Taking the Mystery Out of Jamaican Patois Translations


From time to time my friends and I are asked to do Jamaican Patois translations. Most of the time these translations stem from movies and music. Usually we say yes to doing a Jamaican translation, but we always explain that Patois is a free flowing language without the many rules of standard English or other languages, so you might later hear something that contradicts what we said and it is still correct.

The written form of Jamaican Patois is one of main areas where people get confused. The confusion makes sense. One day you see the word patois written as “patois” and then the next day you see the word written as “patwa”. Both spellings are “correct” as far as Jamaican Patois is concerned because the rule is, there are no way proper ways of spelling particular words. Patois is a spoken language that is becoming a written language with some rules but not as many as standard English. For example, last week someone on Twitter, the microblogging site, asked how do you spell “Bumboclat” (one of several uniquely Jamaican curse words). You could spell Bumboclat at least three different ways. Here are a few: bumboclat, bumboclaat, bumboclot and even, bumbaclaat. Which one is right? They all are. So for the person learning to speak patois who wants to write something in patois, the rule is write it how you pronounce it. This might result in a deviation of you English grammar rules, but breaking the rules is what patois is about.

Translating Jamaican proverbs and phrases is another area of mystery for the non-Jamaican student of Jamaican Patois. Often times new words and realities appear when someone is learning to talk Jamaican. For example, a basic expression is “ride di riddim.” For the person new to Jamaican Patois, the word riddim might be new, but even if the person deduces that riddim is the patois version of the word rhythm, it is important to know the cultural significance of the “riddim” in dancehall music. You might hear the words ackee, pickney or duppy used in a popular Jamaican Proverb and be a bit confused because these words are not used in standard English. For example, here is a popular Jamaican Patois phrase “Disobedient pickeny nyam rockstone.” The expression says disobedient children will always be punished or have a bad ending. The pronunciation of the phrase is one thing, but the familiarity of the words is another level of confusion. The solution is to practice, practice, practice and get as familiar with the Jamaican vocabulary. Mastering expressions and their translation comes over time when someone is put into different contexts.

The final demystifying point is, do not try to translate everything word for word. This is a mistake so many people make when learning any language, let alone Jamaican Patois. Languages are formed from different historical events, sometimes the fusion of different cultures and ideas. It is largely a waste of time and energy trying to translate expressions and phrases word for word because the meaning could be 100% different from the translation. For example, if someone said ” Yuh know long time ago Jamaica run a red.” Well, what does “run a red” really mean? By translating the expression, word for word, you would not be able to know, so it is vital that you spend just as much time listening to what other people are saying and when they are saying something as you spend studying expression out of a book.

Hopefully, this will clarify some of the Jamaican translation process. Similar to Patois, when translating the Jamaican language, remember it is more of an art than it is a science.

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