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What the Body of Christ needs to know about sign language Bible translation

Getty Images/iStock/Butsaya
Getty Images/iStock/Butsaya

Five hundred years ago, people like me — those born deaf — were shunned or left to die. But today, there are more than 70 million sign language users and over 350 different sign languages worldwide.

Even so, only one sign language has the full translation of the Bible, American Sign Language.

At Wycliffe, we believe that language is a gift from God. Yet language can also be an enormous barrier to sharing the Gospel. Our goal is to see that barrier removed everywhere.

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Though communicating through signs has existed since antiquity, the first known formal sign language education began in France in the 1750s. Since then, sign language has branched and grown throughout the entire world.

Every individual is hardwired for communication. Just like you, I want to be known and understood. But unlike those who can hear, the spoken word has no meaning for people who are deaf — our language is wholly embodied. This presents both a challenge and an enormous opportunity for communicating God’s Word through sign language.

Years ago, a colleague of mine traveled to a school for deaf children in Nicaragua following the years of civil war. Deaf children had been isolated from each other and had very limited language, but within two to three years of interacting with each other at this new school, they developed a unique language incorporating both hand signs and facial expressions. After a few more years, the language became even more nuanced, proving that in all circumstances, people have an innate ability for language and a drive to communicate with each other. 

Traditionally and historically, the Bible has been translated into printed languages. For many deaf people — those who understand most naturally through signs, or embodied communication — reading can lack a connection to the heart. Moving from a word-by-word translation to natural sign language, Bible stories are internalized and shared with unparalleled richness.

Once, a deaf woman who was a leader in her local church came to a sign language training. Despite having access to the written Bible, it was only after she saw the Gospel message signed that she truly realized what Christ had done for her. When people are given the message of the Gospel in their heart language, their lives are transformed.

However many feel hesitant to lead the way in translation efforts. Because of this, we coined a sign for ‘God-empowered’ that shifts people’s focus away from the translator and places the focus back on God. It is not any one of us who offers the power of the Gospel or gives the authority of translation. It’s only God, and there is no question that he’s giving power to communities all over the world for this work.

Recently, I met the first deaf student in Benin. He grew up learning sign language and taught it to a number of others before he left the area for some time. In watching the younger generation translate when he returned, he was so impressed by the power of their storytelling and how beautiful and accessible their visuals were. The language had evolved, and now older generations are observing how younger ones are leading the way.

Social media and digital communication have also changed the landscape of how deaf people interact in the world. From Chameleon, an AI sign language tool, to sharing videos of Bible stories through WhatsApp, instead of a deaf person having one teacher, younger generations are learning sign language from a much broader selection of people. Yet different languages have different signs — such as how the sign for “sin” in one language can look similar to a sign for “truth” in another. This highlights the need for much patience and grace in translation work.

Yet I am confident that once the concept of “God-empowered” makes its way into the vocabulary of sign languages throughout the world, we are going to see an explosion of deaf people coming to know Christ. If one person translates a Bible story, we want someone else to think, “Now that I know this, I can translate it, too.”

God is ever speaking and drawing people to himself, though not exclusively through the written or spoken word. And as the body of Christ, it’s only fitting that we become aware of and support embodied language as a means of drawing people towards him.

Adan Burke is a sign language partnership specialist at Wycliffe Bible Translators USA.

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