When Karen Roach first heard the Bible in Jamaican Patois, an English-based creole she grew up speaking, she couldn’t help but laugh.

“The reason why you laugh is, one, because of the way it’s said and, two, because it touches your heart—it reminds me of home,” Roach said. She felt like a light on a dimmer switch had been slid to its highest setting.

Roach, who works for Wycliffe Bible Translators in London, grew up in a middle-class neighborhood in St. Ann, Jamaica, where she attended schools that stressed speaking English. Like most Jamaicans, Roach spoke Patois (also known as Jamaican) at home and was taught “what you do in the yard, you don’t do abroad.” So when she first heard of a Bible translation for Patois, she dismissed it, arguing that Patois wasn’t a real language but a slang used by locals.

But after watching the Jesus film dubbed in Patois last year, she found herself moved. While on a visit to Jamaica in December 2022, she got her hands on a Jamaican New Testament—which she struggled to read because it uses a different alphabet—and an audio Bible to listen to. “I’ve been to Bible college, done a degree in theology, but there were certain things that Jesus said which [weren’t] clear in English,” Roach said. “But when I heard it in Patois, I thought, Wow, this is interesting.”

Over in the Philippines, Jorge de Ramos also heard laughter after he asked someone to read from the Taglish translation of the Bible at a Christmas party. (Taglish is a mixed language combining Tagalog and English.) “It’s something not irreverent, but it really departed from the very, very formal-sounding reading of Scripture,” said De Ramos, pastor of Capitol City Baptist Church in Quezon City.

While Taglish is heard on the streets of Metro Manila, the Bible is predominantly read in either Tagalog or English. Many pastors found it disrespectful to use such a colloquial language as Taglish to express the Word of God, and initially De Ramos also struggled to break away from deeply ingrained ideas that the languages must not be mixed.

But “it’s either me insisting on being a purist or adapting to the way the audience would like to hear it,” he said. Today, he preaches from the pulpit in Taglish and uses the Taglish translation in Scripture readings.

Despite the vast historical and cultural differences between Patois and Taglish, both challenged the status quo around which translations should be used in the church. They faced a flurry of backlash, including claims that the translations were irreverent, when the Bible Society of the West Indies released the Jamaican New Testament in 2012 and the Philippine Bible Society released the New Testament Pinoy Version in 2018.

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Though these two translations have now gained greater acceptance, big questions remain. What is the “correct” language to use for a Bible, and who gets to draw that line? Even in languages deemed acceptable, are there words too vulgar to be used in the Bible? Are there times when a new version strays too far from the original text?

Various forms of these questions have been fiercely debated by Christians throughout church history, and they carry great spiritual importance. Translations can change how people view God, whom they think God’s Word is for, and whether they even pick up a Bible in the first place. Oftentimes, culture, history, class, and other biases color how we view the acceptability of a certain language. Yet perhaps what is most important is whether God’s Word speaks to listeners in a way that changes their lives.

Long before Christians debated whether to translate the Bible into Jamaican Patois, they were debating whether to translate it into English. The Latin Vulgate Bible (which was translated in A.D. 405) was the standard in Western Christianity for more than 1,000 years, with the result that only the religious elites had access to the Word of God.

In the late 14th century, Oxford professor John Wycliffe and his colleagues translated the Bible from the Latin Vulgate into the vernacular English of his day because “it helpeth Christian men to study the Gospel in that tongue in which they know best Christ’s sentence.”

The church considered the translation a heresy, and King Richard II banned Wycliffe’s teachings in 1382. Wycliffe’s actions were considered so atrocious that, 40 years after his death, officials dug up his bones and burned them.

A century later, William Tyndale had a similar vision to bring the Scriptures to the common people, creating the first English Bible translated from the original Hebrew and Greek. He managed to translate the New Testament and parts of the Old Testament before he was arrested and executed for heresy under King Henry VIII. Later, though, Henry VIII converted to Protestantism, created the Church of England, and permitted the English translation of the Bible.

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Today, there are an estimated 900 English translations and paraphrases of the Bible (including incomplete translations). This includes formal equivalence Bibles that seek to stick closely to the words and grammar of the original text (such as the King James Version) as well as dynamic equivalent versions that try to communicate the idea of the original text (like the New Living Translation).

Then there are paraphrases, like The Message and the Living Bible, which are “concerned about the accuracy in translating thoughts, to express something the way the author would if they had been writing in English,” Kenneth N. Taylor, the creator of the Living Bible, explained to CT in 1979.

This means that while paraphrases are more readable, they also introduce the adapter’s own theological leanings and commentary into the text, causing consternation among some Christians. After Taylor finished the Living Bible—a project he began to help his children understand Bible readings during family devotions—he struggled to find a publisher willing to take on his manuscript. He decided to start his own publishing company, aptly named Tyndale House Publishers. The Living Bible became a bestseller when it was published in 1971 and went on to sell 40 million copies.

Some paraphrases make even more direct changes to the text, such as adding modern slang, anachronisms, and familiar names for people and places to match the knowledge of readers. Freddy Boswell, former executive director of the Bible translation group SIL International, called these paraphrases “adaptive retellings.”

They use various local dialects, such as in The Aussie Bible (“The angel said to her, ‘G’day Mary. You are a pretty special sheila. God has his eye on you.’ ”). They also include Clarence Jordan’s Cotton Patch Gospel from the 1960s, “a modern translation with a Southern accent, fervent, earthy, rich in humor,” according to his publisher. It modernizes the names of people and locations (to US cities in the South) and changes the Jews and Gentiles to “whites and Negros,” with Jesus dying by lynching.

Jordan claimed his goal was to reframe the events of the Scripture so “plain folks” in the South could better understand them. “[Translations] have left us stranded in some faraway land in the long-distance past,” Jordan said. “We need to have it come in our tongue and our time. We want to be participants in the faith, not merely spectators.”

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Confusion can result if a version isn’t explicitly clear that it is not an “accurate translation,” Boswell writes, but he sees the purpose of adaptive retellings as “introducing readers and hearers to the ‘broad strokes message’ of the Good News. It is a bridge to further reading, learning, and growth.”

Speakers of most languages don’t have the luxury to choose from hundreds of Bible translations. Translation groups are working to make the Bible accessible to everyone in the world, but with limited finances and resources, they need to figure out which languages to focus on.

With the evolving nature of language and the large number of multilingual populations, this can get tricky. Peter Brassington, a digital Scripture engagement consultant with SIL, said the main question is “Can people understand [the Bible] if we don’t translate it?”

Translators also think through questions like “Is it a language that will still be used in the next generation? How bilingual or multilingual is this people group? How do people view the language?” And they dig deeper to figure out why a certain language may be looked down on, Brassington said. “Is it just because we’ve been telling you that for the last few generations and you believed us eventually? Or is it that, yes, you have decided there are different functions, different places where you want to use the language?”

Image: Illustration by Sergey Isakov

This is sometimes the case with pidgins (languages formed to communicate between two different languages), creoles (pidgins spoken as a first language), mixed languages (languages that arise within a bilingual population), and local languages that get pushed aside by another major regional language.

In Jamaica, the idea of creating a Patois Bible translation was unthinkable for many when Faith Linton, a board member of the Bible Society of the West Indies, first suggested it in the late 1960s. The language—a mix of English with West African, Taíno (a Caribbean language), Irish, Spanish, and other influences—developed so that people who were enslaved and brought over from Africa to work on the island’s sugar plantations could communicate with their masters. After the emancipation of Jamaica’s enslaved people in 1838, they sought to advance socially by speaking English.

Once Jamaica gained independence in 1962, Jamaicans felt it important to “prove to Britain that we were able to manage, and one of the ways in which we could prove that … is to speak English,” said Bertram Gayle, an Anglican priest in Kingston and a translator for the Jamaican New Testament. Also, there existed “negative attitudes that were … inculcated in our people toward the Jamaican language, the language of the slaves, the enslaved people, or anything African.”

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So while Patois is still spoken in the home and informal settings by more than four million people around the world, English is Jamaica’s official language and is used in schools, the government, and the church.

“English is the aspirational language,” said Ruth Smith-Sutherland, executive director of Wycliffe Bible Translators Caribbean. “That’s what they want to hear in church.” But this means many people are unable to fully understand what they hear on Sunday mornings or read in their KJV Bibles.

Linton continued to push for a Patois version, and translation work finally began in 1993 as attitudes toward the language softened. When Gayle started working on the Jamaican New Testament in 2008, he was told that it had been 60 percent completed. Yet he found the material of such poor quality that the translators decided to start from scratch.

They faced several other challenges. Jamaican is still primarily a spoken language, so few people could read the Jamaican alphabet used in the translation. When the team finished the New Testament three years later, the group Faith Comes By Hearing helped them produce an audio Bible. Gayle noted that more people listen to the translation than read it.

The project also faced pushback from Jamaicans who considered translating the Bible into “broken English” a waste of time. Jamaican prime minister Bruce Golding said in 2008 that the translation “signifies an admission to failure” of Jamaicans to properly teach English.

The Jamaica Gleaner printed letters to the editor complaining about the translation. “I imagined a Sunday or Saturday morning where there is pure laughter, while the Word of God is being read!” wrote Christine Ade-Gold. “The pastor and congregation would go home feeling belly pains from laughter, with nothing spiritual gained. This is not only disrespectful to God, but also a mockery of God.” Others felt that Patois lacked the vocabulary to mine the deep spiritual truths in the Bible.

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“So we proved them wrong,” Gayle said. “Any language can communicate anything; if something pops up in a particular culture, people find ways of identifying it and referring to it.”

The translation team used phrases to explain concepts not used in Jamaican. For instance, the manger where Jesus was born became “the box that the animals eat out of.” They also used the basic word structures in Jamaican to create easy-to-understand new expressions.

In the decade since the Jamaican New Testament’s publication, more Jamaicans are seeing Patois as a language to take pride in. Smith-Sutherland noted that the international popularity of reggae music and local writers like Louise Bennett-Coverley contributed to this change. “Thanks to our artists, they’ve torn down this barrier,” Smith-Sutherland said. “So it’s not in our churches that that happened. It happened in our dance halls.”

Today, the Patois translation is used in some churches (including all of the island’s Methodist churches), heard on the radio, and read on special occasions such as Pentecost or Jamaican emancipation and independence celebrations. The Bible Society of the West Indies has sold 10,000 copies of the Jamaican New Testament, and an app with the audio Bible has been downloaded 50,000 times. While most Anglican churches use only English in their services, Gayle works to incorporate Patois into sermons and Scripture reading at his church.

Ironically, he’s found that churches that use English more heavily in their worship services—which tend to have congregants from a higher socioeconomic class—are more accepting of the Jamaican Bible than rural churches that use more Jamaican. His theory is that because those in rural areas view English as their path to social mobility, they hold tightly to reading Scripture in that aspirational language. But the more English-speaking churches don’t have anything to lose in terms of upward mobility by using the Jamaican Bible.

While Patois is tied to Jamaica’s history of enslavement, over in the Philippines, Taglish is a recent development birthed out of American colonialism and growing pride in the national language, Filipino (a dialect of Tagalog). Unlike Jamaican, Taglish is not a creole or pidgin but a mixed language, as speakers of Taglish speak both English and Tagalog.

The Philippines is home to more than 120 languages, with Filipino spoken most widely. (Filipino and Tagalog will be used interchangeably in this article.) Spain’s 300-year rule of the country resulted in Spanish words also being sprinkled into the vernacular, as well as Spanish surnames and a Spanish-based creole.

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During the 50 years of US colonialism in the Philippines, Americans set up a public school system and imported American culture, democracy, and the English language. Even after the Philippines gained independence in 1946, English was the language used in the government, media, and education.

But as people began protesting after former president Ferdinand Marcos declared martial law in 1972, “the language of the expression for freedom was Filipino,” said Anicia Del Corro, translation consultant for the Philippine Bible Society (PBS). The use of Tagalog grew, although the educated class was still trained in English.

Thus the two languages began to mix, creating Taglish. Del Corro noticed the language taking off around the turn of the millennium, bolstered by texting and the internet, which tore down the barrier between how language was spoken and how it was written. It became especially prominent in Metro Manila, a region made up of 16 cities and 13 million people.

Beginning in 2007, PBS started holding workshops to train translators for the Taglish Bible translation (formally called the Pinoy Version). Researching this new language, convincing the PBS board to greenlight the project, and translating the New Testament from its original Greek took 11 years. The entire Bible with the Old Testament was completed in June 2023.

Since the New Testament Pinoy Version was first released at the 2018 Manila International Book Fair, Christians (who make up at least 90 percent of the country’s population) have debated the translation endlessly on social media, through blogs, and in person. At an open-mic session hosted by PBS soon after the version’s launch, attendees decried that the Taglish words used in the Bible were more fit for “the ‘tambays’ in the ‘kanto’ [bystanders in the streets] rather than … serious readers of God’s Holy Word,” according to Rei Lemuel Crizaldo, a writer and theologian who attended the event.

A fresh wave of critiques appeared after a Catholic bookstore posted an online ad for the translation in 2020. “Very liberal word choices can lead to the text not being taken seriously,” wrote one commenter. Others said the Bible lost its “richness and contextual meaning” when translated into Taglish.

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Yet the Pinoy Version also had its supporters, including Catholic bishop Broderick Pabillo, an important figure in the heavily Catholic country. He defended the translation in an article, saying, “We cannot say the Pinoy version is disrespectful of the word of God as we cannot say that our Taglish is disrespectful.” He sees a need for young people in Metro Manila to get interested in the Bible and “feel that the Bible speaks to them … in their day-to-day language.”

The New Testament Pinoy Version’s sales numbers confirmed that need: Within the first year, PBS sold 100,000 copies, the most it has ever sold for a new translation. To date, PBS has distributed more than 500,000 New Testaments and 72,000 copies of the completed Bible.

The 68-year-old Pabillo says that during the liturgy, he sticks with traditional Bible translations, but in talks or Bible studies, he uses the Pinoy Version. At first, his parishioners were surprised. But after he explained how the translation was done and started using it regularly, they came to accept it and now find the Bible easier to understand, he says.

Image: Illustration by Sergey Isakov

Crizaldo, who is also the theological commission coordinator of the World Evangelical Alliance, was surprised to see the backlash against the translation. He thought the growing acceptance of Taglish in literature, including his own books, would have softened people’s stances against the language. “Young people loved it,” he recalled. “But it was the pastors who vehemently reacted that it disrespects the Word of God because the young people are laughing while reading it.”

Crizaldo found that the Pinoy Version translated not only the words but also the emotions in the culture. “It’s not only speaking to the mind, but it’s trying to capture the force of the emotions,” he said. “And I think that’s the reason why it connects so well with people, especially the younger people.”

Language can be divided into low-register (common or ordinary) and high-register (former or proper). This categorization had to be considered by translators of both the Taglish and Patois New Testaments. When Del Corro first met with her young team of translators, she stressed that the Bible would not include vulgar or tabloid language or vocabulary connected to a particular subsection of society (such as Swardspeak, a Taglish slang used within the LGBT community).

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Over in Jamaica, Smith-Sutherland noted the care translators took to ensure the Patois Bible would be appropriate in church settings. She said some of the younger translators wanted to include more street talk so the Bible could appeal to “a man on the street who ain’t reading no Bible.”

“I sympathize with that, and I will go halfway down the road with them,” Smith-Sutherland said. “But I pull them back when I say what we want is something that is also liturgical that can be read on a Sunday morning. So that’s the kind of tightrope we walk.”

This too is not a new debate. Words that would make many a Christian blush are found in the original Greek and Hebrew texts of the Bible, said Andy Warren-Rothlin, global translation advisor at United Bible Societies. Most of these words refer to body parts, excrement, or sex. In the ninth century, Masoretic scribes put a note in the margin by several words including shagal (“to ravish” or “rape”) and hărā’îm (“excrement”), urging people to swap them out for euphemisms when reading the Bible aloud in the synagogue,
Warren-Rothlin noted.

English translations in the past century have also cleaned up words that Wycliffe had no problem using. A taunt from an Assyrian military figure toward Israelites in Isaiah 36:12 went from insulting them as men who “eat their turds, and drink the p— off their feet” to people who “eat their own excrement and drink their own urine” in the NIV.

“Our modern evangelical ideas about the use of language are much more uptight than the original biblical text itself,” Warren-Rothlin said. “The perspective [we’re] seeing it from is itself odd in the perspective of history.”

He noted that the prophets used very strong language when speaking about the ways Israel had strayed from God, and “famously Paul uses this word skubalon, which some people think meant something like s—” in Philippians 3:8 when comparing his former accomplishments to knowing Christ.

Warren-Rothlin believes the influence of the King James Version made Western evangelicals feel the Bible should be communicated in high-register language and “sound a bit posh.” As they went out as missionaries and Bible translators, they spread that idea to Christian communities they started, he noted.

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While parts of the Bible like the Psalms belong in an elevated language, he said, other parts like the Gospels should be written in a normal narrative register, and parts of Paul’s letters have “a very clearly low-register, very idiomatic spoken kind of language.” Novels often have characters speaking in different registers to depict their place in society, “so why shouldn’t our Bible translations have that same kind of diversity?” Warren-Rothlin asked.

One creative translation Warren-Rothlin loves (“It does really wacky kinds of things, and yet it engages people”) is the German Volxbibel. It falls under the category of adaptive retelling; not only does it use low-register “street” language, but it also changes the Bible to include anachronistic technology—Jesus rides into Jerusalem on a motorbike and gives Peter the “PIN code” to the kingdom.

Martin Dreyer, founder of the youth outreach ministry Jesus Freaks, decided to write the Volxbibel after realizing that the young people he worked with at a youth center in Cologne were completely unfamiliar with religious terms. When he asked them what they thought sin meant, one young man said a sinful weekend meant going partying and meeting girls. After telling them, “Jesus died for your sins,” Dreyer recalled them asking, “Why? He shouldn’t have done that for the fun times I had.”

So Dreyer, who himself came from a punk-rock background, took the German Luther and Elberfelder Bibles and started to rewrite the scriptural text using words and ideas that the young people he worked with could grasp. The result was the Volxbibel, which Dreyer self-funded and published in 2005, with a cover modeled after a pack of cigarettes and a warning that “reading can have radical side effects.” It’s currently in its eighth edition (new editions are created as the language changes).

Controversy erupted even before it was published. Hundreds of Christians signed petitions calling for its publisher, R. Brockhaus Verlag, to drop the book. The publishing house founded a separate subsidiary for the Volxbibel to avoid harming the rest of its publications. Christliche Bücherstuben GmbH, a Christian bookstore chain associated with the Brethren movement, does not sell the Volxbibel because it believes the book speaks “obscenely and improperly” of God.

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In an article, Michael Freitag of AEJ, an umbrella organization for Protestant youth in Germany, called the Volxbibel “a pretty scary and embarrassing elaboration—linguistically, theologically, and spiritually,” claiming that it tarnishes the Bible with “tasteless choice of words,” misrepresents Jesus, and adds commentary into the Bible rather than allowing God’s Word to speak for itself.

At the height of the protest, Dreyer said, he received about 600 messages a day about the Volxbibel. At one point, an elderly man interrupted his sermon at his church, stomped up to the stage, and “gave me over to Satan.”

In defense of the profanities laced throughout the text (for instance, instead of sin, Dreyer uses a German phrase that means “doing s— stuff”), Dreyer pointed to the original language of the Bible. He noted that when Martin Luther translated Philippians 3:8 into German, he used the German word kot (“dung”), which was later changed to a word meaning “filth.”

In later versions of the Volxbibel, Dreyer decided to take out nearly all the profanities after receiving a note from a mother who said her daughter had called her dinner “s—” after reading the word in the Volxbibel. The one instance where he kept it was the verse in Philippians.

Dreyer modernized the stories in the Bible to fit its 21st-century readers.In the Volxbibel, parables are given modern equivalents, with the parable of the sower replaced with new software (the seed) being planted in different types of hardware (the soil). Jesus is born in a car park, his Dad gave him the “joystick for this world,” and Christians are called to be like a refrigerator for this world (since in Jesus’ time, salt had a preservative function).

“I said to the critics, ‘Are we here to save the language or save people?’ ” Dreyer said. “When only one person is reached through this crazy Bible version, if they are suddenly interested in this belief, finding hope, and starting to get in contact with God, the whole work is worth it.”

And the translation has had that effect, Dreyer said. Many people send him encouraging emails and letters, including a girl who said she was part of the goth scene and didn’t see any reason to keep living. When a suicide attempt left her in the hospital, a nurse gave her the Volxbibel, which she read cover to cover. Afterward she prayed and found a church. “Her whole life is now full of light and hope,” Dreyer said.

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To keep its language current, Dreyer pasted the Volxbibel into a Google document where anyone could make suggestions for edits, creating a crowdsourced Bible. Dreyer and his team go through the suggestions to determine which they plan to keep, and before the next edition is published, two or three Bible scholars comb through the text to make sure it is faithful enough to the original. This too caused consternation among Christians, because professional Bible translators were not involved.

The media buzz around this controversial Bible caused the book to hit No. 19 on the secular bestseller list in Germany. In total, the Volxbibel has sold 350,000 copies. It’s opened up doors that Dreyer never imagined, including opportunities to speak in schools and at rock festivals.

Dreyer believes that the Volxbibel is a good way to introduce people to the Word of God and that as they grow in their faith and want to know God more, they can pick up more traditional Bible translations.

“It’s definitely a low-level bridge for nonreligious people to get into the message of the Bible,” Dreyer explained. “I think my calling is to get people out of this nonbelieving area over this bridge to the church and realm of belief. It’s an [evangelistic] flier for those who won’t read any other fliers.”

Many Bible translators see the roles that different types of retellings, paraphrases, and translations can play to make God’s Word as clear and approachable to as many people as possible. Like with the Patois or Taglish translations, having a Bible in the language that one lives and thinks in can make a profound spiritual difference.

“My own personal belief is that a good Bible translation in [one’s] natural language … leads to quicker transformation than if you continue to tell people to read the Bible in the language that actually they are not competent in,” said Marlon Winedt, a global translation advisor with United Bible Societies and a consultant for the Jamaican Old Testament. “It doesn’t speak to them in the same way their mother tongue speaks to them.”

Warren-Rothlin noted that even though in his professional life he is very strict about translation accuracy, he also enjoys seeing the creative ways Christians are reaching nonbelievers. At the end of the day, his ultimate goal is to get people to engage with Jesus.

“I’m not going to be picky about every detail about whether it’s true to the source text. What I care about is that people engage with it, read it, watch or listen to it, and they get to know Jesus,” he said. “If you’ve done that, I’m happy.”

Angela Lu Fulton is CT’s Southeast Asia editor.

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