Hip and Holy

Debate over the relative merit of different Bible translations is so commonplace it is normally ignored but by a very few. Recently, however, ecclesiastic, and even secular, attention has been caught.

Hip and Holy

At the center of the current controversy are two versions of the Bible arising from the African-American context. Although each translator is seeking to make the gospel more inclusive of the experience of African Americans, the result has been discord; and the debate is over method not goal.

Caine Hope Felder, Howard University Divinity School professor and author of Stony the Road We Trod (see "The Hand That Interprets Controls History," December 1993), has edited the Original African Heritage Bible (Winston-Derek Publishing, 1993), an Afrocentric version of the King James translation. In the Heritage Bible, the words spoken by or to Africans are highlighted. And commentary by African and African-American biblical scholars is included prominently.

The Black Bible Commentaries: A Survival Manual for the Streets (African American Family Press, 1993), the work of storyteller P.K. McCary, offers the Pentateuch in a hip style, reminiscent of rap music. The author reworks the creation story this way:

Now when the Almighty was first down with His program, He made the heavens and the earth. The earth was a fashion misfit, being so uncool and dark, but the Spirit of the Almighty came down real tough, so that He simply said, "Lighten up!"

McCary is herself struck with the splendor of the King James translation, but as a Sunday school teacher she is aware of the general disinterest of youth in the scriptures. Along with illustrations of Africans as biblical figures, McCary uses street slang to make the passages compelling to today’s youth, especially urban blacks.

Both of these versions are remarkably successful, each selling more than 100,000 copies. But each author has raised questions about the "contribution" of the other’s work. McCary claims young people will likely not use Felder’s translation. Felder believes the "substandard" English of McCary’s work is dangerous because it re-enforces images of illiteracy within the black community.

The advent of current public fascination with rap music and urban black culture—among even the most culturally a-literate—has changed the debate, and it is heightened by the intracommunity debate over the effects of stereotypical behavior. But even outside the community, everyone’s got an opinion. National magazines—both print and TV—are now playing out this controversy in pop culture (and now scripture) mostly because fears of young black culture, rap, and the ’hood have tweaked the interest of mainstream America.

Where No One Has Gone Before

Another version of the Bible is inciting interest among movie viewers and television watchers as well as biblical scholars. A handful of Star Trek fans and linguists have translated portions of scripture into the language of the alien race of science-fiction film and TV fame, the Klingons.

Linguist Glen Proechel, one of the translators involved in this project, last summer founded a Klingon Language Camp in northern Minnesota. "One of the projects of the summer camp was a bilingual Klingon-English [worship] service," Proechel told me. "I had done the translation of several Bible passages, the Lord’s Prayer, the Apostles’ Creed, some hymns.

"We had invited Dr. Paul Muench, the president of the Lutheran Bible Translators, a missionary organization, to offer the sermon and to talk about mission work in general—not mission work in the fictitious Klingon Empire. He and I talked about the possibility of starting a Bible translation project. As a linguist, I am aware that translating the Holy Scriptures into a language is a big step for that language and [affects] the consciousness people have for that language." (It would appear this is a recurring theme for Bible translators.)

Proechel, a former theology student, has completed passages in John’s gospel. A taste of the language from John 3:16:

toH qo’ muSHa’pu’qu’mo’ joH’a’, wa’ puqloDDaj nobpu’ ghaH ‘ej ghaHbaq Harchugh vay’, vaj not Hegh ghaH, ‘ach yIn jub ghajbeh ghaH.

(OK, together now.)

Currently six people—some biblical scholars, some linguists, some Trekkies—are involved in the Klingon Bible Translation Project. Although a publication date is not yet set, the translation is tentatively named the KAV (Klingon Authorized Version).

Dr. Marc Okrand, the linguist who developed the Klingon language for Paramount Pictures (and editor of HolQeD, better known as Klingon Quarterly) has also developed a Vulcan language, but Proechel says it has yet to catch on. I guess this isn’t a good decade for emotionless intellectuals.

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