LAS VEGAS (KLAS) — Nearly 100 volunteers worked for 15 years to produce the world’s first complete Bible translation into American Sign Language (ASL) on video.
The final book of the New World Translation of the Holy Scriptures in ASL video was released on February 15, 2020, during a dedication program for a new translation office in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida.
“For us, it’s been a 15-year journey, and we can finally say it’s complete,” said Jeremy Mallory with the ASL Remote Translation Office.
There have already been 41 million individual video chapter downloads of this version of the Bible, as many rely on their faith to cope with uncertainty, anxiety and loss amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
Robert J. Hendriks III, U.S. Spokesman for Jehovah’s Witnesses tells 8 News Now that this translation effort has affected more than just Jehovah’s Witnesses. He pointed out that in the United States, those who use ASL to communicate only amount to about 10,000 in congregations of Jehovah’s Witnesses. Of those people, only around 2,500 of them are actually deaf. The rest are those who support those congregations as volunteer teachers of the Bible in ASL.
“I have everything at my fingertips,” signed Lilli’Ann Ibanez, a deaf woman who attends a sign language congregation in Las Vegas.
This newly released ASL Bible translation brought tears to the eyes of one reader.
“I didn’t feel goose bumps when I read the Bible in English, but the moment I started watching the Bible in sign language, I couldn’t help but shed tears,” shared Isias Eaton, who attended the program in Florida when the ASL Bible translation announcement was made.
TECHNOLOGY CATCHES UP
“It was the first time in history, the Deaf community, those who read and spoke ASL, had a complete Bible available to them in any community, anywhere on the globe,” said Hendriks, of the translation of all 66 books of the Bible.
The translation work began with the release of DVDs, which was cumbersome, difficult to navigate for the end user and would end up being difficult to use.
As time went on, Hendriks says they were able to put the video translation online and on a smartphone app, “putting this powerful translation in the palms of people’s hands.”
Hendriks shared the religious organization’s goal was not just to translate this complex and sophisticated language literally, but to accurately translate thoughts, and then transmit it in video.
SIGN LANGUAGE TRANSLATION PROCESS
There are generally three people on a translation team, according to the remote translation office (RTO).
One person focuses on generating translation ideas, the second on the accuracy of the translation, and the third watches closely to ensure the interpretation is natural and easy to understand.
“When they did a translation of a text that was so literal that it could only be understood, literally, it was often very illogical,” said Nicholas Ahladis with translation services of Jehovah’s Witnesses. “And it often meant that the sign language translation team had to go back to the drawing board and come up with a revised text that would be more understandable.”
After the text is analyzed in English, Hendriks says RTO members hold a project meeting to discuss translation challenges to ensure everyone is on the same page with the meaning of a text before the translation filming begins.
Their translation system is more thought-for-thought, rather than word-for-word, according to Geoffrey Jackson of the Governing Body of Jehovah’s Witnesses.
The ASL Bible Team of Jehovah’s Witnesses were the first to use a live review panel for Bible translation to produce a high-quality product.
“His image of what the Bible is trying to say to us should be the same as a person reading the Bible in English or any other language,” explained Bobby Dunbar, Translation Services of Jehovah’s Witnesses in New York.
The translation team worked hard to ensure no concepts were missing or added in their translation of the New World Translation Bible from English text to ASL video.
“If that thought can be conveyed in an accurate way, in a meaningful way, that’s what it’s all about,” added Jackson.
LOCAL COMMUNITY REACTION
“When it comes to reading the Bible, watching it in ASL, I have it downloaded in an app on my phone and tablet so I can use it for study,” Ibanez shared.
Tory and Jamie Jaramillo, a hearing couple, work as licensed sign language interpreters in Las Vegas, Nevada. Jamie is the hearing daughter of two deaf parents, and English is her second language.
“As a child of two deaf adults, I identify linguistically and culturally with the deaf community,” Jamie said. “What I choose to do for my secular work is I am an American Sign Language interpreter,” she added.
As a Jehovah’s Witness, Jamie chooses to volunteer her time teaching the Bible. She says over the years, it has been very difficult because of a lack of access to the complete Bible in ASL video.
“Written form doesn’t reach their hearts in the same way as watching it,” said Jamie.
“As a Sign Language interpreter here in Nevada, I work very hard to try and give an accurate interpretation, but interpreting is kind of like art. You’re doing it without having information beforehand, versus the effort that goes into a translation, like the New World Translation [Bible],” Tory explained.
With the pandemic dragging on, Jamie says the isolation has proven more severe for members of the Deaf community. She has noticed that the mental and emotional health of her students has been impacted.
“The Bible provided for the deaf could not have come at a better time,” Tory added.
Richard and Sari Cardona are hearing parents who learned sign language and virtually attend ASL religious meetings to support their deaf son.
Spanish is their first language, but the family decided to move to an ASL congregation to learn the language and help their son.
“As the father of a deaf son and as immigrants, when we moved here to the United States, it was very difficult,” Richard said. “In 2019, we moved here to the city of Las Vegas and received great support.”
“When parents who are not deaf find out that they have a deaf child, this can be very unexpected, and sometimes even frustrating. We know that this has an influence on the child’s emotional and social development,” Sari shared. “As a mom I would ask myself, ‘How can I teach my son the truths from the Bible?’ But God never forgets anyone, regardless of his disability.”
“Now, when we all three sit down to study the Bible, we can understand the questions our son asks us, and I feel a direct connection with my son,” Sari said.
“I am so happy…because Jehovah God has given me the Bible in ASL, which is sign language, to help me understand,” signed Richard Cardona Jr.
STATEMENT FROM LOCAL ORGANIZATION
Many in the Deaf community expressed disappointment regarding the receiving accurate and timely information in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic. Some say they felt like an afterthought with messaging that could affect their lives — at the very least, their mental health.
With pandemic anxiety a growing concern, rapid delivery of healthcare information could reduce the risk of contracting or transmitting a life-threatening disease. For the Deaf community, the added challenge of sometimes not having a sign language interpreter or being unable to read lips due to mandated mask-wearing for public safety increased that threat.
With a focus on providing advocates for the Deaf community, the Nevada Commission for Persons Who Are Deaf and Hard of Hearing or Speech Impaired was created in 2020 within the Office of the Governor in Nevada. Its mission is to ensure Nevadans have equal and timely access to resources, services, and opportunities in the community.
According to the state website, the goal of the Deaf Commission is to provide timely access to information, effective communication, education, and services that promote choice and independence for Nevada residents who are deaf, hard of hearing or have speech disabilities, and the families and professionals who support them.
When asked how the huge undertaking of translating the entire Bible into ASL could benefit the Deaf community, Maureen Fradianni, a member of the commission said, “That’s beautiful…it is great. It has an empowering affect to have that access to communication. I can say that…even though our beliefs are different, I applaud what they [Jehovah’s Witnesses] have done.”
Amid the pandemic, Fradianni commented on the importance of digital resources in helping the Deaf community be included in public conversation, even though in-person Sign Language interpreters are preferred by many.
“That’s wonderful,” she said, regarding the translation of the ASL Bible for the deaf and hard of hearing.
Before her retirement, Fradianni worked for eight years with an agency called the Deaf and Hard of Hearing Advocacy Resource Center. That agency later became The Deaf Center of Nevada. The agency has since closed and stopped providing services. She says its closure in December 2020 took a toll on the Deaf community because the services they were accustomed to were no longer provided.
According to Fradianni, the Aging and Disability Services Division is temporarily taking over these services until July 1.
“I find that we are using these digital resources even more now, and I would assume that after the pandemic, we’re going to be using them even more than we did before,” she added, as she expressed hopes for the return of in-person events due to the eye strain and fatigue resulting from the extended use of virtual events during the pandemic.
With the recent update from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) on mask-wearing guidelines for those fully vaccinated, hope seems to be on the horizon.
Fradianni also shared information on a grant opportunity available for programs and services for the Deaf community through the Notices of Funding Opportunities (NOFO) website. This grant includes services for parents of deaf and hard of hearing children. The deadline to apply is June 12.
The commission held a meeting on May 13, where members discussed what more can be done for the Deaf community.
FUTURE TRANSLATION WORK
While other organizations have worked to complete the ASL Bible, the New World Translation of the Holy Scriptures has continued their work and have already translated the Bible into an additional 100 sign languages, making it available to deaf and hard of hearing communities around the world.
The translation, publishing and printing work of Jehovah’s Witnesses is supported by voluntary donations.
“The ASL Bible Project set a pattern for other sign languages,” explains Nicholas Ahladis, who helps coordinate translation services at the world headquarters facility in Warwick, New York.
Jehovah’s Witnesses say they will not stop translating the Bible until everyone can read the Bible in “the language of their heart.”
ASL DIGITAL RESOURCES
To learn more about the New World Translation of the Holy Scriptures in American Sign Language (ASL) please visit this website.
ASL videos on the topic of coping with anxiety during the pandemic:
- Virus Outbreaks—What You Can Do
- How to Beat Pandemic Fatigue
- How to Deal With Isolation
- Can the Bible Help Me if I’m Depressed?
- What Does the Bible Say About Pandemics
To view the ASL Bible, visit jw.org, click on the language icon at the top center of the website page, check the “Display Only Sign Languages” icon and select the desired sign language translation.
When viewing the ASL Bible, you can also enable “show text” to display captions as you watch the online bible.
8 News Now extends a special thanks to Peter Roman of American Sign Language Communication for providing ASL translation for this article’s interview with the Deaf Commission.