The Ulster-Scots Bible Translation project — where are we now?

Author: Philip Saunders

Date: 2013

Source: Ullans: The Magazine for Ulster-Scots, Nummer 13 Hairst 2013

Philip Saunders

John Wycliffe

Take a Methodist, a member of the Church of Ireland, another from the Christian Brethren, and a couple of Presbyterians and Baptists. Now where in Northern Ireland could you get this disparate group round a table, and get them to agree?

Answer: Members of the Ulster-Scots Language Society when they are engaged in Ulster-Scots Bible translation! Not that they will agree over every word or phrase chosen, but they certainly won’t fall out over it.

Three years ago, in December 2009, Guid Wittens frae Doctèr Luik was published. It was a translation of the Gospel of Luke into Ulster-Scots by three teams working simultaneously in Newtownards, Cullybackey and Greyabbey. It was printed alongside the Authorised Version, so that the two could be easily compared and contrasted. Feedback on the Ulster-Scots Luke translation has since been received from many quarters, with all suggestions taken seriously, and some changes made. In the Introduction to this Gospel, we discussed the reasons why it was important for any language development to translate the Bible in the first place.

What are the challenges we have faced in translating the Bible into Ulster-Scots? Are they unique?

First of all: how is Ulster-Scots to be written? There are no absolutely standardised spellings as yet, though it is evolving and certain native-speaker preferences are coming to the fore. Up until now, there has been a tendency to write what is right in one’s own eyes. Everyone has a conviction, and one can be surprised at the emotions involved when a preference is questioned or an alternative proposed! We are in good company: the same phenomenon exists all over the world as alphabets evolve.

Then there is the question of what is Ulster-Scots and what is Ulster-English? Colourful phrases abound in both. We may say that the Pharisees were ‘fand o swannin aboot ïn thair fancie claes’ (Luke 20:46), but is this Ulster dialect for English ‘swan about’, or genuine Ulster-Scots? We had to take each instance on a case-by-case basis. A comprehensive electronic database of Ulster-Scots literature would be an immense help here.

There is also the question of ‘register’ i.e. what level of language to use? For example, what do we say in Mark 4:23: ‘ears’ or ‘lugs’? ‘Let hïm that haes ears ïn hïs heid tak tent!’

Does it grate on the reader to say, ‘Jesus saen’? Or is it better to say, ‘Jesus saa’? What about ‘guldèrt’ for ‘shouted’? We decided it was acceptable for the Gadarene demoniac to ‘guldèr’ but that Christ on the cross ‘cryed oot wi a lood voice’!

Again, what about words which are known, but which may be literary, or historical, but not everyday currency? Is it the job of the translator to act as conservationist by including rarer forms? We felt that if a context allowed for easy understanding of a rarer form, it was permissible to include it. Thus ‘he reponed’ could easily be understood as ‘he answered’ in context. In John 12:50, we were torn between the older inverted form ‘Weel A wit that hïs commauns róad tae ayelastin life’, and the more understandable ‘A know weel that …’. In the end we may well opt for ‘Weel A ken that hïs commauns róad tae ayelastin life’.

We resisted the temptation to depart from natural Ulster-Scots grammar, in order to conform to ‘proper’ English grammar, even though some translators initially had to fight down memories of being scolded in primary school for coming out with certain forms! ‘He daen weel’ as the natural past tense for ‘He did well’, or placing a conjunction at the end of a sentence as in ‘The’ wudnae cum but’ were cases in point. The translators swallowed twice, but readily agreed it was acceptable, even in Holy Writ. With their high view of Scripture, none of the translators wanted their renderings to be viewed as irreverent or laughable.

‘Which version do you translate from?’ is a question we are regularly asked. At any point in a translation session, we probably have about ten different versions open from which to consult. Apart from the Greek text, there would be the Authorised Version, the Revised Standard Version, the New International Version, the Amplified, the New Living Translation, Good News, plus as well as translations by Lorimer and Wye-Smith, two Scottish versions. Paraphrases such as the Living Bible or the Message are not so useful for our purposes. J B Phillips, however, has often proved insightful. He was certainly a translator ahead of his time, and his readable preface to the New Testament is well worth a visit for anyone interested in the theory and practice of Bible translation.

Behind the above question lie two distinct issues: What do we view as our authority? And what kind of translation are we trying to produce? What we have said in the preceding paragraph illustrates well our approach. From all the various versions and commentaries at our disposal, we try to get as close as possible to the originally transmitted meaning, and to transfer that into natural Ulster-Scots. Form will be important, author style will influence what we do, but accuracy in meaning will be paramount. As far as authority is concerned, we believe in the inerrancy of the Scriptures as originally given, and by all means attempt to get as close to that in translation as we can.

For this reason, anyone trying to pigeonhole the Ulster-Scots translation as either literal or dynamic or anything in between will probably have trouble. We find ourselves steering a course sometimes closer to a modified literal version such as the Revised Standard Version, and sometimes closer to a more dynamic equivalent version like the New Living Translation. What is important to us is that it proves to be an accurate, but readable translation, while reflecting the natural rhythms of Ulster-Scots.

‘How did Lorimer express it?’ will probably be heard several times during each session. We are impressed with this Scots version, which has often proved helpful, especially in terms of re-structuring to a more Scots way of expressing ideas. However, it became quickly obvious to us how distinct the two language varieties are: ‘No, we don’t say it that way here’; or, ‘I’ve never heard of that word’ were commonplace reactions.

Two computer programmes have proved to be invaluable tools. The first, developed by Wycliffe Bible Translators, and called ‘Translators’ Workplace’, provides commentaries, translation tips and detailed linguistic help for each Biblical book. The second, called ‘Paratext’ and developed and constantly improved by The United Bible Societies, also allows the working translator quick access to versions and handbooks. However, a further advantage is that parallel texts may be consulted. Thus, as we scroll down John chapter 1 in Greek for instance, we scroll down the same chapter in as many other versions as we wish, simultaneously. Comparison is simplified. Ulster-Scots translation, then, is progressed in a separate open window in Paratext which includes the relevant format markers for printing and publishing. What is more, as we continue with our translation, a dictionary database is continually updated.

A feature of the latest version of the Paratext programme allows us to compare, harmonise and easily edit texts from the Four Gospels — a marvellous facility. In the ‘bad old days’, a New Testament would often have to be typed and re-typed up to seven times. Computers have taken away much of that pain, though they do bring with them a separate set of challenges. ‘With computers it’s quicker, but it takes longer!’ quipped a friend. So much more is possible nowadays.

What about Concordance? That is, if a particular word is used in Greek, the same word should appear in the (Ulster-Scots) translation each time. For some Bible translators, this is a very high value. For example, where we see Greek didaskalos, we may choose always to translate as ‘Taicher’ or ‘maistèr’; where epistata (a rarer word), we may opt for ‘Dominie’; where kurios we may choose always to use ‘Loard’. We have tried to use common sense here, respecting concordance where possible, but recognising the importance of natural Ulster-Scots collocations too. Certain words just don’t get along with others too close to them! But still, we don’t change for the sake of it, if it’s not necessary. Thus, in both Matthew and Luke where the Greek is identical, we have: ‘Ye sleekit shooer o vipers! Wha telt ye tae rin frae tha wrath o God that’s cumin?’ (Matthew 3:7 and Luke 3:7).

This is a painstaking process for one book, never mind four. The Gospels have to be checked against each other for translation consistency, which is necessary due to the common material they share. What Jesus says in direct speech should not vary from Gospel to Gospel, for instance, if the Greek is identical from book to book.

It is so tempting, as translators, to get caught up with individual words, and lose sight of the forest! So every so often we needed to step back, and have a read-through of a paragraph, or a section of the Gospels. Every language has its own way of telling stories, its own way of linking paragraphs into a discourse. We encourage each other to listen out for natural forms in everyday Ulster-Scots life, and include these. Interestingly, Greek makes extensive use of the linker kai meaning ‘and’, and we were able to discern that Ulster-Scots had a similar role reserved for ‘an’. As in the Greek text, so in the Ulster-Scots translation: the flow of the narrative is helped by use of ‘An’ sentence initially. ‘Never start a sentence with ‘and …’, and never finish it with ‘… but’ might have rung in some of our ears at primary school! This was a blast from the past we chose to ignore!

So where are we now, three years after the publication of Guid Wittens frae Doctèr Luik? A core of translators has worked steadily on, in a voluntary capacity, in both Greyabbey and Cullybackey. They have sacrificed time in their busy lives to receive visits from Philip and Heather Saunders, who have checked their work for accuracy against the original Greek, and participated in lively discussions over style.

The teams are to be congratulated for their hard work and perseverance. They have added draft translations of the three remaining Gospels — Matthew, Mark, and John — to the version of Luke. So at the time of writing, the Four Gospels are being finalised for publication. This constitutes almost half of the entire New Testament.



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A new edition of Michael Montgomery’s From Ulster to America: The Scotch-Irish Heritage of American English recounts the lasting impact that at least 150,000 settlers from Ulster in the 18th century made on the development of the English language of the United States. This new edition published by the Ulster-Scots Language Society documents over 500 ‘shared’ vocabulary items which are authenticated by quotations from both sides of the Atlantic. A searchable online version of this dictionary is now also available here.


The Ulster-Scots Academy is currently working on the digitisation of Dr Philip Robinson's seminal Ulster-Scots Grammar and the English/Ulster-Scots part (with circa 10,000 entries) of a two-way historical dictionary of Ulster-Scots. These projects are planned to be completed and available on the site in 2016.



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