Dec 31, 2007

De Good Nyews Bout Translayshun?

Online Edition – Vol. III, No. 6: September 1997

De Good Nyews Bout Translayshun?

"Gullah" Version of Luke’s Gospel Raises Questions of Fidelity to Text

by Helen Hull Hitchcock

"Jedus say, ‘Ain’t nobody gwine light a lamp and den hide um someweh weh day cain’t shum. Needa e ain’t gwine pit de lamp ondaneet a bushel baskut. E gwine pit de lamp on top ob a table so dem wa come een de house kin see de light.’"

No, this is not "The Gospel According to Br’er Rabbit", nor a quote from an old Amos and Andy radio show. It is the official rendering of Luke 11:33 according to the recent "Gullah" translation of Luke’s Gospel, titled, De Good Nyews Bout Jedus Christ Wa Luke Write, published in 1995 by the American Bible Society, the Protestant organization that has for decades produced translations of the Bible in hundreds of the world’s languages. De Good Nyews Bout Jedus Christ Wa Luke Write is the first book of the Bible to appear in this tongue.

"Gullah" is described as "Sea Island Creole" spoken in the southeastern coastal area of the United States, and on tiny islands off the coast. This translation was prepared by "The Sea Island Translation and Literacy Team" in cooperation with the Summer Institute of Linguistics and the Wycliffe Bible Translators.

The translators’ preface says that they are "deeply committed to the full authority and infallibility of the Bible as God’s written Word", and their chief goal was "the accuracy of the translation."

"Our purpose has been to say as exactly as possible what the author of this Gospel meant when he wrote. Our objective was not to translate word-for-word, but in dynamic equivalents that express the contextual meanings of the Greek text in words and forms accepted as standard by people who use Gullah as a means of communication. … We endeavored to attain an effective literary quality suitable for private and public reading, for preaching and teaching, and for dramatic presentation."

The "Sea Island Team" does not exactly claim to have consulted the Greek text; and, in fact, acknowledge that this rendering is "most easily read by the many speakers who read regular English" (the King James Version appears in the margins as a sort of Rosetta stone). This is undoubtedly because their translation is essentially a phonetic transliteration of deeply accented English speech. The Team also believes their Gullah version will "help provide a bridge between the two languages as people learn to read and write." They hope that the "Word will come alive" through the "subtle nuances of this unique language."

Although there is no reference in the preface to the conflicted issue of so-called "inclusive language", masculine-gender pronouns are carefully and systematically neutered. Sometimes this is done by repetition of the proper noun to avoid pronouns. Sometimes the sentence is recast. But one "subtle nuance" of this phonetic rendering of heavily accented English is the use of the sound/word "e" as a substitute for both "he" and "she".

It is puzzling that the translators singled out the Lord’s name for change: to "Jedus". Their argument that "Jesus" has "traditionally been pronounced differently for many years" fails to persuade. It is unlikely that most Christians who speak in Gullah accents have never seen Jesus’ name in print or heard it pronounced. But even if so, other names, such as Theophilus, are not phonetically rendered as "Theawfillus". What is the motive for changing the name of Jesus?

Words such as "dem", "dat", and "dose", "gwine" for going, "ciple" for disciple, "ainty" for isn’t it, are virtually identical to the renditions of black-accented speech in 19th century and early 20th century popular literature"darky language", against which there was so strong a charge of racism that much of it has been utterly suppressed. (The stories of Uncle Remus by the white author, Joel Chandler Harris, for example.) It is hard to resist the impression that De Good Nyews might have been written as the preacher’s part in a black-face comedyespecially when phrases like "sho nuff" are put into the mouth of "Jedus".

The assertion that "Gullah" could serve as a bridge to aid illiterate speakers in reading English is hardly tenable, either. For one thing, the transliteration of many English words into Gullah bear no philological resemblance to the root word.The "bridge" theory was pretty thoroughly discredited in the highly publicized discussion over "ebonics". Such condescending translations may actually impede, rather than improve, the literacy of the very people the Team clearly intends to help.

The producers of De Good Nyews evidently decided that the strongly accented spoken English of "Sea Islanders" has become at least a legitimate dialect, if not, as they imply, an entirely distinct language. However, philologists and linguists disagree about how to determine when or whether the metamorphosis of a language into a genuine dialect occurs, or, even more problematic, has become another distinct language.

Furthermore, as the recent controversy over "ebonics" made clear, political and social issues complicate the issue, and linguists, translators and educators are not immune from influence by, or participation in the politics of language change. Few would deny that these biases affect the language of worshipand especially of Scripture and liturgical translationsor that they are highly controversial. Evidently the Sea Island Team is persuaded that "Gullah" is a separate language equal in stature with standard English, and successfully convinced the venerable American Bible Society to accept their decision.

The Sea Island Translation and Literacy Team reveals standard liberal bias in sensitivity to approved minorities, both by its feminist-inspired gender neutering, and in the descriptions of people Jesus healed in Luke 7:21,22. It is legitimate to question whether De Good Nyews is, in fact, is truly responsive to the needs of minority Sea Island people, or whether the "Gullah" text actually deepens the racial stereotypes the Team would otherwise be the first to decry.

Considering the Team’s concern for the feelings of minorities, the treatment of the Jews is surprising. The team often chose to insert the word "Jew" (with negative connotations: "Jew priest", "dem oda Jew people") when the word does not appear at all in the original texts. This especially ironic, since those to whom De Good Nyews is directed have presumably suffered from racism, and would surely object to any hint of it directed at themselves. This anti-semitism seems incompatible with the Team’s scrupulous sensitivity to feminists and people with physical handicaps. Does the Team think this unchristian attitude towards Jews prevails among speakers of Gullah?

But even more serious than these obvious flaws and inconsistencies, especially distressing in a Scripture translation, the Sea Island Team’s bias is clearly theological as well as political. An example of this is the rewording of the institution narrative in Luke 22:19,20. The Team goes beyond a "dynamically equivalent" rendering of this key passage of Scripture, giving Jesus the colorful accents of Sea Island Creole. In fact, it is not really a translation, but a theological interpretation which, by distorting the text, implicitly (though subtly) restricts the theology of the Eucharist derived from the words of Jesus. (Or rather, "Jedus".)

Luke 22:19, 20

De Good Nyews: Jedus take some bread an tank God. Den e broke de bread op, gem ta e postle dem. E say, "Dis bread me body wa A gibe ta God fa oona sake. Oona mus eat um fa memba me."

Same way, atta de Passoba suppa, Jedus take de cup ob wine and gem ta e postle dem. E say, "De wine een dis cup is de nyew greement tween God an e people. A da make dat greement come true wid me blood, wen A gree fa leh people kill me fa oona sake.

KJV: And he took bread, and gave thanks, and brake it, and gave unto them, saying, This is my body which is given for you: this do in remembrance of me.
Likewise also the cup after supper, saying, This cup is the new testament in my blood, which is shed for you.

If the Sea Island Translation and Literacy Team intends to render the entire New Testament in "Gulah", would they really call it the Nyew Greement?

Following are a few more examples of the subtle nuances of De Good Nyews compared with the KJV:

Luke 1:5, 6

De Good Nyews: Same time wen Herod been king ob Judea, one Jew priest nyame Zechariah been dey. … An e wife nyame been Lizabet. Lizabet blongst ta de fambly ob de Hed Priest, Aaron, too. Zechariah an Lizabet bof ob dem beena waak scraight wid God. Dey been a keep all de Law ob de Lawd and do ebryting e tell um fa do.

KJV: There was in the days of Herod, the king of Judaea, a certain priest named Zacharias…and his wife was of the daughters of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth. And they were both righteous before God, walking in all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord blameless.

Luke 2:7

De Good Nyews: She habe boy chile, e fusbon. E wrop um op een clothe wa been teah eenta leetle strip an lay um een a trough, de box weh feed de cow and oda animal. Cause Mary an Joseph beena stay weh de animal sleep. Dey ain’t been no room fa dem eenside de bodin house.

KJV: And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.

Luke 7:21, 22

De Good Nyews: …. "Mus go baak, tell John wa oona done se and wa oona done yeh. De people wa been bline, dey kin see. De cripple-op people da waak. Dem wa habe leprosy, dey cyure. De deef people able fa yeh, and dem wa done ded git op and libe gin. And de po people da yeh de Good Nyews.

De one wa ain’t got no doubt bout me, e bless fa true!"

KJV: …"Go your way, and tell John what things ye have seen and heard; how that the blind see, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, to the poor the gospel is preached.

And blessed is he whosoever shall not be offended in me.

Luke 15:1, 2

De Good Nyews: A heap ob people come geda roun Jedus fa yeh wa e say. Dem wa geda tax come and dem oda Jew people dat de Jew dem neba sociate wid cause dey ain’t keep all de Jew Law. Dat mak dem Pharisee and de Law teacha dem staat fa make complain say, "Dis man Jedus da sociate wid dem bad people wa we neba mix op wid. An e eben eat wid um!"

KJV: Then drew near unto him all the publicans and sinners for to hear him. And the Pharisees and scribes murmured saying, This man receiveth sinners, and eateth with them.

Luke 15:16

De Good Nyews: E been so hongry dat e wish e coulda eat de pig slop. E been jes dat hongry. Bot nobody ain’t gem nottin ta eat.

KJV: And he would fain have filled his belly with the husks that the swine did eat; and no man gave unto him.

Luke 22:1, 2

De Good Nyews: De time mos come fa de Feas ob Unleavened Bread, de Jew holiday wen dey eat bread wa ain’t habe no yeast een um. Dey call dat de Passoba holiday.

De leada dem ob de Jew priest and de Law teacha dem been study dey hed fa figga how fa kill Jedus widout nobody findin out bout um. Cause dey been scaid ob de people.

KJV: Now the feast of unleavened bread drew nigh, which is called the Passover.
And the chief priests and scribes sought how they might kill him, for they feared the people.



Helen Hull Hitchcock

Helen Hull Hitchcock (1939-2014) was editor of the <em>Adoremus Bulletin</em>, which she co-founded. She was also the founding director of Women for Faith & Family and editor of its quarterly journal, Voices. She published many articles and essays in a wide range of Catholic journals, and authored and edited <em>The Politics of Prayer: Feminist Language and the Worship of God</em> (Ignatius Press 1992), a collection of essays on issues involved in translation. She contributed essays to several books, including <em>Spiritual Journeys</em>, a book of “conversion stories” (Daughters of St. Paul). Helen lectured in the US and abroad, and appeared frequently on radio and television, representing Catholic teaching on issues affecting Catholic women, families, and Catholic faith and worship.