Feature

Encountering the God who signs

A courageous group of young translators learns that God signs their language.

The Bangkok evening is muggy, and the young members of the Jade Star translation team cluster in the air-conditioned splendour of the Mii Hotel’s main floor cafe. Using sign language, they crack jokes and chat animatedly as they wait for me to begin our interview. It’s the second night of the APSDA conference, and their mood is buoyant. At first glance, they look like any other carefree group of millennials, enjoying a few days’ visit to Asia’s version of the City of Angels. 

But this relaxed scene belies the daily reality of life in their home country, which is anything but carefree. Over the past three years, the team has been surrounded by conflict, with regular explosions, military clashes, and protests raging around them. Pandemic protocols often kept them apart, and sporadic internet connections and power outages made video calls and translation sessions frustratingly intermittent—when you’re deaf, you don’t have the luxury of an old-school phone call. But even these difficulties don’t equal the trauma of growing up in a world of isolation.

Growing up Deaf

Widespread religious beliefs in Jade Star country hold that deafness is a punishment for sin in a previous life, and so the deaf are alternately judged and pitied, often either coddled or ignored by their parents and treated as something less than full-fledged members of society. 

Mr. Drawing shares his story as his translation teammates watch.
(Photo: Derryl Friesen)

“If people see us signing . . . they [sometimes] make fun of us…” signs Mr. Drawing, an onscreen signer and translator with the team (see Name Signs sidebar on page 9). “Some hearing people call us not deaf, but dumb.”

Life for many Deaf is deep isolation and a suffocating sense of being stifled. Jade Star country doesn’t keep detailed records of deafness, so it’s difficult to know how prevalent the condition is, though some estimates put the Deaf population at upwards of 500,000. What’s certain is that services and resources for the Deaf are woefully inadequate in this corner of the world.

Mr. Drawing vividly describes the frustration of losing his hearing. With his flair for the dramatic, he makes everyone—hearing and Deaf alike—in his audience laugh, even as he shares difficult memories from his childhood. He lost his hearing at the age of six, following a serious illness, and he recalls the frustration of falling behind academically and feeling lost simply because he could no longer hear what his teacher was saying. 

The gift of Deaf education

The turning point in his life came when his parents discovered a Christian school for Deaf children. He learned sign language, and rapidly covered academic lost ground. Signing allowed him to have real conversations, something he still finds very difficult with his own family. It’s a story common to the other Deaf members of the translation team, who all attended the school: it gave them community and a language. And it gave them the opportunity to meet Jesus.

On Sundays, the students at the school attended a local church service, but it didn’t offer sign language interpretation. Unable to understand what the pastor was saying, the children would spend services zoning out or goofing off. Finally, Ms. Yellow, one of their teachers, stepped in to interpret. The change was immediate.

“She was preaching to my heart, and I could understand very clearly because she brought pictures and preached in sign language,” signs Ms. Beauty from the computer screen propped on the cafe table. An onscreen signer and translator with the team, she’s video calling into our interview from the project office in Jade Star country; she had to stay home to care for her toddler and baby, who frequently pop onto the screen as she signs.

"God told me to feed the hungry people."
Ms. Yellow

Perhaps she and her classmates paid special attention to the pastor’s message because Ms. Yellow was the interpreter. A diminutive woman in her 50s with kind eyes and a ready laugh, Ms. Yellow exudes maternal warmth. She’s been a mother figure to many Deaf students, someone who could communicate with them when their own parents couldn’t.

As she taught Deaf students and interpreted sermons for them, she saw the urgent need for the Word of God in a language that they could understand. So, after 18 years of teaching and working in administration at the Deaf school, she switched career paths and began training in linguistics. 

“God told me to feed the hungry people. . . . Whenever I want to read the Bible, I can, but Deaf cannot. They are hungry. . . . So I stopped working as a teacher and started translation,” she says. 

A sign language translation begins

The Jade Star translation project began in 2011. Over the decade that followed, a handful of Ms. Yellow’s former students joined the team as translators, onscreen signers, and tech support; first as volunteers, then as full-time team members. These are the cheerful young people surrounding us in the cafe. 

They didn’t know the turmoil they would encounter when they started helping with the project, but the chaos in their home country has given them ample opportunity to see God’s truth in action and to build their dependence on Him. 

The Jade Star translation team debriefs the day's events at a small Bangkok cafe.
(Photo: Derryl Friesen)

“We had emotions, difficulties, frustrations,” signs Mr. Drawing. “But we also saw that God was so good. . . . So many Deaf also feel oppressed but we want to share . . . with them so that they can also enjoy relief and feel that God is comforting them.”

It’s a reminder of all the Deaf who are still living in isolation, unaware that there is a God who loves them and who created them for a purpose.

The cafe interview has been long this evening, full of both laughter and painful memories. There is so much more that I want to know. But Mr. Drawing is late to a trauma healing meeting, and his teammates are planning to catch up with friends from other Deaf translation projects. So we sign goodnight. I feel a catch in my throat as I watch this most-unusual group of young people disappear into the humid darkness of the Bangkok evening. 

*Pseudonyms

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