KINGSTON, Jamaica Plans to translate the Bible into patois Jamaica's unofficial language have ignited a fiery debate that stretches beyond the shores of this island nation.
Some Jamaicans object to the project because they say patois is an obscure dialect that dilutes the sanctity of scripture. Others view the translation as an empowering statement that affirms their heritage.
The debate continues as a Caribbean-based religious group searches for translators to help with the $1 million project.
Religious leaders say the audio translation would make the Bible accessible to average churchgoers and to those who might not read it otherwise.
It will take about 12 years to translate, said the Rev. Courtney Stewart, who is overseeing the project as general secretary of the Bible Society of the West Indies.
He is lobbying other international Bible societies to help pay for the project and expects translators to start work by early July.
"Whenever the scriptures are translated into the country's language, it has a profound effect," he said.
Patois is how many Jamaicans refer to the creole that emerged when Britain seized the island in 1655 and brought slaves from Western Africa. It historically has been viewed as broken English and was considered a "low-status" language long after Jamaica gained independence in 1962, said Hubert Devonish, a linguistics professor at the Kingston campus of the University of the West Indies.
Almost all Jamaicans know patois but only recently have the middle and upper classes been speaking it in public, Devonish said.
"Jamaicans have become more and more comfortable with their national identity," he said. "There's been a general acceptance of the language bit by bit. It's a process, and the Bible translation is another step."
Ronald Dixon, a 47-year-old Seventh Day Adventist, said he's open to the idea.
"We have to give it a try," he said. "God doesn't discriminate."
The translation debate has spilled over the island's borders and seeped into Jamaican communities in the U.S.
Much of the support for a patois Bible comes from Jamaicans living abroad because they have become more nationalistic, said Clive Forrester, a linguistics lecturer at the University of the West Indies.
"One of the ways they remain connected is through their creole, because it is a powerful tool of communication," he said.
It's the language that Anton Wilson, 28, plans on teaching his children. He left Jamaica at age 7 and still feels he expresses himself best when speaking patois.
Wilson supports the project, but doesn't talk about it with relatives to avoid confrontation. His family lives in Jamaica and is considered upper class.
"It's very hard to change ingrained opinions," said Wilson, who lives in Lawrenceville, Ga. "We still hate ourselves for speaking our mother language."
Other Jamaicans, like 30-year-old Kevin Sangster, say patois is an obscure dialect that doesn't deserve to be the focus of such an expensive project. It could dilute the Bible's meaning because it's not an established language, he said.
"Errors could be made, and essentially what is translated is not necessarily reflecting the true meaning of the scriptures," said Sangster, who left Jamaica in 1994 and lives in New Jersey.
Karl Johnson, president of the Jamaica Council of Churches, said anything that helps people understand the word of God is good. There is nothing wrong with translating the Bible into someone's native tongue, he said.
"Sacredness is not in how the Bible is written," he said. "It's what it stands for."
The Bible has been translated into other dialects, including Haitian Creole and Gullah, which is largely spoken by African-Americans in isolated coastal areas of South Carolina and Georgia. It also has been translated into hundreds of languages, including Tagalog, spoken in the Philippines; Ga, spoken in Ghana; and Mi'kmaq, spoken mostly by Indians in eastern Canada.
Just because the Bible is now being translated into Jamaican creole doesn't indicate a patois renaissance, Devonish said.
Contributing: Danica Coto