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December 29, 2005 : National News

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Gospel According to Gullah

  • In the Sea Islands off South Carolina, descendants of slaves help translate the Bible into the rich language of their ancestors.

  • By Stephanie Simon, Times Staff Writer

    ST. HELENA ISLAND, S.C. The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.

    No matter how often he read Psalm 23, Emory Campbell never could understand that line. "I shall not want: What does that mean?" he'd ask himself.

    Then he joined a project to translate the Bible into the language of his ancestors the language of slaves who toiled for centuries in rice paddies off the Carolina coast.

    That first line became: "De Lawd me shephud. A hab ebryting wa A need." I have everything I need.

    It reminded Campbell, 64, of his grandmother's way of talking, earthy and frank and deep-down resonant. "Yes, indeed," Campbell said. " 'I have everything I need.' That made sense to me."

    Campbell had always considered himself above the slave language, known as Gullah. As a boy, he giggled at his grandma's speech. In college, he considered her "dem" and "dat" and "dey" a brand of ignorance. Psalm 23 opened his eyes to Gullah's riches.

    He would spend the next two decades struggling to make the word of God sound like his grandmother.

    The result De Nyew Testament was unveiled here last month at an annual festival to celebrate Gullah culture. Twenty-six years in the making, the Gullah gospel was written by descendants of slaves under the direction of traveling missionaries.

    As a tool for evangelizing, it's not that efficient. No more than 10,000 people speak Gullah as their primary language; most are elderly and isolated on the Sea Islands, a chain off the coasts of South Carolina, Georgia and Florida. Perhaps another 250,000 coastal residents lapse into Gullah now and then among friends.

    The small market doesn't trouble the missionaries who devote their lives to such projects. They consider it their calling to bring the Scripture to every tongue around the globe: to the 4,000 Africans who speak Igo, to the 3,000 South Americans who speak Chachi, to the 1,200 Pacific Islanders who speak Angaatiya.

    "It's my vocation. It's my passion," said David Frank, a linguist who helped finish the Gullah project.

    When the Bible is not available in their "heart language," even the most devout Christians see it "more as an icon" than a meaningful message from God, Frank said. "They know the Scripture is something you have to have, but they have given up on the idea of understanding it."

    Before coming here, Frank and his wife, Lynn, spent 17 years translating the Bible into a Creole spoken only on the Caribbean island of St. Lucia. Like other Bible translators who travel the globe, the Franks do not draw a salary; instead, they solicit support from churches and individuals.

    They've built a core group of 15 donors who pledge $10 to $500 a month. Two Bible translation firms collect funds on the Franks' behalf: the Summer Institute of Linguistics in Dallas and Wycliffe Bible Translators in Orlando, Fla. Both organizations are nonprofit and donor-driven.

    Over the last 70 years, Wycliffe and the Summer Institute have translated the Bible into 611 languages. Their linguists launch a new translation every four days, on average. Some jump in not knowing a word of the language they've committed to translating. They rely on faith, and on the goodwill of locals. If they can find publishers, they may print portions of the Bible as they complete them; a full New Testament translation takes 15 to 20 years.

    The Gullah project started inauspiciously.

    Veteran Bible translators Pat and Claude Sharpe arrived in the Sea Islands in 1979. After years abroad, their health had forced them home, but they weren't ready to retire. They loved the beguiling slips of land in the Sea Islands, with their glinting marshes and moss-draped oaks and tangy ocean breezes to cut the humid air.

    The Sharpes were also fascinated with Gullah culture, which is rooted in the fishing and farming communities of 17th-century West Africa.

    Plantation owners began importing slaves about 400 years ago to work in the cotton fields, rice paddies and oyster beds of these lush islands.

    Because they arrived speaking many different African languages, the slaves had to develop a way of communicating with one another. The islands were so isolated that Gullah never evolved toward standard English.

    Some scholars speculate Gullah (also called Geechee) was a language of defiance a way for slaves to talk without their masters understanding. Others see it as a purely practical tool for communication.

    At once lyrical and guttural, Gullah is a fast-paced, animated tongue. It sounds a bit like the modern African American vernacular known as Ebonics, but scholars say Gullah is a distinct language. (That determination rests on several factors, including the simple fact that most English speakers couldn't understand a native Gullah speaker in conversation.)

    By the time the Sharpes arrived, Gullah speakers had learned to be ashamed of their native tongue. Teachers rapped their knuckles when they let slip a "dey." Outsiders, even fellow African Americans, mocked them.

    So locals tried to persuade the Sharpes to drop the translation. "We told them we would not do it," said Ardell Greene, 54, a retired executive secretary.

    Her grandparents and parents spoke Gullah at home, but taught her never to use it in the outside world. The idea of a Gullah Bible embarrassed Greene. Put "Jedus" and the "Lawd" and "Me Fada" on paper?

    "People would laugh at us," she recalled telling the Sharpes.

    The couple refused to give up. They had spent decades translating the gospels into Bolivian and Panamanian dialects. Now they dragged out linguistics texts to convince the islanders that Gullah was every bit as worthy.

    They traced certain Gullah words including "buckra" for white man and "oona" for the plural you to specific African tribes. They explained that Gullah had influenced English through words such as "tote" (to carry), "chigger" (flea) and "biddy" (chicken), and through songs such as the campfire staple "Kumbaya" (which was sung in Gullah as "come by yah, my Lawd").

    Campbell had feared that the Sharpes would be patronizing outsiders clucking at the quaint ways of "black folk on an island," he said. "But this looked like a scientific approach."

    In 1980, a year after the Sharpes arrived, Campbell took over as director of the nonprofit Penn Center, a community organization for the Gullah people on St. Helena Island.

    He planned to focus on economic development: improving housing, expanding healthcare and fighting developers who were buying up Gullah farmland to build luxury resorts such as those in nearby Hilton Head Island, S.C.

    Almost as soon as he took the job, however, Campbell found himself as a host not only to the Sharpes but other linguists, historians and tourists from the world over. All had come hoping to learn more about Gullah culture.

    Through their eyes, Campbell began to see the importance of preserving Gullah craft, superstitions, song and even the language he had once been ashamed to call his own. Within a few years, he had signed on to help with the Bible translation, along with about a dozen other volunteers.

    Greene was among the first to sign up although she remained a skeptic until the team visited Jamaica in 1985 for a conference on Bible translation.

    "We stepped off the plane and everyone was black and everyone talked just like us," she said. Suddenly, Gullah sounded dignified.

    "We were like, 'Whoa! This really is a language,' " said Greene, who is to be ordained next summer as a minister.

    For the next 20 years, the translation proceeded slowly. Greene or one of the other native speakers would sit down with the Bible and render a few verses in Gullah.

    They'd take their efforts to the Sharpes' house, where as many as a dozen islanders would debate revisions over a potluck of traditional Gullah dishes rice and beans, rice and shrimp, rice and greens. The Sharpes would check the work against Creole translations and against Greek and Latin Bibles to make sure the true meaning of the Scriptures came through.

    Gullah is an oral language; there's no dictionary, no grammar book, no literature (though the language does appear in a few stories, including the Br'er Rabbit tales). So the islanders had to rely on memory and instinct. They made up spellings as they went along.

    They struggled to translate the lofty vocabulary of the King James Bible into the very literal language of illiterate slaves.

    "Blaspheme" became "shrow slam pon": Throw slander upon.

    "Sanctify" was "mek um God own": Make them God's own.

    "The righteous" became "wa waak scraight wid God": Those who follow God's path.

    "Grace" caused particular problems. In Gullah, the word is used in a narrow context to mean the prayer before a meal. No one knew how to render its broader meaning of an undeserved favor from God.

    The Sharpes suggested "merciful favor." Greene rejected it: No grandmother she knew would say that. Finally, she came up with "blessin," as in, "We pray dat God we Fada and e son Jedus Christ gwin gii we dey blessin."

    To check their work, the translators read verses aloud at senior centers. They'd ask elders to listen for jarring rhythms or phrases that didn't make sense. Then it would be back to the Sharpes' house for another round of revisions.

    "Oh, my God, it was hard," said Vernetta Canteen, 61, a hotel telephone operator.

    After hours haggling over how to say "grace" in Gullah, "it would be all you could do just to drive yourself home," she said. "It was so mentally draining; I don't think physical work could have been any harder."

    As the years passed and their health declined, the Sharpes retired to Florida. The translation team conferred by phone and fax and occasional visits. Canteen never doubted the efforts.

    "When you read the Bible in Gullah it's like you're talking to God one-on-one," she said. "I'd do it again, in a heartbeat."

    In 1994, the team released "De Good Nyews Bout Jedus Christ Wa Luke Write," or the Gospel according to Luke, to pique interest in the broader translation effort. It sold 30,000 copies. But not all Gullah descendants welcomed the project.

    "It's nothing but broken English," said Lula Mitchell Holmes, 82, a retired teacher.

    Arthur Chisholm, a deacon at Ebenezer Baptist Church on St. Helena Island, said he wouldn't think of using the Gullah Bible for worship, though he leads a congregation of old-time Gullah families.

    "You want to learn the one that speaks God's word in the King's English," said Chisholm, 54. "I'd stick to that."

    Frank, the linguist, arrived in the Sea Islands in the fall of 2002, shortly after Pat Sharpe died. The New Testament translation was nearly complete, but it took the team another three years to make sure every verse was true to "deep," or traditional, Gullah and not the more modern, more English-sounding slang that has evolved in recent generations.

    The 900-page volume, available online for $10, was published by the American Bible Society, a donor-supported, nonprofit publisher based in New York. It includes an English translation of each verse next to the Gullah text.

    The Bible went on sale first at the Gullah Heritage Festival, an annual three-day whirl of dance, prayer and food that attracts thousands to the Penn Center. At a linguistics symposium, Canteen took the microphone to read the opening verses of the Book of John.

    The words exploded from her mouth with such passion that locals and tourists found themselves calling out "Amen." Afterward, they lined up a dozen deep to buy De Nyew Testament. So far, about 3,000 have been sold.

    "That someone would translate the Bible into a language that's so significant to my race it's quite a feat," said Charity Jackson, an 82-year-old tourist from Washington.

    Al Smith, a retired lawyer from Hampton, Va., bought a copy hoping he would be as moved as when he heard the Gullah Book of Luke on tape a few years back. "I was in tears and I'm not a crybaby guy," he said.

    Smith, 74, said he could picture his ancestors struggling to make themselves understood as they bent over fields or sweated over stoves or gathered in the woods to praise a God they had just discovered.

    Their language was humble, but it was also powerful.

    "It moves me," Smith said, holding his Gullah Bible to his chest. "It sounds so innocent. And so holy."



    From English to Gullah

    anoint: pit oll pon (put oil upon)

    blaspheme: shrow slam pon (throw slander upon)

    fast: ain nyam nottin (don't eat anything)

    fellowship: one wid (one with)

    grace: blessin (blessing)

    kingdom: dey weh God da rule (there where God rules)

    reconcile: mek all ting right twix (make everything right between)

    sanctify: mek um God own (make them God's own)

    temple: God House (God's house)


    Source: Linguist David Frank; De Nyew Testament

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    Testament to his heritage
    (Stephen Berend / For The Times)

    De Nyew Testament
    (Stephen Berend / For The Times)

    (Windows Media)

    The land of Gullah

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