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The power and the patois

26 May 2023

At Pentecost, John Griffiths reflects on differences of translations


A stained-glass depiction, in St Etheldreda’s, Ely Place, London, of the apostles, speaking in diverse tongues (Acts 2.4)

A stained-glass depiction, in St Etheldreda’s, Ely Place, London, of the apostles, speaking in diverse tongues (Acts 2.4)

OVER the past year, I undertook what might be considered an unusual experiment: to read the New Testament in the original Greek, alongside two translations, the Jamaican patois (the language that developed when those enslaved were exposed to the language spoken by the slave owners), and the First Nations translation for Native Americans. The first was published in 2012 by the Jamaican Bible Society, and the second in 2022 by IVP.

These two translations informed my reading of the original, which is written in koine Greek — the language that came from Alexander the Great’s armies, but was the lingua franca of slaves and servants around the Roman world. It was not the language that Jesus and his disciples spoke, or that Jesus used in his teaching.


THE language in which the New Testament was written is not neutral: it was written to be read aloud. In the same way, the patois translation cannot be read silently: it has to be heard to be understood. This marks a significant break with our English translations, prepared by scholars and academics, in which the focus is on the accuracy of translation or its dynamic equivalence to a simplified colloquial vocabulary.

A focus on accuracy ignores the power relations inherent in the text: how the language is normally used, and by whom; who is speaking or writing; and the context of those who are listening. If, for example, those listening to a letter being read aloud understand Greek only as their second language, then the choice of words and their frequency and structure are designed so that the gist can be grasped by those for whom Greek is not their mother tongue. This is fundamentally different from a literary language, in which every nuance matters and can be grasped by the competent hearer and reader alike.


LISTENING to New Testament texts was an oral activity, not a literary one. In the Jamaican translation, the memorable phrase “mash op” is used to translate destruction, beating (as a punishment of servants), and threshing. Words are stretched as required from their regular usage by working people.

Koine, in daily use, did not function to articulate abstract theological concepts. For example, the language of grace and faith was borrowed from client/patron relationships. Patrons give grace-gifts, and clients respond with faithful acts.

St Paul uses this language freely when portraying our relationship with Christ. He is very careful to avoid the language of obligation when congregations are offering to support him financially. The letter to Philemon is a rare example in which Paul positions himself as Philemon’s client to propose the freeing of Onesimus.

Translations read only in religious contexts are oblivious to the dynamics in the text. Very powerfully, the Jamaican translation has Paul introduce himself as the slave of Jesus Christ when writing epistles to Philippi — a colony of Roman veterans — and to the Roman church itself; the only two occasions on which he does so. Our English translations have excised such controversial language, and spiritualised it away from the shock of its original meaning as the apostle subverts the hierarchy that is the bedrock of the Roman empire. Jesus comes down to earth to serve like a slave, and to give up his life on the cross. That is why God “put im iina tap-a-tap pozishan”.

The analogy in Ephesians 6 about putting on the armour of God is left an analogy in the Jamaican translation: it is something that soldiers do, but it would not be safe for those hearing the text to arm themselves and carry weapons. This is different from the way in which English translations assume that their readers are permitted — even encouraged — to arm themselves.


THE First Nations translation actively avoids the word “sin”, substituting “being on the wrong path”. The Kingdom of heaven is the right path — the one that God wants us to walk. This is because of the way white Christians removed Native American children from their families and put them in boarding schools, telling them that the speaking of native languages, the growing of their hair, and the wearing of indigenous clothing were “sinful”. “Sin”, therefore, comes to be associated with what white Christianity deems to be bad, even if this has little or nothing to do with the connotations of “sin” as the word was originally used.

Missionaries banned the burning of sage as part of prayer. How refreshing, then, to find in Ephesians 5, “Walk the road of love, following the path of the Chosen One who loved us and offered up his life to the Great Spirit like the smoke of burning sage” — closer in practice to worship in New Testament times than in the world of English translations. Prayers rise like smoke.

The Good News is reframed, now that all the tribes of the world enjoy the same privileges as the “Tribal Family Members” — the Jewish nation, the original tribes chosen by God — thanks to the work of God’s anointed leader (Creator Sets Free). You will not find the name Jesus, or any Jewish, Greek, or Latin names, in the First Nations Version. These are all rendered, along with place names, with their original meanings.


WHAT this exercise has taught me is how our English-language translations have become a kind of prison that has positioned English readers as the exceptional successors to the Jewish nation. That is the legacy of Christendom: that a language originally written in triumphant independence from Latin (the universal tongue) becomes itself the language of the masters. Even today, many Christian communities outside the UK regard the Authorised Version as the definitive high-status translation.

The language of English translations is freighted with the conceptual, whereas these contemporary translations address the power relations that brought such translations about in a way that English translations have now lost. Tyndale translated so that the ploughboy would know as much of the scriptures as a priest. Today, a teenager in London would understand the Jamaican patois better than the English that is read aloud from our lecterns.

In taking on board charges of institutional racism and the responsibilities of establishment, we need to recognise the part that language plays in maintaining our privilege. The beauty of these new translations lies in the way in which they can be understood by an English speaker, while originating in very different cultures. They can thus enable us to experience the New Testament scriptures as God’s inclusive word for “outsiders”: those formerly excluded from God’s promises, but now brought near. As the Church of England renegotiates its position in relation to the Anglican family worldwide, it is time for us to mind our language.


John Griffiths is a Reader at St Cuthbert’s, Rye Park, in the diocese of St Albans.

The Jamaican New Testament and the First Nations Version are both available in paperback. The JNT can be heard read aloud, chapter by chapter, in the YouVersion app or (free) on Soundcloud https://soundcloud.com/biblesociety/sets/jamaican-audio-new-testament. The First Nations Version is available as an audiobook read by the translators.

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