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Wycliffe: Sign Language Translation

I recently had the opportunity to visit Tanzania for a couple weeks, during which I worked with the deaf translation team. Watching them live out their passion for communicating God’s word was an incredible blessing, so I wanted to share with you a glimpse of the work they do!

Currently there is not a complete sign language translation of the bible. There are several translations in progress, but many more that have not even been started. The World Federation of the Deaf estimates 72 million deaf in the world (World Federation of the Deaf 2013b) with approximately 200 different sign languages. The tricky part about this is that the deaf in each culture are treated differently and therefore the way their language develops and is taught varies. In Romania, I noticed that the deaf from villages closer to the mountains had some different signs for things than the deaf in the big cities. These types of differences are similar to the different sayings and accents we have in the United States.

A question that I frequently got asked is, “Can the deaf read a bible that is already written?” Before I went on this trip, I still would have said that the deaf need a bible in their heart language, sign language, but my answer has become more clear. The deaf culture is something that the hearing can’t fully understand, but as an outsider who was allowed to look in, I noticed how unique sign language is. For starters, I have never met storytellers as enigmatic as the deaf! They come alive and their whole bodies get involved when they start telling a good story. Even though I didn’t know their sign language, I could tell what a story was about, because of their expressions and enthusiasm! Now imagine what it’s like for them to experience God’s word that is made up of stories… it’s right down their alley! Simply reading the words, doesn’t capture the way they tell stories, show emotion, and embody characters. They also assign signs to people, called name signs. This is also true for bible characters and places, so that they don’t have to spell out the names every time they come up in the story. These name signs are personal to each character or location and are an important part of conveying the characters, this element is sadly not found in written language.

However a huge obstacle of assuming the deaf can just read a written bible, is that the deaf are educated differently all over the world. Some can read many languages and sign multiple sign languages, like the team I met in Tanzania. They read both Swahili and English, and know Tanzanian Sign Language, Kenyan Sign Language and various levels of American Sign Language. Brilliant, right!? But they are a well-trained group, and not necessarily a reflection of the majority in Tanzania. They shared stories with us of the deaf being treated very poorly in some villages and not getting the opportunity to learn to read and write or to learn sign language.

Another element is how (or if) the deaf are taught Sign Language. Some children have the opportunity to go to deaf boarding schools where they get to sign all day and become very eloquent, others go to school and sign, but go home and have no one to sign to, while still others have deaf in their families and can sign when they return home. Some countries don’t have schools for the deaf, and students struggle to keep up with workloads when they can’t hear their teachers. For many deaf, their sign language is the only form of communication that they have, and they need to know that God sees them and speaks their language as well.

Now onto the translation process… The team in Tanzania starts off with the scripture in Swahili and start mapping out how a story would be expressed in Tanzanian Sign Language. When they feel good about it, they memorize it and record themselves telling the whole story. Then they send the video to their Wycliffe translation consultant who watches the video and makes comments, questions and suggestions. There are a lot of intricacies of accurate story telling in Sign Language that we don’t encounter as much in written languages. They create a story stage in their heads when they started telling a story. So if Jesus is to the right of them, and then leaves at the end of the story, then they have to show in sign language which direction Jesus left and how he left (usually walking in the bible). So, their translation consultant helps answering these kinds of questions. It would be improper in sign language to just leave Jesus hanging in the middle of the room at the end of the story. So the consultant helps the resolve these issues. They also create some name signs for characters and places that have to be discussed to make sure they convey to the viewers accurate facts. So there is a lot of outside research that goes on, and they create many drafts of the videos, changing little things. (They told us in Tanzania that they can’t just slip in a small change in their video editing, because the men’s hair grows too fast, so they have to reshoot the whole video, I thought this was too funny!).

So once a story has been approved by the deaf team and the consultant, they show some other deaf in the community the video, in order to get their first reactions. These community checks are so important, because they don’t want to spend so much time making a video bible in sign language that doesn’t make sense to the native deaf. So, these checks usually create some more discussion and tweaks. When the final story is ready, they film it in front of a green screen and add in artwork done by a local artist in their country’s style to the background (this was one of my favorite parts to watch!). A lot of research goes into the art as well to make sure that it is historically accurate, adds to the story and doesn’t distract too much from the signing.

It truly takes a village, and so many different talents and people. Teamwork and openness is crucial! The consultants for the Tanzanian team are from Romania and the U.S. so their knowledge of Tanzanian culture is limited. They offer advice regarding the communication of the Word of God without trying to diminish important aspects of that culture’s sign language. No one knows Tanzanian Sign Language like the deaf that live there, so everyone on the team has their expertise but has to be open to changes or tweaks from outside opinions. It is quite the balance beam and requires relationship bonding, love for each other and the desire from all to translate God’s Word correctly.

I was pretty amazed with how well the teams from Romania and Tanzania work together. They had many discussions while I was there about different elements, facial expressions, signs or story telling that needed to be worked on. But they didn’t get frustrated with each other or resist change for the sake of pride. I got to see how the desire to glorify God can bring His people to work together with harmony and maturity. This was probably one of my greatest take-aways from my little glimpse into their translation work! Problems, hurt feelings and pride will always pop up when we work on teams together, but they way that we love and show grace through issues speaks louder than we can imagine.

Coming back home, I feel like the translation team is so reflective of the church and how it should function. There is so much room for different talents and personalities, because that is how God created us. Just in my biological family, we have leaders and followers, planners and spontaneous, cooks and eaters; yet we all pitch in. Being part of the family of God should look the same. Some members are the dreamers that come up with grand ideas, while planners actually make them happen. So, if you ever feel like you aren’t using your gifts or personality to benefit others, really take a look at your church family and ask others how you can play your part. We aren't meant to go about this journey alone, but definitely as part of a family with one end goal!

Make your efforts matter,


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