The Word, in Their Tongue
Saturday, November 26, 2005
ST. HELENA ISLAND, S.C. -- More than a quarter-century after the laborious work began, the New Testament has been translated into Gullah, the creole language spoken by slaves and their descendants for generations along the sea islands of the Southeast coast.
Gullah is an oral language, so the translation was painstaking, beginning in 1979 with a team of Gullah speakers who worked with Pat and Claude Sharpe, translation consultants with Wycliffe Bible Translators.
Many efforts have been made over the years to preserve Gullah, which mixes West African languages with English, and experts believe the translated Bible will be a major contribution toward that goal.
"I think this makes the language universal," said Ervena Faulkner, co-manager of history and culture at the Penn Center, which is dedicated to preserving the threatened sea island culture.
"People have done Gullah cookbooks, they have done African American sayings, they have done proverbs," Faulkner said. "But for the Bible to go out with the Gullah sends a message. It means we can speak the Word."
Nestled amid spreading oaks dripping Spanish moss on this island just east of Beaufort, the center is on the site of the Penn School, which was founded in 1862 to educate slaves newly freed by advancing Union troops. The culture -- called Gullah in the Carolinas and Geechee in Florida and Georgia -- remained intact among descendants of slaves because of the isolation of the region's sea islands. Now, about 250,000 Gullahs live in the four-state coastal area, and about 10,000 of them speak Gullah as their main language.
De Nyew Testament, published by the American Bible Society, went on sale this month. As an example, the verse John 1:1, "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God," was translated to read, "Fo God mek de wol, de Wod been dey. De Wod been dey wid God, an de Wod been God. -- De Good Nyews Bout Jedus Christ Wa John Write 1:1."
The Bible is written with the English translation in the margins.
"That's the beauty of the way it's written," said Emory Campbell, who retired three years ago after 22 years as executive director at the Penn Center. "The non-Gullah speakers can easily translate what the written Gullah is about. In a way, we are going to be training other people how to speak Gullah."
For generations, the language was something native speakers tried to abandon, because they feared it would hurt their chances of getting ahead in the wider world.
"It was a put-down," Campbell recalled. "You were looked on as being ignorant and at a low intelligence level if that's the language you spoke. We tried at all costs to avoid speaking it."
For that reason, Campbell at first would not help with the translation until he spoke with a professor from the University of California, who told him Gullah is indeed a language.
"I thought then it was a legitimate project," he said.
Creole languages develop when speakers of two languages who can't understand each other remain in long contact, as the African slaves did with their masters.
David Frank, a translation consultant who joined the project in 2002, said Gullah frequently was dismissed as "broken English," not a language in its own right.
"But that is the standard perception of creole languages that doesn't reflect the understanding of those languages and what they are," said Frank, a creole expert.
There are structural differences between Gullah and English that justify Gullah being recognized as a separate language, Frank said.
The translation was based on several different versions of the New Testament, along with varied Bible commentaries. Some of the Bible books were released when they were completed, with the Gospel of Luke published in 1994 and the Gospel of John released two years ago.
Dolores Pringle, head of the Penn Center board of trustees, said the Bible can help blacks connect with their heritage.
"It can strengthen our relationship back to West Africa," she said.
"Every group that has emigrated to this country has had a very strong connection back to their home country, whether it's Italy, Ireland or whether it's England," she said. "I'm not sure our African American youth have had that kind of connection back to Africa."
With the New Testament finished, talk has started of translating the Old Testament into Gullah -- a task that could also take years.
"It would not be beyond us," Campbell said.
"We would be glad to make sure that the Word is in our language throughout," he said. "I hope that more younger people will join the team and move forward."