Quick to Listen/Episode 144 |39min

No Sign Language in the World Has Its Own Bible Translation

Deaf communities around the world are still waiting to experience God's Word in their first language. How much longer will it be?
No Sign Language in the World Has Its Own Bible Translation
Image: Lokibaho / Getty

Note: Our guest on this week’s show signed his responses so we are also making a video of this podcast available below. A transcript of our conversation is also included at the end of this article.

Donations from the 40,000 attendees at this year’s Passion Conference raised nearly half a million dollars to fund Bible translations for the deaf. These funds will boost projects in Mexico, Cuba, Colombia, Moldova, Egypt, Ghana, South Africa, Tanzania, Ethiopia, South Sudan, Myanmar, Thailand, Malaysia, the Philippines, Japan, and Russia.

No sign language has a full Bible translation, and just 2 percent of deaf people around the world have access to the Gospels in their sign languages. According to CT’s reporting:

Sign languages aren’t structured like text-based or spoken languages [and] they require their own processes for passages of Scripture to be told visually through sign. Chronological Bible Translation (CBT) translates the Bible by stories, while Book-by-Book (BBB) translation uses the chapter and verse structure, the Deaf Bible Society explained.

The deaf community is made up of visual learners, says Jason Suhr, the director of Scripture Engagement & Translation at the Deaf Bible Society.

“We don’t rely on specific words,” said Suhr, through translator William Ross III.
“We kind of rely more on images and the context of those images.”

When someone is signing, they will first set the scene, often spelling out the weather and where objects, plants, trees, or people might be.

“You don’t really get a lot of that in English,” said Suhr. “You have to create that image in your head, whereas deaf people are able to set that up.”

Suhr joined digital media producer Morgan Lee and editor in chief Mark Galli to to explore why it’s taken such a long time to provide this community with a translation of the Bible and what it will take to transform this situation.

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Quick to Listen is produced by Morgan Lee, Richard Clark, and Cray Allred

Show Transcript

Morgan Lee: Donations from the 40,000 attendees at this year’s Passion Conference raised nearly half a million dollars to fund Bible translations for the deaf. The money raised by students will fund projects in Mexico, Cuba, Colombia, Moldova, Egypt Ghana South Africa, Tanzania, Ethiopia, South Sudan, Myanmar, Thailand, Malaysia, the Philippines, Japan, and Russia.

Currently, no sign language has a full Bible translation and just two percent of deaf people around the world have access to the gospels in their own sign languages. According to see CT’s reporting on this particular fundraising campaign, “sign languages are not structured like text-based or spoken languages and they require their own processes for passages of scripture to be told visually through sign Chronological Bible translation translates the Bible by stories while book by book translation uses the chapter and verse structure.” And that’s according to the Deaf Bible Society.

Today on Quick to Listen, we’d like to explore why it’s taken such a long time to provide this community with a translation of the Bible and what it will take to transform this particular situation.

Before, Jason, we hammer you with questions, Mark I just thought it’d be great for us to do a gut check on this particular news and even the fact that no sign language has their own full Bible translation.

Mark Galli: Yeah. Well, I had two reactions. First, of course, like many readers is why does the deaf community need a sign language Bible when they could read like everyone else? We’ll get into that in the podcast.

The second was just an innate interest in the story because I was raised as I may have mentioned on the show with a brother who was born blind since birth. So we dealt with his various and in sundry needs, for example, buying him a Bible in Braille when he was younger and just you know thinking about the world from his perspective. I had to take care of him, he was a year younger than me, so helping him negotiate many situations, always makes me more a little more sensitive and thoughtful about other people with one impairment or another.

Morgan Lee: My reaction was honestly just that it seems like there’s been so much progress that’s been made in the Bible translation field and community. I was honestly surprised that no sign language has their full Bible translation. I think I actually learned that when I visited the Museum of the Bible a couple months ago, but just reading and again, I found still found it kind of shocking and surprising.

Further, just two percent of deaf people around the world have access to the gospels in their own sign languages. Yeah, those are some like really crazy stats. So I’m glad that we can have Jason on to discuss this with us today.

So Jason, I thought maybe I’d just start with this question: why are there so many different sign languages and how many different sign languages are there?

Jason Suhr: Well some languages are very similar in spoken languages in the sense where there are a variety of spoken languages and are also a variety of sign languages. For example, American Sign Language actually is rooted from French sign language. That’s just kind of the origin. It’s that history. There was a deaf man who ended up moving to the States and set up a deaf school in the states and over time. The language that originated from France transformed and became what we know as American Sign Language today. So it’s very similar and with the variety of countries that are out there. They’re influenced by different things and it happens over time. People sometimes want to communicate with people that can’t hear so they develop their own sign language.

And it’s very similar with spoken languages in that sense. And just our rough estimate is over 400 sign languages. We have about over 250 documented ones, but we’re assuming that they’re still over 400 because we know that there is more as just a just a possible number of people that use sign language is that it’s over 400. We only have about 250 documents and stuff.

Mark Galli: I assume that those sign languages share a lot of signs like languages do or cognates as they say?

Jason Suhr: So we have some similarities in the language but not everything does. It’s kind of like you have people that speak English and then people that speak Chinese: the tone inflections are very different and how it’s communicated is very different and what they mean is very different, just like accents.

Sign languages actually have accents as well.

Mark Galli: How about that? That’s really interesting. And tones? I assume...Well, that’s kind of a crazy question. I recognize but I know Chinese is tonal so that makes a difference in an audible way. Is there something similar in sign language?

Jason Suhr: We had a lot of it is in relation with movement. For like the Asian culture. It’s a lot more straight-faced in a way. That’s some minor head movements with they lean the head forward or move it back, wherein in America, it’s more laid back, it’s more relaxed. There’s a lot more fluid movement. I have to adjust my facial expression, the words that I say--so how I move my mouth when I’m trying to express what I want and what I’m saying. And so I’d have to adjust all of those just do brief stints in Asian sign language.

Mark Galli: Okay. Well, our listeners are going to have to watch this. This is just really interesting

Morgan Lee: Anything else you want to nerd out on Mark?

Mark Galli: No, that’s great.

Morgan Lee: You and I both really enjoy languages. So I want to go back to Mark’s gut-check where we were talking about questions that people have about why just reading the Bible and the written text isn’t going to be sufficient for the deaf community. What do you say when people ask that question?

Jason Suhr: For many deaf people, we are actually are visual learners. We don’t rely on specific words. We cannot rely more on images and like the context of those images. So when one of the things is when we start an example, we kind of base it off of the setting but kind of where we are currently in that moment. Then we kind of start to set things up around us, like of trees, to the left or cars to the right, where the water is, or if there’s any animals, what the weather’s like and then we continue with that story or that example.

And how it’s expressed itself is very different. You don’t really get a lot of that in English. You have to kind of create that image in your head where deaf people are able to set that up. Our first reaction is visually. That’s what’s most impactful to us. And so when we are able to see those reactions we aren’t able to get the same reaction when we’re reading it

Morgan Lee: So just trying to process the Bible then is going to be just kind of massively incomplete? It would fall really short than to just have to read it verse-by-verse. Yeah, it is a good tool for the deaf, but it’s not the same understanding that same grasp of knowledge because it’s not in their first language

Jason Suhr: Imagine you trying to read like a Spanish Bible. You would have to do one of two things one: You’d have to learn Spanish, of course, and then you’d be able to learn God’s Word in order to have a relationship with him. You have to learn Spanish and then still be able to try and learn God’s word through Spanish.

Mark Galli: So how does that imagery work in texts like the Pauline letters that are mostly about an argument and not a narrative, not a story?

Jason Suhr: You can set stuff like that up in sign language. It’s what we call role shifting. We kind of take on that character. When we have their expressions, we showed some of that anger and some of the context behind who they were and we kind of shift between two different people moving from one side to the other.

And then we have that space set up, so as we shift our focal point is a little bit closer to the right but as we shift to the other character, we move to the right and then that focal point is now to our left so that sets up the to the two characters split.

Morgan Lee: I want to go back to something that we mentioned in the intro, which is about chronological Bible translation and book-by-book translation. Do people in the deaf community feel more strongly about which one is better? And you know, which one is favored?

Jason Suhr: It’s heavily relations related to preferences. It’s all it also plays a role in education. For example, when I was growing up in America, I had a very good education.

I was able to understand academics and excel in school, so the work that I did was really good. So that became more of the habitual approach because that’s the way I was raised. So when I was reading the book-by-book sign language, I really appreciated it because it’s a map that follows the same order as my studies did because I was able to actually then it study even further.

But when it comes to children or specific Bible study groups, when you just want to kind of tell that story, the chronological Bible is more of that storyline approach. Where able to kind of sit down and have a little bit more of that narrative and story time and everything like that and it’s easier to memorize and keep in your mind for a longer period of time as opposed to book-by-book.

And so in other countries, they’re limited to the access of technology that they have. Some countries don’t have as much internet access and so they need to memorize some of these stories and they find that the Chronological Bible was more effective for that memorization. So it was able to keep some of those stories and then have that in their language and able to share that with the people that they were near.

Morgan Lee: Well that actually just leads me into my next question, which is what type of technology do you need to be able to translate the Bible into sign language?

Jason Suhr: Studio kit is one of the things that’s most effective, kind of having like the green screen and everything like that, having the space, the proper lighting, those proper cameras, and then the computer for the editorial work that we’ll be doing, the software for it.

It’s kind of that whole package for that studio kit. It’s kind of like creating a movie in a sense but it’s done in a smaller scale for translation work.

Morgan Lee: So the Bible really wasn’t available to be translated into sign language before the advent of film then?

Mark Galli: And video?

Jason Suhr: Yeah, you’re right that the technology wasn’t developed then.

Morgan Lee: So I know on our show, I think we’ve talked a little bit about just the Bible translation process for those that are using written text, but I’m wondering if you can kind of walk us through it what it what that process may look like when it’s going from Greek, for instance, into sign language.

Jason Suhr: So we have a team of experts that requires a bunch of people. It’s not just done by one person. Like Martin Luther when he translated the Bible into German, he was one person that did that translation. It was just him. For us doing that translation work, we can’t just have that one person. We have a team.

The reason behind that team as one person who is a native ASL user, who’s skilled with ASL, and then we have an individual who is kind of our exegetical expert so to speak. They’ll work in the exegetical and the background and the stories and knowing that’s everything’s correct.

And then we have our videographer and then we need our editor and then lastly we would need our consultant who is extremely versed in Greek and Hebrew. That would that’s who we would hire on as our team. So we have a group of about five-ish people with that one goal. And then that just creates that rough draft. Once we get that rough draft into that sign language, that’s when we send that out to the community. We send that out to the deaf society at its whole, people that are believers and are unbelievers, to kind of show them the work that we’ve done to see how our sign language is, to make sure that it’s clear, its precise, accurate, and then we have people that are knowledgeable in scripture so that it’s accurate there as well. And then we get a lot of that feedback. So once we get that feedback, we might have to do a second and the third and fourth draft before were able to finalize that one portion of scripture.

Morgan Lee: And then after that is when you would actually go about videoing the kind of like final version of that?

Jason Suhr: Now we would have that final video and then have it published.

Morgan Lee: If I wanted to access the Bible in ASL right now, what is actually available?

Jason Suhr: You can get access to the website or the deaf Bible app and some is actually out on DVD. There’s some on USBs but it also depends on the team, so it depends on how far along they are in their processes. We started with Genesis and everything like that. So book-by-book follows the chronological-book by-book through 32 different stories. And then we have an additional 35 and then we create a 110 different versions of that. So it depends on where you start. Some start with the gospel, some start back in Genesis, some start in Mark, so it really depends on that team and how far along they are in that process and the capacity that they are able to actually produce.

Morgan Lee: What do you would you say is the hardest of genre of the books of the Bible to translate?

Jason Suhr: The apocalyptic passages. So like Daniel, Ezekiel, Revelations. Those are typically the hardest so. The other books that could be considered tough is a John and Daniel, those are considering a little bit more challenging

Mark Galli: The Gospel of John?

Jason Suhr: Yeah.

Mark Galli: Huh, that’s so interesting. The apocalyptic, the thing that strikes me about them is they’re extremely visual. So it strikes me as they would be especially helpful to you in that regard from a translation point of view.

Jason Suhr: I think it’s more like the theology behind it and grasping that understanding because you have to remember, 98% of the deaf community hasn’t been introduced to Scripture. So we don’t really have a lot of deaf believers out there.

Morgan Lee: And so kind of trying to give the context so that people can access it and understand it is the challenging or the sticking point?

Jason Suhr: Yeah, that is a sticking point.

Mark Galli: So what do you do with words when you run across words, this would happen in apocalyptic literature, especially in Daniel, I think, and then other passages of scripture even in the New Testament. You have Jesus using specialized technical religious terms like Corbin. When you come across the word like that in Translation, it’s actually a foreign word to English, what do you do with that? You spell it out?

Jason Suhr: We have our consultants, they are kind of support to making sure that that sign is part of that scripture and make sure that it’s very accurate and that it’s very fitting to that the meaning behind it. We tend to avoid that spelling out because it’ll hit more home if there’s a sign.

Mark Galli: Okay, yeah that’s the point of translation.

Jason Suhr: Yeah you’re right, it is.

Morgan Lee: So what countries’ sign language has made the most amount of progress when it comes to Bible translation?

Jason Suhr: The most progress we made so far is that American Sign Language and it’s actually through the company partner with called Deaf Missions and the first ever completed Bible ever is expected to be completed in 2020 and then following that is the Japan translation and in the Columbia.

Mark Galli: Oh the Japan translation that is so interesting. Wow. That is great because it’s country that’s been very hard to reach for the Christian faith.

Jason Suhr: We have a great team there. They’re a lot of churches are actually working together for that single goal of getting a translation. So we’ve actually been praying a lot for the translation team in Japan and Colombia and all the other languages as well but those two specifically.

Morgan Lee: I was just wondering about Colombia. I think obviously for those of us hearing people we would expect that there would just be one Bible that would get used in all Spanish-speaking countries, but it does seem like a most every single Spanish speaking country has their own Bible translation team and their own sign language?

Jason Suhr: Yeah, it seems that way there’s a lot of different selling or just in South America and in Central America, as well as Mexico. There’s a lot of variety of the sign language down there.

Mark Galli: And within Mexico itself, there would be a variety?

Jason Suhr: Right now Mexico has one current identified sign language, but I don’t want to negate possibilities of others, but they’ve only had one identified actual language there in sign language.

Mark Galli: I’m curious. What do you think has been key to the Japan and Colombian Bible translation teams making as much progress as they have?

Jason Suhr: Right now the Japanese have 19 books translated and Colombian has 16 books translated. So when the completion could be quite a few years now. They have a lot of exceptional support and great funding. They also have an exceptional team. The team is very dedicated to the translation work that’s being done in those countries. I think one of the key things is commitment. A lot of people don’t quite realize how much commitment is actually required from the people doing the translation work.

I think that’s one of the thing that stands out between the Japanese and the Colombian cultures is that commitment.

Mark Galli: How many hours a day can a team like that work together, reasonably? I wouldn’t think they could go at it for eight hours. I think that would be exhausting.

Jason Suhr: I guess I had said before there is a team of people so they each do their part. For maybe three verses you might be looking at the entire day having that put into that sign language.

Mark Galli: Oh my gosh. Wow, no wonder it takes dedication.

Morgan Lee: I ‘m curious, then, in the wake of just not having Bible translations in their own languages. How has the deaf community responded to this and kind of made do?

Mark Galli: Before we started the translation work, we would encourage community involvement. We have what we what we have what we call CANA. C is for clarity, A is for accuracy, N is for the naturality of it and the last A is for acceptability. So that part’s acceptability is a requirement. So we have the community at a large, with a variety of different denominations and included in that discussion with that translation work, we kind of like make sure we have their support before we move on with the different projects.

So often times when we have that approach, we have the community’s support and there already excited, thrilled, and ready to put even more support behind this because they wanted even more once we started doing this work.

Morgan Lee: How has the deaf community traditionally worshipped without having scripture available?

Jason Suhr: Historically speaking, they’ve been going their church. They were just kind of believing whatever was told to that. They never really had an opportunity to be equipped to become leaders the so the vast majority of the deaf people want to know the word of God. They desire a relationship with him.

And one of those simple resources is just reading a Bible in their own language or talking with someone who knows the Scripture that they’re able to ask those questions of. Or maybe they’re able to read what we have, which is that the comic Bible, or they’re able to watch a couple of Christian movies, some of the films that are out there. Some of them might have captions. And so the ones that don’t have captions, they’re just trying to observe the behaviors. They’re assuming what’s being spoken but they’re trying to get that behavior, but they’ve never had a full, precise, clear interpretation of that. They have always been reliant on people being told and then being told what to do.

Mark Galli: Yeah, I have seen you know, a number of television broadcasts of worship services, may have been to a few them in which there was a signer at the service but I can see where that could still be just as simply one way communication and it sounds like the community is looking for something a little more dynamic.

Jason Suhr: Here in America. We have some Bible schools set up and some deaf individuals are able to take classes and now some are even being led by deaf individuals. So we’ve noticed a large increase with the society today. But a lot of that is starting within the churches a lot of deaf churches that are out there, the pastor within deaf church actually requires the audience involvement. So if they’re at the pastor asks the question, he expects the audience to actually answer it. It’s more like the pastor will ask a question and one person raises their hand and give an answer and then that pastor will kind of expand on the answer that was given and that becomes more of that discussion and then that forms. Some kind of discussion. So instead of a preaching, it’s more of a distressed large group discussion. It’s more of a communal discussion than where you’re sitting in a church you’re just listening to what the pastor said and then when churches over you leave, whereas the deaf requires more involvement.

Morgan Lee: What countries would you say the deaf Christian community is the most robust?

Jason Suhr: Sometimes it’s difficult to explain. To have a healthy Christian environment, people would need three things. One of them is the ability to kind of read and understand God’s word in their natural language, the ability to kind of ponder what the meaning behind it is, because they have to have that thought process and the ability to ask questions.

It’s kind of difficult to say which country that’s currently happening in. If you look at just kind of the numbers of deaf leaders within churches or the deaf theological schools, Bible schools, and they have leaders within them that are deaf, or just Bible colleges with that language accessibility, so I can’t say exactly which country that is because there’s a variety of factors that play into that.

Morgan Lee: So, I’m curious. What type of work do you guys do at the Deaf Bible Society?

Jason Suhr: We provide accessibility to God’s Word to the deaf individuals in their natural sign language. We connect the deaf community by training up individuals within the deaf community to help lead others.

We invite everybody, deaf, hearing alike to join our global cause so that deaf people will have access and experiences and the ability to share the gospel. And so we have hope that they could continue sharing the gospel.

Mark Galli: Do you encourage people who are not deaf to learn sign language?

Jason Suhr: I mean, yeah, I would encourage you I think it’d be amazing to have people who can hear learn sign language and be involved with the deaf.

Mark Galli: On first blush, it looks very hard, although I will say that my daughter taught her firstborn to sign before that daughter learned to speak so that she could ask for more food or learn to say, thank you, and I was amazing to me to watch my granddaughter, Ruby, actually learned to sign a few simple phrases before she actually learned to talk so I think it must be possible.

Jason Suhr: A lot of it is a requirement of immersion. If you know what like a deaf person and you start to get like a deaf group, if you’re able to be fully immersed in it, you pick it up much quicker than sitting down in the class and everything like that.

Mark Galli: That’s true of spoken languages as well. Yeah. Definitely.

Morgan Lee: Jason, can you share with us how you became a Christian?

Jason Suhr: I’m very fortunate deaf person, probably one of the most fortunate in the world. I’m one of .002 percent of deaf individuals. The reason I say that is I have deaf parents and both of my parents who are deaf are both Christians.

So I grew up within the church. Even though I had a lot of frustration and struggles and no accessibility to God’s Word, I was able to have my parents who daily encouraged me and daily told me different stories and told me the scriptures. It wasn’t perfect. It wasn’t the best thing in the world, but I was extremely fortunate to be able to have access to this and today to be able to see the sign language scriptures, it’s so inspirational because that’s not something I had my entire life. I never had that and I consider myself one of the luckiest but I still didn’t have that scripture in my language. That’s what I needed is a kid. That’s what everybody needs.

I accepted Christ a little bit later in life. I was a college graduate but looking back on it now. I’m extremely appreciative and thankful for the foundation of my parents. And really thinking about it, I mean 99.998 percent of deaf individuals never had the same opportunity that I did.

Morgan Lee: Jason I’m wondering if you can tell us how the hearing community can pray for and support the deaf Christian community.

Jason Suhr: The prayers for translation around the whole globe including the languages that have not been translated that we can have those deaf individuals who have a heart and a passion so they can begin the translation work within their own communities.

I’m praying for an awareness, deaf and hearing alike, that is able to provide different ways for God’s Word and the translation work and how that can continue to spread and how that is shared. And the prayer for finances, for funding so that people can be impacted by the work that they we’ve done, so they can donate their time, and that the people that they know can donate some finances and funding and they can donate it to this cause.

Morgan Lee: Awesome. Thank you so much for sharing that with us.

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