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Blog / Bible Translation for Deaf People: An Interview with J.R. Bucklew

Bible Translation for Deaf People: An Interview with J.R. Bucklew

J.R. BucklewFor 70 million people worldwide, sign language is the first or only language they know and use daily. As many as 80% of Deaf children in some countries never receive access to formal education. Only 2% of Deaf people have been introduced to the gospel. At least 95% of sign languages have no Bible translation.

Bible Gateway interviewed J.R. Bucklew, president of Deaf Bible Society (@DeafBibleSoc).

What is the Deaf population around the world?

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J.R. Bucklew: For our purposes, we’re talking about a community that’s profoundly deaf and use sign language as their native language. We, along with our partners in Bible translation, have identified this population to be over 70 million people worldwide, with three-and-a-half-million of that number residing in the United States.

What are the major differences between spoken and signed languages?

J.R. Bucklew: Communication is a basic human need. Language is the primary way to communicate, but its expression is different between the hearing and Deaf communities. Spoken languages are expressed through oral and aural means—with the voice and heard by the ears. Signed languages are expressed gesturally and visually—by the hands and face and seen by the eyes.

Sign languages are not derivatives, nor are they “simplified” versions of a spoken language. They contain structures and processes different from what spoken languages use. A prime example of this is American Sign Language. It’s not English. It is its own distinct language.

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Describe issues the Deaf face every day.

J.R. Bucklew: Throughout history, Deaf people have been shunned or cast out of hearing communities. During the time of Greek philosophers Aristotle and Socrates, Deaf people were thought to have no intelligence. During Hitler’s reign, Deaf people were tested and tormented in science experiments. In the United States, during the 1800s, certain groups tried to pass laws to prevent Deaf people from marrying and having children. Even within the last century, Deaf people have been forced into orality and the use of signed systems that represent spoken languages, instead of being allowed the freedom to use their native sign language.

In 1960, William Stokoe, an English professor at Gallaudet University, began researching and writing about signed languages. For the first time, signed languages became recognized as full-fledged, living languages, independent of spoken languages.

Although we have, as a society, made many strides toward gaining better
understanding of the needs of the Deaf, there’s still much work to be done. For instance, the work of translating the Bible into other languages has been around for centuries. The English Bible was translated in the 1500s. Yet, not one of the world’s 400-plus known sign languages has a full Bible translation.

The historical mistreatment of the Deaf, recent recognition of sign languages as unique and distinct languages, and the stark reality that no full Bible translation exists in any sign language yet—these reasons, and more, all contribute to the Deaf being one of the last and most unreached and unengaged people groups with the gospel.


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How many sign languages exist?

J.R. Bucklew: Today there’s estimated to be over 400 sign languages around the world. According to the Institute for Sign Language Engagement and Training, of those 400, over 350 need a Bible translation.

Why don’t print Bible translations meet the needs of Deaf people?

J.R. Bucklew: The hearing community begins learning how to read at a very young age. For most hearing children, this means starting with the alphabet and attaching sounds to each letter. From there, they begin piecing together the letters to create words, then the words to form sentences.

But for Deaf children, learning to read is a different process. They can’t hear the sounds in a word, so they have to memorize the sequence of letters as a full word, attach the sequence to a concept, then the concept to a picture. For example, w-i-n-d spells “wind.” When we hear this spoken, we know whether it’s the movement of air or what’s being done to a toy. Sound gives meaning, but for a Deaf person, it’s still the same seen sequence.

Context and contrast are what help give meaning. This is often why reading a sound/text-based language is not considered a natural part of a Deaf person’s native sign language.

This is why a print Bible doesn’t satisfy the needs of the Deaf community. Illiteracy in the local spoken language by Deaf people around the world is very high, but even for those that are literate, the print is still in a language that is more of a second language if anything. The Bible, in their sign language, is the medium by which they’ll be able to engage to the fullest.

No complete Bible exists in any sign language. How difficult is it to produce such Bibles?

J.R. Bucklew: A sign language Bible is God’s Word translated from either written or spoken form into the unique sign language used by a specific Deaf community. This is done by following established translation principles and recording the sign language Bible translation in video format. A sign language Bible is a video Bible by which a Deaf person can watch and see God’s Word in their sign language.

The sign language Bible translation process follows a similar methodology as a written language translation—only the rewrites and drafts are reshoots, as a video is the medium for capturing the visual language of the Deaf. The general steps for translating the Bible into a sign language include:

  • Step 1 – Exegesis and First Video Draft: is when the translation team works with selected Deaf people from a community to study a particular Scripture. This involves understanding the passage in its context, as well as gathering information from the original languages, history, culture, and other vital information to develop the first video draft.
  • Step 2 – Team Check: is when the team reviews the content and identifies mistakes and things that are unclear. This often requires a new set of eyes on the content to double check the work.
  • Step 3 – Edit and Reshoot: correct the errors found in Step 2. Content is adjusted and reshot. Unlike written translations, in sign language translations, the signers often need to memorize long passages of Scripture to capture it on film in “one go.”
  • Step 4 – Community Testing: involves showing the current video draft to the Deaf community, asking questions, and inviting feedback to see what needs to be improved. The translation team selects people from the Deaf community to participate. These are people who are not involved in the translation and represent various ages, denominations, educational backgrounds, and levels of biblical knowledge.
  • Step 5 – Review: is when the translation team discusses the feedback received during Community Testing and what needs to be changed in the video draft.
  • Step 6 – Consultant Check: coincides with Step 5, but the team is receiving and incorporating feedback from a sign languages translation consultant. While the Deaf community helps with naturalness, clarity, and acceptability, the consultant’s role is to ensure the translation remains faithful to the Scriptures.
  • Step 7 – Revise, Edit, and Reshoot: incorporate the feedback and changes to produce another video draft for review. Steps 1 through 7 can repeat multiple times for a particular passage of Scripture, and a translation team can have different passages occurring at different stages in the translation process.
  • Step 8 – Consultant Approval: finally happens when the translation team and the translation consultant are satisfied with the quality of a draft. The consultant approves the translation and the team creates a final version for publication.

Sign language Bible content can be published bit by bit as the translation project moves along. The Deaf community doesn’t have to wait until an entire New Testament or Bible is complete. Newly completed sign language Bible content is placed on our Deaf Bible platform and accessed via the Deaf Bible app and Deaf Bible website.

This process combined with the fact that there are hardly any supporting resources available in sign language for translation teams to use to assist them, is what makes the process difficult.

Read the Deaf Bible Study Bible

Explain the work of the Deaf Bible Society.

J.R. Bucklew: Deaf Bible Society believes the gospel message is for every person including the Deaf and that they have a right to access a Bible in their sign language resulting in personal communion with God and community with his people. The best way to accomplish this is by creating locally sustainable Great Commission initiatives whereby local Deaf leaders are trained, equipped, and empowered with the tools and skills they need to do Bible translation and Scripture engagement well.

We come alongside local partners to help them develop a translation project, and then we resource that project. We’re working on various digital tools that we hope will allow translators to work faster and at a lower financial cost all while producing a better quality Bible translation. Some of these tools are things like software that will allow translation consultants to check videos and provide better feedback within a contained system. Another tool is a motion capture avatar software that enables a team to create a 3D avatar easily by using our Chameleon software, which uses a proprietary tracking technology that’s 100 percent markerless.

We also provide training for Deaf ministers and leaders in various Scripture Engagement methods and techniques. We believe that Scripture engagement is the responsibility of the local church as instructed in the New Testament.

However, many are not aware, equipped, or have access to the tools they need to do this well. Our approach is to fill the gap so the local church can engage its Deaf community with sign language Scripture resulting in life transformation.

One hundred percent of everything we do is in partnership. We could not do this without our fantastic field partners in Bible translation or without the local church.

We’re looking forward to this next year with a vision of being engaged in 30 Bible translation projects, training 544 Deaf leaders, seeing 40 languages in distribution, and distributing over 40,000 resources with Sign Language Bible content around the world! We can’t accomplish this without valuable partners like you!

What are the ways that hearing Christians and churches can minister to the Deaf?

J.R. Bucklew: Deaf Bible Society seeks to see Great Commission initiatives among the Deaf that reveal the hope of the gospel, so every Deaf person has the opportunity to receive, experience, and share it. Join hands with us on this journey by becoming an advocate for the Deaf, praying, or giving financially.

Become an advocate for the Deaf. Take some time to research Deaf history and culture. Visit our website to learn more about how we’re reaching the Deaf with the gospel in their sign languages. Challenge yourself about your own misperceptions about the Deaf and then work toward educating others about what you’ve learned. Prejudices about the Deaf are very real and your willingness to become an advocate paves the way for truth to be revealed. For further information on becoming a Deaf Advocate, please email Advocate@DeafBibleSociety.com.

Partner with us in prayer. Prayer is powerful. Jesus prayed and he instructed us to pray. We know and have experienced forces at play that’ll stop at nothing to see this kingdom work destroyed and for the Deaf to remain in darkness. We need your prayers for the 70 million Deaf around the world to come to know the truth of the Bible. We need your prayers for our field teams, projects, and much more! To become a prayer partner, text the word PRAY to 444999 and gain access to exclusive prayer content.

Give generously. Deaf Bible Society hopes to have 125 sign language translation projects started by 2021. There’s a lot of work to be done and it takes resources. Your financial partnership will help reach the world’s most unreached and unengaged people groups with the gospel in their sign languages. By becoming a resource partner, you’ll receive exclusive updates and stories of how your gifts are making a direct kingdom impact. Give today to see Deaf lives transformed by the gospel. Please visit DeafBibleSociety.com/Donate.

What is a favorite Bible passage of yours, and why?

J.R. Bucklew: If I had to choose my favorite Bible verse, it would be Psalm 84:11. This psalm was shared with me while I was going through a challenging season while serving as a missionary in Ethiopia. It has genuinely been a verse that I’ve had to lean on many times. To trust that he will not withhold good from those who walk uprightly. However, it’s a hard journey to come to the realization that sometimes he and I have different definitions of what “good” is. We can hold on to the reality that his good is always better. Be faithful.

What are your thoughts about Bible Gateway and the Bible Gateway App and Bible Audio App?

J.R. Bucklew: Bible Gateway has been an excellent tool in my life, allowing me to engage and study the Scripture well. It’s a constant help whether preparing for a presentation or sermon, to my daily personal study. It allows me to continue to learn what his “good” is and how to walk uprightly.

Is there anything else you’d like to say?

J.R. Bucklew: You can be used in the mission of bringing the gospel to the Deaf. Your job now is to seek out the Lord and see how he intends to use you in that mission. I strongly encourage you to find a local Deaf ministry by using the “Deaf Church Where” tool that we have made available at DeafChurchWhere.com and then plug in. Seek out their leadership and ask them about the challenges they have in bringing the gospel to the Deaf community in your area. At the same time, go to DeafBibleSociety.com and see how you can partner with us to take the gospel to Deaf communities all around the world.


Bio: J.R. Bucklew is president of Deaf Bible Society and serves on the boards of several other Deaf ministries. Born a hearing child of Deaf parents (CODA), his first language growing up was American Sign Language (ASL), and he still considers ASL his heart language. J.R. has traveled to many parts of the world ministering to and being an advocate for the Deaf. Before working at Deaf Bible Society, J.R. and his wife, Feven, ministered to the Deaf in Ethiopia, starting a Deaf church and opening a café that exclusively employed Deaf people. They also formed two sign language centers and helped train others to work with the Deaf.

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Filed under Interviews