‘It is amazing’; Faith creates complete American Sign Language translation of Bible

ST. GEORGE — Understanding the Bible isn’t always easy, and it can be even less so when trying to digest it through a second language after the translation falls short.

A man signs John 3:16 in a video that is a part of the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ American Sign Language Bible app offered for Windows and mobile devices, St. George, Utah, March 4, 2021 | Photo by Mori Kessler, St. George News

For deaf members of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, this was a part of the experience for many years until technology enabled the church to translate and share the Bible entirely in American Sign Language.

“I got to watch my mom relearn the Bible and relearn about Jehovah God,” Darry Bullard, of St. George, said of his mother’s experience with the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ ASL Bible.

“To get even a deeper relationship with our God that way and to deepen her faith and understanding more clearly… it’s been wonderful to watch,” he said.

In February 2020, the church announced that is had completed a translation of the whole of the Bible – of Old and New Testament – into American Sign Language. As far as the Jehovah’s Witnesses are aware, it is considered the first complete version of the religious tome translated into ASL as well.

The Jehovah’s Witnesses’ ASL translation of the Bible is readily available on the church’s ASL website, through a series of online videos, as well as for download for Windows, as well as for Apple and Google (Android) mobile devices. The ASL Bible app shows videos of men in suits who sign through the books of the Bible verse by verse.

“It is amazing,” Bullard said as he shared his mother’s experience as a deaf individual who joined the faith and how she learned the Bible through the aid of others.

Barry Bullard, a member of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, shared his mother’s experiences as a deaf individual and what gaining access to the Bible in American Sign Language has been like for her, St. George, Utah, Feb. 12, 2021 | Photo by Mori Kessler, St. George News

Bullard’s mother joined the Jehovah’s Witnesses in the 1960s, long before resources were readily available in ASL. At the time, she was able to learn and study with the Witnesses through others writing notes for her to read or sign language interpreters who weren’t always able to accurately express the meaning behind what was being taught.

“But here, it’s straight, right in her own language,” Bullard said. “She can look at any verse she wants now, any verse in the Bible using the app.”

Bullard, along with Robert Hendricks, a national spokesman for the Jehovah’s Witnesses, spoke with St. George News last month about the ASL Bible, its impact and how it came to be.

In the 1970s, the church had many deaf members across the county and the world, Hendricks said. They were taught from the Bible as best as possible, yet in meetings “meant for a hearing world” that weren’t specially catered to their needs.

“For many in the deaf community, they accepted that, but it really didn’t speak to their hearts,” Hendricks said. “Every person in this world should be able to read the Bible in the language of their heart.”

A part of the problem in trying to help deaf members of the faith understand the Bible was that interpreters would tend to give literal translations from English. Basic concepts were easy enough to convey, Hendricks said, but going into depth in a way that could be understood wasn’t so easy.

The menu screen for the Jehovah’s Witness ASL Bible library Windows app | Photo by Mori Kessler, St. George News

“Their mother tongue really is ASL, and most people know American Sign Language is not the literal translation of words – it’s conceptual, it’s visual and it’s emotional,” Hendricks said.

The church created its first ASL congregation in New York in 1989 and began providing ASL lessons on video cassette. These videos, when someone had a lot of them, weren’t easy to carry around. This changed with the advent of DVDs that were more easily shared.

As ASL meetings and lessons became more visual, parts of the Bible were also translated for use in weekly meetings and started to accumulate to the point that, in 2005, the church took on what became a 15-year project.

“By 2005, we began a project nobody thought we’d be able to do, and that’s translating the Bible into ASL,” Hendricks said.

The New Testament Book of Matthew was the first part of the Bible completed in 2006, with the final book, the Old Testament tale of Job, completed in early 2020.

“It was the first ASL Bible ever translated in its complete form, ever, in history,” Hendricks said.

A video of a man signing a part of the Old Testament book of Obadiah as a part of the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ American Sign Language Bible app offered for Window | Photo by Mori Kessler, St. George News

A large part of the translation process was making sure the concepts expressed in the Bible were accurately described through sign language. As mentioned before, literal translations may not make sense to the recipient due to a loss of context and syntax. In order to help translators avoid this, panels of deaf individuals were regularly consulted to aid in the project.

“The Bible is, frankly, hard to understand,” Hendricks said. “If language becomes a barrier to that understanding, it’s not giving us what was intended for us.”

Since the ASL translation project began, complete books of the church’s ASL Bible have been downloaded over 2.3 million times. Individual chapters have been downloaded nearly 39 million times, and the complete Bible itself over 850,000 times.

It’s not just Jehovah’s Witnesses who are using the ASL Bible, Hendricks said, noting there are approximately 2,000 deaf members of the faith in the United States which host an estimated 1.3 million of the worldwide faith’s 8 million members.

In a recent story by the Deseret News, in which several deaf Jehovah’s Witnesses shared their gratitude for the ASL Bible, one shared it with a Catholic woman who was “moved to tears when he showed her the Lord’s Prayer in American Sign Language.”

“The whole thing fits in a phone now, all of the American Sign Language Bible,” Bullard said, adding its been wonderful to see his mother and other deaf congregants benefit from having access to the complete translation. “It’s really neat to watch their faces and to see the joy they have in talking about it and using it in their own study.”

Ed. note: St. George News readers have pointed out that the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ ASL Bible is not the only Bible available for use by deaf individuals. Other ASL-translated Bibles are available online and over smart phone app stores. 

Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2021, all rights reserved.

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