When you imagine the work of Bible translation, you probably picture the end product as a book. Perhaps you see a thick, hard-cover Bible with hundreds of pages of dark print, along with a few illustrations and maps. But would it surprise you to learn that your printed Bible might be of little use to a deaf neighbour?
It’s a common assumption that deaf people can read, but in fact, reading requires an ability to hear the sounds represented by the written letters. For those who’ve never heard those sounds, it can be daunting to make sense of the lines, squiggles and curlicues found on a printed page.
That’s why Deaf communities around the world have formed partnerships with Wycliffe and other organizations to translate God’s Word into the languages they use to express their deepest thoughts and emotions—sign languages. To date, 144 sign languages have been added to Ethnologue, an authoritative international language register developed by Wycliffe’s key partner, SIL International. But many more are in the process of being recognized as official languages, says Carolyn Rehder, who serves in communications with SIL’s Global Sign Languages Team (GSLT).
“The research is just not complete, so our range of numbers is based on estimates and what we know that needs to be documented.”
Rehder and her husband Dan are but two of about 50 staff serving on the GSLT. They and others involved in sign language translation believe the total number of sign languages worldwide may well exceed 350.
Barriers to Learning
Whatever the final tally, Bible translation for the world’s Deaf is a monumental task. Population estimates for the Deaf vary; one SIL researcher estimates they number about 33 million, while the World Federation of the Deaf pegs the number at around 70 million.
However, the Federation’s estimate includes people with hearing loss who would benefit from closed captioning in videos and televised programs.
“Those people aren’t all necessarily part of the Deaf culture,” says Rehder.
That’s because people are not always born deaf; some lose their hearing through an accident or illness.
Such diversity creates huge barriers for Bible translation—as does the fact there’s no universal sign language to speed up translation for the Deaf.
Although some are able to read, it’s estimated that about 80 per cent of the Deaf throughout the world may never gain literacy skills because they have no access to formal education.
“The majority are functionally illiterate,” says Rehder. “Typically, hearing people learn to speak a language before they learn to read it.
“That is not the case for the Deaf.”
Unreached People Group
Illiteracy is a major barrier in sharing the gospel with the Deaf. Not surprisingly, few Deaf churches exist and in many developing nations, vibrant Deaf communities are also rare. Marginalized by their own communities, and sometimes by their own families, many Deaf live in loneliness and isolation.
Like their hearing counterparts in language groups around the world, the Deaf gain clearer understanding of God’s message when they encounter it in the language that best meets their needs. Furthermore, sign language translations are helping the Deaf grow in spiritual maturity, and equipping them to share the Good News with other Deaf as evangelists, teachers and pastors.
However, to date only one sign language—American Sign Language—has a translation of the entire Bible.
The Global Sign Languages Team is working hard to see that number grow significantly in the years ahead. Through partnerships with DOOR International, Deaf Bible, United Bible Societies and others, it’s helping advance Bible translation for Deaf communities around the globe.
“We focus on local ownership of the projects,” says Rehder, “and each translation project is unique . . . so our involvement looks different in every region of the world, and in every individual project.
“We primarily provide translation consultants.”
So how do you translate the Bible into a form that Deaf people can access? Around the world, motivated Deaf believers are producing sign language translations on video. They include verse-by-verse translations as well as Bible passages presented in chronological order.
“These are real translations of Bible texts,” says Rehder, “not just storytelling.”
To help emphasize that Bible stories are just part of such translation efforts, the term “Chronological Bible Storying” is slowly being abandoned in favour of “Chronological Bible Translation.”
Even so, translation teams often begin with Bible narratives because they are easier to translate. Teams may include actors, technicians, linguistic consultants, and “checkers”—people who check the translations for accuracy, clarity and naturalness.
It’s a painstaking process that necessarily includes accurate visual descriptions of a story’s physical setting and the characters involved.
Unlike written translations, mistakes aren’t easily corrected. Entire scenes must be refilmed, sometimes multiple times, to get it right.
Reflecting on such difficulties, Rehder recalls the words of one GSLT consultant who worked for 20 years in spoken-language translation, before working another 10 years in sign languages.
“He says that signed languages are at least three times more difficult to translate.”
Once the translations have been completed, the videos are distributed to Deaf communities through dedicated websites, smartphone apps and social media.
Dan Rehder serves on the GSLT as an assistant administrator for sign language translation projects in the Americas. Currently, he helps oversee SIL’s involvement in projects in Mexico, El Salvador, Honduras, Brazil and Colombia.
“In addition to those,” says Dan, “there's five or six other projects that we occasionally provide exegetical support and other resources for . . . when they request our help.”
The Mexican and Colombian Sign Language projects were among the first that SIL partnered with, beginning in the mid-’90s. Elsewhere, similar partnerships were formed a few years later with sign language teams in Japan and Spain.
Since then, SIL and other partners have worked together to advance sign language translation in Africa, Eurasia and the Asia/Pacific region.
Progress in Southeast Asia
Wycliffe Canada is helping provide God’s Word for a Deaf community of more than 400,000 in Southeast Asia, by channeling gifts from Canadian donors to a project known as “Peace River Sign Language.” Working in a predominantly Buddhist country where Christians face persecution,a small team of Deaf believers is translating a set of chronological Bible stories into their sign language.
The Deaf impacted by the Peace River project are part of an ethnic minority and many live in conflict zones. The team’s immediate goals include completing translation of 39 Scripture passages, and eventually translating chronological stories from Mark’s Gospel, Acts and other books of the Bible.
When SIL receives new requests for help from Deaf communities, they encourage the Deaf themselves to take the lead.
“We don't own the translation projects,” says Carolyn Rehder. “It’s very important to us that it's Deaf owned, local Deaf owned. But we want to support them in whatever they may need and we let them take the leadership on how that looks.”
With the list of known sign languages growing steadily, the GSLT needs additional translation consultants to help provide Scripture for Deaf communities around the world. Their work could impact millions of people—like Flora* in the Peace River project, who recently helped translate Mark 13.
“Praise God for His goodness,” says Flora. “I am so thankful that the translation was finally approved . . . and that God gave me strength to keep going.
“In the process of translation, I discovered a lot of new things . . . which are so important to us. I am sure there are still many Deaf Christians who also don’t know these things yet.
“But I think this translation will be well understood and change people’s lives.”
Project link: Peace River Sign Language
Note: To emphasize that Deaf cultures are distinct from hearing cultures, people often write “Deaf” when referring to a linguistic-cultural group, and “deaf” for the audiological condition of people. This approach has been used for this article.
Like what you’re reading? Then don’t miss an issue. Subscribe to be notified when the next issue is published.