Today there are more than 350 known sign languages around the world, representing more than 70 million people. Only 2% of the global Deaf community are estimated to have been introduced to the gospel, with only American Sign Language (ASL) having the full Bible.
But God is on the move in new and exciting ways among the global Deaf community! In April 2023, a milestone was reached in Deaf Bible translation when more than 170 Deaf leaders representing more than 50 sign languages came together for a consultation. At this consultation, 49 countries were represented on behalf of more than 95 churches and organizations to ask themselves the question:
“How do we address Deaf Bible translation needs across Eurasia and start a translation project in every sign language still needing it within the next three years?”
This consultation was an opportunity for Deaf leaders to come together and collaboratively discuss how to address these remaining language needs in their surrounding communities and countries so that all people can encounter Jesus in a language and format they clearly understand.
The Complexity of Language
At this consultation, there were a minimum of eight interpretations happening simultaneously.
If you’ve ever been in a multilingual setting, you’ve experienced the need for translation simply to understand basic conversation. Perhaps you have served as an interpreter, helping communicate back and forth between two or more languages at the same time.
At this consultation, there were a minimum of eight interpretations happening simultaneously — American Sign Language, Russian Sign Language, International Sign, Arabic Sign Language, Polish Sign Language, Bulgarian Sign Language, Swedish Sign Language and English (verbal) — just to lay a foundation for any additional group-led interpretation so that all participants could understand the presenters and surrounding conversation.
For hearing communities, interpretation requires a back-and-forth dynamic. You hear someone say something, pause to process and repeat it aloud in another language. The conversation is like ping pong, volleying back and forth between the different languages.
Sign language is a visual language, and therefore interpretation is simultaneous between the input and output of the conversation. An interpreter is seeing the signs and interpreting them into a secondary sign language at the same time. This complexity alone is something that the average hearing person can’t begin to truly fathom!
But praise God for each one of these participants and their dedication to pursuing the conversation, even in the midst of such a complex language setting.
Empowered by God
“We’re just here to encourage you. You are the movers and the shakers.”
Adan Burke is a sign language partnership specialist at Wycliffe Bible Translators USA. His life was changed when he encountered Jesus through Scripture in a language and format he could clearly understand: ASL. Today Adan plays a vital role in Deaf Bible translation.
As one of the leaders and organizers of this consultation, Adan had the privilege of not only seeing God’s hand at work in the months leading up to the gathering but also in the months following. When sharing about the consultation, one of the key moments Adan highlighted was a group discussion around the “how” of Deaf Bible translation. It can be easy to assume that a partner organization such as Wycliffe USA is the one empowering others to do the translation work, but that’s not really true.
“It’s not us-empowering, but God-empowering,” Adan shared.
Adan shared with the group, “We’re just here to encourage you. You are the movers and the shakers. It isn’t us empowering you; you are able to see God empowering you. God did that and He moved, and He’s going to continue to move.”
Over the consultation, the group coined a phrase and a corresponding sign from these discussions: “God-empowered.”
“It’s not us-empowering, but God-empowering,” Adan shared. “The sign for ‘empowerment’ comes from just that: me empowering you and implying that I have the power, I have the control and I am the one that is now relinquishing it to you. But that’s not the case in this situation. We have to be very intentional about making people aware that it’s not me, it’s not us. It’s God empowering us!”
This is a beautiful representation of the true heart of Bible translation: It’s not about us empowering each other, but is instead about God empowering us to see His name made known among the nations.
In many ways, this milestone in Deaf Bible translation is just the start. All around the world, more and more Deaf leaders, churches and organizations are coming together and asking themselves the same question: “How do we address Deaf Bible translation needs in our community and surrounding regions?”
The answer is that we can only do this when we’re empowered by God. Because when He is at the center of our efforts — and when we intentionally lay aside our differences in pursuit of a common goal — we can trust that God will move!
Reproduced with permission from Wycliffe US