Three challenges to sign language Bible translation

By August 3, 2023

International (MNN) — South Africa recently became the fourth African country to officially recognize its national sign language. Of the world’s 195 countries, only 41 acknowledge the national sign language as an official language.

Recognition is vital because it unlocks funding and support for the Deaf community. For example, Deaf schools often rely on government funding to operate. In many countries, Deaf children obtain their very first access to sign language at a Deaf school.

In the United States, “Most Deaf people learn American Sign Language authentically in the community and through interacting with other Deaf people,” DOOR International’s Mark Sorenson says.

The world’s 70 million Deaf people use approximately 350 sign languages. Only one has a full Bible – American Sign Language. “That took almost 40 years to complete,” Sorenson says.

“Now [that] we have better technology, more resources, we’re able to create those translations better and faster. But we still have such a scarcity of workers.”

Issues and opportunity

As one of DOOR’s senior Deaf leaders, Sorenson oversees several Chronological Bible Translation teams. With experience working in Europe, Latin America, Asia, and the United States, he brings cross-cultural knowledge and years of ministry experience to his role as the International Translation Director.

(Graphic courtesy of DOOR International)

Deaf believers must produce quality work “to ensure that the Deaf community can trust the (Bible) translation,” Sorenson says, but persistent challenges obstruct their efforts.

One issue involves terminology. “Some of those words [used in a Bible translation] don’t necessarily have a corresponding lexical item or sign to go with them,” Sorenson explains.

Another challenge involves team members. If a translator does not sign fluently, “potentially, the facial grammar is not going to match, or it can create a boring translation,” Sorenson says.

“Facial grammar in sign language is really the most important part of the language. Hearing people use tone and intonation to create prosody and mood. That’s done through facial expression [in a sign language.] If we have somebody who can’t do that appropriately, it’s going to create a poor translation.”

Awareness presents a third barrier to sign language Bible translation. “Oftentimes, people think signs follow the exact written translation of the spoken language, but that’s not true,” Sorenson says.

“American Sign Language and other sign languages are different from the written or spoken forms of the hearing communities where they exist. They use different syntax, different grammar structures.”

Now that you know, how will you respond? Visit DOOR’s website to learn more about Deaf needs and Deaf ministry.

“Financial support for the Bible translation process is a critical part and, honestly, that’s not cheap,” Sorenson says.

“For example, when you have a hearing team working in spoken language, they can type those words out, spend time editing it, print it, and it’s ready to go. But, when we do a sign language translation, we have to have lighting, camera, tech equipment, computer software for editing,” he continues.

“And, if we create an error, we can’t just hit backspace. We have to create the entire passage again.”



In the header image, consultants check a sign language Bible translation. (Photo courtesy of DOOR International)