By Jim Nieman
Deaf Missions has completed the American Sign Language Version (ASLV) of the Bible—a 38-year project that started in 1982.
CEO Chad Entinger said the feeling upon completing the project was something like “a runner crossing the finish line of a marathon. We are beyond exhilarated . . . that now, finally, Deaf people have all of God’s Word in our native, heart language.”
“Words in printed English cannot explain the depth of the Bible to Deaf people,” explained Renca Dunn, a Bible translator with Deaf Missions, Council Bluffs, Iowa. “For many in the Deaf community, written English is a second language.
“American Sign Language does infinitely more than convey words; it allows ASL users to comprehend inflection and emotion,” she said. “For the first time in all of history, new technology and the dedicated work of many people and organizations have made it so that those who are Deaf can engage with the Scriptures in a way that is meaningful to them.”
This year, six ASLV translation teams completed the final six Old Testament books—Isaiah, Ezekiel, Leviticus, Deuteronomy, 2 Samuel, and Jeremiah. The final verse filmed was Leviticus 27:34, which the New International Version translates as, “These are the commands the Lord gave Moses at Mount Sinai for the Israelites.”
Entinger said the relative remoteness of Deaf Missions—located in western Iowa, just east of Omaha, Neb.—allowed for translation work to continue this year, despite the coronavirus pandemic.
“It seems God was determined to not allow COVID-19 to get in our way of completing the ASLV!”
BREAKING DOWN THE LANGUAGE BARRIER
Duane King, a Christian church minister who founded Deaf Missions in 1970, began the ASLV project to break down the language barrier Deaf people face when it comes to engaging with the Bible.
King recruited Harold Noe, a Christian church preacher from North Carolina, to come to Deaf Missions in 1976. As the first translation director on the project, Noe helped develop a process to translate the Bible into American Sign Language.
According to a 2019 Christian Standard article by ASLV translator Mary Alice Gardner: “At that time [about 1980], 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.”
In 2004—after 22 years of work—the New Testament was completed. With increased funding and vastly improved technology, Deaf Missions accelerated the translation process in 2017. The final Old Testament work was completed this summer, and now the entire Bible is available to watch on the Deaf Missions website and their free video app.
AN IMPORTANT ACCOMPLISHMENT
“I can’t overstate how impactful this milestone is for Deaf Christians,” Entinger stressed. “It means Deaf children, with English as their second language, can more fully understand and richly engage with the Bible in their most natural language. It means Deaf Bible scholars can study the Scriptures in a new and deeper way. This translation will pave the way for other sign languages”—more than 400 worldwide—“to create translations of their own. It’s the beginning of a new era for Deaf Christians around the world.”
Also of great significance, the ASLV was primarily translated by Deaf people, for Deaf people. It featured 53 different translators. All along the way, great care was taken to remain true to the Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek source languages.
“We have worked tirelessly,” translator Renca Dunn said. “Still, there may never be total perfection in any language translation, but the ASLV provides a connection to Deaf people with sign language.”
She explained that connection this way: “When I see the Bible in sign language, I finally feel that God does get me . . . God signs my sign language.”
A REASON TO CELEBRATE
On the day the final verse was filmed, there was a “mini celebration” at the Deaf Missions studios, Entinger said. Since then, there has been a “tremendous and exciting” reaction to the completed ASLV from the U.S. Deaf Christian community.
And in about a week—on Oct. 1—all are invited to a virtual celebration of the ASLV’s completion and Deaf Missions’ 50th anniversary that will take place on the organization’s Facebook page.
That will serve as a prelude to a larger, in-person gathering and celebration set for September 2021—a date that was pushed back a year due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
But between now and then, and into the foreseeable future—along with its various other projects—Deaf Missions will continue working on and revising its ASLV translation. (After all, it’s been decades since the first Bible books were translated and recorded on videotape.)
“The work will never really end,” Entinger said. “Our plan is to have a revised, updated, and expanded version of the ASLV, beginning with the New Testament books. We envision [an] expanded ASLV to include footnotes, translators, handbooks, and commentaries in American Sign Language via improved user experience digital platforms.”
Entinger noted that the ASLV translation project was made possible through the generosity of countless supporters of Deaf Missions and several partner organizations, including American Bible Society, Deaf Bible Society, Deaf Harbor, DOOR International, Pioneer Bible Translators, The Seed Company, and Wycliffe USA.
Jim Nieman serves as managing editor of Christian Standard.
See these related articles:
“Deaf Missions: Seeing God’s Word Come to Life,” by Mary Alice Gardner (November 2019 issue)
“PAH!” by Chad Entinger (November 2019 issue)