It clearly was not translated in US southern English, nor Australian English (both chronological impossibilities), nor Irish English. Yet that translation has blessed and been used by countless generations of English-speaking people around the world, nearly all of whom spoke dialects quite different from that of King James.

The Good News Bible, translated in the 20th century, was done into general American English, not into rural American English. A British version was produced later, but most of the changes were orthographic. No effort was made to accommodate the dialects of Birmingham, Cardiff, Sunderland or Edinburgh. Yet it is read and used by people in all of those areas.

To attempt to adapt a translation to specific areas of a country is a practically impossible task. In the first place, how what could it be done other than producing a version for each dialect? More importantly, dialects are not discrete entities each separate and distinct from the neighboring varieties. Rather, they blend seamlessly one into another without clear-cut boundaries. In other words, dialects tend to be arrayed along a continuum, and, in that sense, are nearly impossible to define and delimit.

What translators and translation projects have done is to select a widely used standard variety of the language, or, lacking that, the most prestigious member of a family of dialects. In the case of Creoles, it could be argued that there exist no standard varieties because Creoles typically have not been allowed to participate in the standardization process. In the Jamaica, for instance, English has been the standard language form. However, now for almost the first time Creole is being given the opportunity to be used in a serious domain (Scripture translation). Some variety will have to be chosen for this, and it can be argued that it makes sense to choose the variety spoken in the major (capital) city. Indeed, it is very difficult to raise a rural variety to the level of “standard”. In fact, in earlier discussions of this topic, some Jamaicans have expressed the view that a translation of the Bible into rural Jamaican would come across as “country bumpkinish” to most Creole speakers. This is would only exacerbate the strident opposition to project arising from the unfounded notion that for some reason Creole is an unworthy vehicle of Scripture.

Ronald Ross
UBS consultant for Creole project

Bertram Corner said...

Ron, thanks for responding. I agree that the best way to address the issue and therefore make allowance for rural and urban Jamaica is to "select a widely used standard variety of the language."