Posted on: Thursday, May 17, 2001

Pidgin New Testament may raise brows

An excerpt of the "The Lord's Prayer" in English and Pidgin

By Vicki Viotti
Advertiser Staff Writer

What do they think they're doing, translating the New Testament into pidgin?

"They" a group of Island translators think they're making the Bible more understandable to people who feel less comfortable using standard English. They consider pidgin a real language, not a joke.

And they know the publication of "Da Jesus Book" is going to upset people all the same.

"I think that's an unavoidable problem and typical whenever you're translating a low-prestige language," said Ryo Stanwood of Wailua Homesteads on Kaua'i, a member of a statewide team of 26 translators who converted text from English to pidgin.

He recalled that previous translators had their problems: Jerome was criticized for converting the Bible to Latin, then considered a vulgar language, and John Wycliffe for translating scripture into English.

The academic successors of that medieval scholar, Wycliffe Bible Translators, are the publishers of "Da Jesus Book" (price to be determined, about $14.95), which could be in bookstores as early as June. The public will get a chance to meet the translators at an event being planned for June 30 at the Makaha Resort.

Meanwhile, there are glimpses of the translated text and a glossary of pidgin Bible terms at the all-pidgin Web site (, and the Lord's Prayer represented here.

The book is the second volume to emerge from work by the translators, which began at informal meetings and Bible studies a dozen years ago. The first was a translation of the book of Matthew ("Matthew Tell Bout Jesus"); an Old Testament translation will be the next endeavor.

The project is the brainchild of Joe Grimes, a retired linguistics professor from Cornell University and the University of Hawai'i at Manoa, currently a consultant for SIL International, a service organization affiliated with Wycliffe.

He acknowledges that, for many people, pidgin is the stuff of humor or, at best, lightweight literature and seems ill suited as a vehicle for sacred text.

This reaction, Grimes said, indicates misunderstandings both about pidgin and about the history of the Bible.

"There's a movement to stamp out pidgin," he said. "And pidgin speakers look on that either with anger or a great deal of amusement, because that's their language."

In addition, he said, a pidgin version of the Bible seems far more fitting when you consider that the text was first written in what scholars believe to be "a kind of street Greek." Terms used in the original texts did not seem to jibe with the more formal Greek of scholars; the same expressions were found in ordinary correspondence letters, bills of sale unearthed in archaeological digs a century ago.

Grimes and his wife, Barbara (also a linguist), trained the team in the art of translation and worked with them through years of drafts and revisions. The basic training entailed teaching people "to look at the paragraph as the basic unit" so that the translation work wouldn't bog down on finding specific word equivalents.

This was helpful, Grimes said, in rendering difficult concepts such as "mercy" ("give chance") or "forgive" ("hemo da shame" or "let um go").

There will be negative reactions, he said. When the work first began, some of the complaints came from Kawaiaha'o Church, but retired Rev. William Kaina, then the pastor, recalled that the concern was based on its use of the linguist's name for pidgin, Hawai'i Creole English. Some parishioners felt that readers might associate pidgin with Hawaiian speakers, when the creole actually originated among later immigrants.

However, Kaina is not opposed to its use among those who feel most comfortable with pidgin.

"If this would help them to have some understanding of the scripture, then God bless that," he said.

One of the translators, the Rev. Stanley Shiroma, pastor at Wai'anae Baptist Church, grew up speaking pidgin on Maui. When he first began his Wai'anae ministry 20 years ago, many of his parishioners, especially older ones, found it far easier to communicate in pidgin.

"The people here lack the vocabulary," he said. " 'Sin' here means nothing. But when you say it as 'all the bad kine stuff they wen do,' they give you the look, 'Now I understand.' "

Wood said it's useful especially in conveying the meaning of books such as Romans that delve more deeply into theology.

Wood earned his doctorate in linguistics with a dissertation that sought to explode the myth that pidgin could only express simple thoughts.

"You have everything in pidgin you need to construct complex thought. (And) for many people, pidgin is the mode of communication for serious talk as well as humor."

Correction: Ryo Stanwood is one of the translators working on "Da Jesus Book." His name appeared incorrectly in a previous version of this story.



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