Today on the BBC I read a story about the bible being translated into Jamaican patois, the local dialect of Jamaica, and was strongly reminded of something from my childhood: Da Jesus Book, the New Testament* translated into the local dialect of Hawaii, which we call Pidgin. It’s a mixture of Hawaiian, Japanese, Portuguese, Chinese, Tagalog, Ilocano, English, and other languages that made up the native tongues of plantation workers during Hawaii’s days as an agricultural powerhouse which required a lot of imported labour. To give an example of what it sounds/looks like, here’s a bit from Matthew, the Sermon on the Mount:
Da peopo dat know dey need God inside dea heart, Dey can stay good inside, Cuz God in da sky, he dea King. Da peopo dat cry inside dea heart, Dey can stay good inside, Cuz God goin kokua dem. Da peopo dat no need put demself first everytime, Dey can stay good inside, Cuz God goin give um da whole world. Da peopo dat everytime really like do da right ting, Dey can stay good inside, Cuz God goin help um do um. Da peopo dat pity da odda peopo, an give um chance,
Dey can stay good inside, Cuz God goin pity dem an give um chance too., Da peopo dat hundred percent fo God inside, Dey can stay good inside, Cuz dey goin see God. Da peopo dat help da odda peopo come friends again, Dey can stay good inside, Cuz God goin say, ‘Dey my kids.’ Da peopo dat do right, an suffa fo dat, Dey can stay good inside Cuz God in da sky, he dea King.
As you can probably tell, it’s more of a spoken language than a written one. And, like the Jamaican women in the BBC video, I grew up speaking Pidgin but could switch back to English readily when I felt the need. After having spent four years on the mainland, I’ve lost the ability to speak it properly, but I can still understand it, and can communicate comfortably with it when speaking with close friends.
I consider it a beautiful linguistic mosaic, and see nothing wrong with speaking it among friends who also understand it. The original purpose of Pidgin was, after all, to lubricate cross-cultural communication between people who all found themselves in the same circumstances, and its rich history alone makes it worth preserving. Like the patois speakers though, I discovered that not everyone shared my rosy view of Pidgin, considering people who spoke it as their primary language “stupid”, “ill-bred”, “dirty”, and a number of other rude things.
Never mind that most of us can speak English well enough and switch comfortably between the two when needed, or Pidgin’s beautiful history. Rather than qualifying us for some type of bilingualism, it marks us as being too stupid to speak proper English. This became a hot button issue when the first edition of Da Jesus Book came out, when I was about 11. I remember people groaning about how it “debased” the word of God, and rendered the passages incomprehensible and ugly. I couldn’t believe the vitriol behind the idea of people reading the bible in Pidgin, especially since so many Hawaii preachers and ministers already used Pidgin as the primary tongue of their sermons.
They often cloaked the racism and Anglocentrism in this sentiment by justifying it through Pidgin’s history as an oral language, not a written one, but that was as transparent and shoddy as cheap toilet paper. Languages evolve, and Pidgin is more than capable of evolving from a purely spoken language to a written one as it gains prominence and cultural pride within Hawaii. There are Pidgin language books, plays, and even publications in newspapers, why not holy books as well?
Plus, I must point out that anyone thinking that translating the bible into a different language really doesn’t have a leg to stand on, unless they can fluently read Greek, Aramaic, Hebrew, and Latin. O tempora, o mores!
* Now the whole bible is available online in Pidgin, I discovered.