When you picture translating the Bible into sign languages, what do you think about? Today sign languages are considered the “final frontier” of Bible translation, filled with exciting opportunities and creative innovation.
Two couples who work in sign language translation, Dan and Carolyn Rehder and Harry and Geri, share four things you need to know about getting involved in sign language translation.
It’s All About Willingness to Learn
When Dan and Carolyn Rehder were first drawn to the possibility of serving with sign language Bible translation, they assumed it wasn’t a possibility for them. “From the beginning we thought … there’s no way we’re qualified to [serve in sign language translation],” Carolyn said. Neither of them had ever been involved with the Deaf community before joining Wycliffe, but they were eager to get to know Deaf people and learn a sign language.
After talking with a recruiter from Wycliffe, the Rehders realized that they just needed to be willing to learn. Wycliffe’s comprehensive training experiences prepared them for serving alongside the Deaf. Harry and Geri, translation consultants and administrators working with the global sign languages team, agreed that having a lifelong learning mindset is key to serving well. Harry said, “We can take in people with no sign language [experience] and with our orientation and training program, they can learn a sign language. [They can] … learn [about] Deaf culture and be successful.”
Now Carolyn Rehder serves the global sign languages team as the communications coordinator, and Dan works with the team as the associate regional director for sign language work in North and South America, offering critical support to Deaf translators.
The Deaf Take the Lead
Signed languages have complex grammar systems that differ from spoken languages, so translating the Bible into a sign language is a unique process. People from the Deaf community serve in all kinds of roles from translators and translation consultants to video editors. Wycliffe missionaries like Dan and Carolyn provide support by coming alongside translation teams, but it’s important for the Deaf to take the lead in the project.
“[If Deaf people are] going to truly own and use the translation, they need to be fully involved from the beginning,” Geri said. “They can make their own decisions and they need to be involved.”
Access to Scripture Is Changing Lives
Deaf people around the world often face many barriers when it comes to accessing information and education. Opportunities to be involved in translation projects and Scripture engagement have enabled the Deaf to overcome many of these challenges. “The Deaf in one region have been working on using the arts to do trauma healing and it’s been very effective. We’re hoping … that something similar could be done in other places too,” Geri said.
In Africa, Deaf adults from multiple regions attended Scripture engagement training in early 2020. After the training they returned to their own regions to share Bible stories at 11 different schools for the Deaf. The stories impacted the Deaf students, and God has transformed many lives through his Word.
In Mexico a group of translators visited a church to show a portion of Scripture in Mexican Sign Language. A Deaf man stayed afterward to ask the translation team some questions. He told them: “It’s better in sign language. It’s clear. I’ve tried again and again to read the Spanish [Bible] but I don’t know what it meant. Now finally you have shown me, and I am overjoyed.”
Dan added, [When a woman saw Scripture in sign language] she got goosebumps, because she finally understood what … [the passage] meant.”
Now Is the Time
Recent advancements in technology have also enabled translation teams to overcome challenges. In the past, portions of Scripture in sign language were only available on VHS tapes and DVDs. Now passages can be streamed from a mobile app or downloaded to a microSD card. The Bible is more accessible than ever for Deaf communities.
Geri said, “What’s happening [in Deaf communities] today would not have been possible … 20 years ago.” She continued: “But God has brought technology [and] he’s brought people together. He’s just made it possible.”
Harry agreed, “There’s lots of work to do. … [This] generation is the first generation that has the possibility of translating God's Word and making it accessible to Deaf [people] all over the world.”