By Mary Alice Gardner
“Do not forget us, Lord; do not forget your Deaf people,” her prayer begins. She is in a huddle of a dozen people who watch her signs and nod in agreement. When the prayer concludes, each person stacks one hand in the middle of the circle. The top hand forms the sign for amen and on the count of three all hands rise, lifting the prayer to Heaven. So begins an ordinary translation day for the American Sign Language Version (ASLV) team headquartered at Deaf Missions in Council Bluffs, Iowa.
While it might be an ordinary day for this team, their work is anything but ordinary. Although Bible translation has been around for centuries, Deaf communities were not included in that process until the last 40 years. And not until about 15 years ago did technology allow for an efficient and affordable way to record signs for a biblical translation. With the development of personal video-recording devices, smartphones, and mobile studios, the sign languages of Deaf communities can now be preserved and shared.
Duane King, who founded Deaf Missions in 1970, along with others who worked with the Deaf in various Bible-teaching capacities, realized the need for a sign language translation. King remembers teaching the Bible to Deaf children. Despite having English handouts and an English Bible, students answered incorrectly. “Yet when I signed the questions, they answered correctly in sign language,” King said. “I realized I wasn’t asking the questions in their language. They needed a Bible in sign language.”
King recruited Harold Noe, a Christian church preacher from North Carolina, to come to Deaf Missions in 1976. Noe had experience working with the Deaf community and produced a signing worship program for TV. In 1982, the Deaf Missions board chose Noe to serve as translation director and tasked him with developing a process to translate the Bible into American Sign Language. They called it the Omega Project.
At that time, ASL was just receiving recognition as a language, with its own distinct grammar and syntax. No one had ever done a biblical video translation using sign language. This pioneering work required creative thinking and experimentation, relying on trial and error until a process was developed to produce a dynamic, visual translation.
Several challenges must be addressed in translation.
1. Technology. Since the ASLV translation is video, different equipment is needed from normal Bible translation. Filming the translation initially was done in a TV recording studio; later Deaf Missions built an in-house studio. Translation occurred when funding was available.
Twenty-three years later, in 2004, the New Testament and its 7,959 verses were completed. Translation distribution was on VHS and later DVD. With completion of the New Testament, Deaf Missions produced files for computers and electronic devices. Today, everything is in the cloud and Deaf people are discovering the ASLV on the Internet and social media. The ASLV translation can be accessed through Deaf Missions’ website (www.deafmissions.com), where books, already translated, are ready for free download or viewing. Other platforms include Apple smartphones, Roku, Amazon Fire, and Google Play.
Deaf Bible Society (www.deafbiblesociety.com), an organization that works to distribute sign language translations of various countries, currently has 28 sign languages, including the ASLV, on its website. It is estimated that 400 sign languages are in use today. Despite this, not one has a complete Bible translation.
While translation is the flagship focus, Deaf Missions’ goal is to create dynamic Bible visuals for the Deaf, which included making The Book of Job, a feature film released in 2018. It is being distributed internationally and plans are underway for a Jesus movie created by Deaf people with a Deaf audience in mind.
2. Finding the right people. Statistics are sobering. Despite 70 million Deaf people worldwide (approximately 1 percent of any population is Deaf, according to the World Federation of the Deaf), fewer than 5 percent of Deaf people are Christian.
Debbie Buchholz worked as a Deaf translator with the Omega Project for 16 years. She was the on-camera signer for Luke, the final New Testament book to be translated. On the last day of filming in 2004, the studio was opened to Deaf Missions board members and special guests.
“We had filmed up to the very last passage of Luke,” Buchholz explained. “When I finished signing, it would mean the entire New Testament would be in ASL. Before filming, I signed that I wanted to dedicate that passage to my dad, who was Deaf, because he felt that the Bible was only for hearing people. And now he would have the New Testament in his own true language. No longer could he say that the Bible was for hearing people.”
3. Funding. To address ongoing funding challenges, Deaf Missions, along with Deaf Opportunity Outreach and the Deaf Bible Society, developed a major funding proposal and submitted it to The Seed Company, Wycliffe USA, American Bible Society, and Pioneer Bible Translators, organizations dedicated to accelerating Bible translation. The funding was approved and the priority for Deaf Missions was to complete the last 13 books of the Old Testament. At the same time, Deaf Missions developed other ongoing partnerships to focus on developing sign language translations of the Bible.
In 2007, change in leadership at Deaf Missions provided an opportunity for organizational change. Chad Entinger, who is Deaf, became the new CEO. Now 40 percent of the board is Deaf as well.
Since 2017, six teams and a Hebrew language consultant have translated seven books. The books remaining to be translated are Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy, 2 Samuel, Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel. These books are slated for production and distribution in 2020. Eleven men and three women, ranging in age from 28 to 64, compose this translation group. Several come from multigenerational Deaf families. They have learned to work and share a signing Christian community that is hard to find elsewhere, even in the church. They pray together, and when books are completed, they celebrate together.
In April 2019, Deaf Missions was accepted into the Forum of Bible Agencies International (FOBAI). The Deaf Development Group, a subgroup of FOBAI, creates standards for sign language Bible translations and consultants. Using a Deaf-centric focus, criteria include: translation teams must be composed of a majority of Deaf people; also, the on-camera signers and translation styles must be approved by members of the Deaf community, both believers and nonbelievers.
Translations take shape using FOBAI parameters referred to as CANA (clear, accurate, natural, and acceptable). Each book has a Deaf on-camera signer plus a facilitator. Both work together using resources—including Logos software—researching cultural and linguistic use of Hebrew, English, and ASL.
Here is the process:
1. First video draft: the team creates a signed translation from Hebrew/English texts
2. Feedback/review: another team, and a Hebrew language consultant, review the work
3. Revise using feedback: the video is revised and made ready for presentation
4. Community check: videos are shown to the Deaf community for input
5. Finalize: a new video that incorporates community input is recorded
6. Filming: finalized videos are used as a “teleprompter,” and videos for the entire book are signed in the studio using professional lighting, biblically inspired clothing, and makeup
7. Editing and distribution
“We have tried to distance our translation from outdated signs that depend on English,” said ASL translator Ethan White. “We now use signs natural for the Deaf. It is cool that we can, through discussion as a group of Deaf translators, find appropriate signs that reflect our language.”
Overcoming language attitude is also a challenge. As a minority language, ASL faces discrimination from both hearing and Deaf people. Deaf people often think English is better. Said White, “Translation has taught me that sign language can show the Hebrew concepts just as well, and you do not need English to do it.”
Deaf Missions wants to create a translation that can be understood across denominational, ethnic, and generational lines. Because the ASL Deaf community is spread throughout North America, the translation team has traveled more than 25,000 miles to participate in community checks since 2017. Using this feedback allows the translation to reflect its users and to determine if the biblical vocabulary developed is natural and acceptable to native signers.
Community response has been overwhelmingly positive. Excitement is building as Deaf communities claim ownership of the translation and anticipate completion in 2020. Deaf Missions receives feedback from people who use the ASLV from the Deaf Missions app.
A video commenter named Alicia had been unable to access God’s Word. She signed, “I asked God to please help me find his message in ASL—my language—so I could understand everything. Finally, I came across the Deaf Missions app. I was thrilled! Everything was right there in ASL! I am finally learning about this later in life, but I am happy and excited to continue to grow in God! I am so thankful for Deaf Missions! This app is the best!”
Since the work began, sign language has changed, as all living languages do. Future plans include developing sign language resources and updating Bible books translated early on. With so much of the ASLV available online, sign language translators from other countries also use it for reference.
In October 2020, Deaf Missions will host an international celebration commemorating the completion of the ASLV, the first complete Bible in sign language. Festivities will include celebrating Deaf Missions’ 50th anniversary and recognizing 19 countries’ sign language translations that were inspired by the ASLV.
With access to the complete Bible in ASL (or any other sign language), Deaf preachers will be able to use it for teaching, and Deaf Christians can grow spiritually mature as they understand God’s Word and teach others.
A missionary named Missy B., who worked with the Chinese sign language Bible translation before joining the ASLV, says, “We are accountable before God for the accuracy of our work. I’m very honored to translate God’s Word. He is orchestrating things for such a time as this. He has not forgotten the Deaf. He has not forgotten us.”
Mary Alice Gardner graduated from Cincinnati Christian University and Gallaudet University before teaching 17 years at Ozark Christian College. She is now on the ASLV team at Deaf Missions translating Deuteronomy. She enjoys travel, reading, and learning new sign languages.