How Sign Language Bible Translators Are Making History
American Bible Society celebrates Sign Language translation during National Deaf History Month
In the world of Bible translation, Deaf history is being made every day.
National Deaf History Month—celebrated from March 13th to April 15th—was introduced by the National Association of the Deaf in 1997 to celebrate the achievements of people who are Deaf and hard of hearing. This month, American Bible Society highlights the efforts of Sign Language Bible translation teams around the world. By translating God’s Word into Sign Language through actors on a screen, these teams are bringing the gospel to their communities.
“Sign Language . . . Draws Me into God’s Word”
There are approximately 400 unique Sign Languages spoken around the world. Within Deaf communities, daily communication happens through a vibrant combination of hand movements, body language, and facial expressions. Deaf Christians often worship and pray in Sign Language. But for most of human history, the Bible has only been available in a written format. Many Deaf Christians who can read say that the written text does not convey the nuance and passion of the Sign Language they use every day. For those who cannot read, God’s Word remains out of reach. In total, 98% of the world’s Deaf population are still waiting for a Bible that speaks to them through Sign Language. Today, that is beginning to change.
In September 2020, 38 years of tireless translation work culminated in the release of the American Sign Language Version (ASLV), the first complete Bible in Sign Language. The translation team included more than 50 people, many of whom speak ASL as their first language. Multiple partners from a variety of Christian denominations, traditions, and confessions assisted in translating the Scriptures from the original Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek texts. Deaf Missions, a partner of American Bible Society, worked in collaboration with a variety of translation agencies to ensure that the ASLV was both theologically accurate and easy to understand.
The ASLV—which is available in its entirety on the Deaf Missions website—makes God’s Word available in the heart language of an estimated 408,000 people here in the United States and around the world. It has already been downloaded more than 1 million times, and the groundbreaking translation process provides a useful model for Sign Language translation projects around the world.
This translation is already impacting Deaf communities. JP, who can now view God’s Word communicated by actors on his screen, shared how the ASLV changed the way he engages with the Bible. “I become so engrossed in it that I watch some parts over and over again so I can study and meditate on it,” he said. “Sign Language is very beautiful and exciting and it draws me into God’s Word.”
“I Want to Share It!”
The launch of the ASLV helped bring attention to the work of Sign Language translators around the world. For these teams, translation is a long and challenging process. Most projects are still in the early stages, and much of the work is being done by Deaf Christians determined to bring the Bible to their communities despite limited translation experience. This makes the translation process both a labor of love and a learning opportunity.
In Armenia, a group of young translators worked together to translate Bible stories for Deaf children. These translators met at school and were united by their passion for the gospel and their desire to spread the good news among children. Over three years, the team translated 365 Bible stories and parables, making portions of God’s Word available to 3,500 people.
“The young translators have suffered a lot for these recordings,” said the project coordinator, who also served as a Sign Language teacher in the school where the team first met. “But the translation is in pure Armenian . . . Glory to God, we did it! It took us three years but we did it! Each time after they signed the Bible stories I hugged them . . . I was so proud of them!”
The translation process proved to be a learning experience in more ways than one. As they worked together to translate the Bible stories, team members grew in their own faith and understanding of God’s Word. “We have learned so much about the Bible, and one of the most important things was learning about the importance of belief,” explained one young translator. “Belief is the essence of life, the way we can reach God and each other. It was through this belief that we were able to overcome the many difficulties we had when we were translating the Word of God.”
Throughout the translation process, the team remained passionate about the goal of their project. “I really wanted to present the Bible in a way that Deaf children can understand, the way hearing children do!” said one young man. “I don’t want to keep the Word of God for myself alone! I want to share it!” Another translator added, “As we began to understand, things flowed easily and we became more and more aware that we can’t just keep the divine Word to ourselves—we must share it with everyone.”
“The Deaf Can Now Hear God!”
All Sign Language translation projects work toward introducing God’s Word to the hearts of Deaf community members around the world. In Nigeria, a local Deaf pastor expressed his joy at seeing his community receive Bible stories in Nigerian Sign Language (NSL), which is spoken by most of the 1 million Deaf people in the country.
“I wondered how Deaf people could ever truly understand God and his love for them,” he said.
Then, in 2017, a Sign Language translation center opened in southwest Nigeria and released 110 stories in NSL. The pastor rejoiced: “I am so happy—the Deaf can now hear God!”
American Bible Society continues to support the history-making work of Deaf translation projects around the world, looking forward to the day when all people will be able to experience the love of God through his Word.
- “A Complete Bible for Deaf People.” Deaf Missions. https://www.deafmissions.com/about
- “National Deaf History Month.” Insight into Diversity.
- “Why: The Deaf Bible Movement.” https://www.deafbiblesociety.com/
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