FEATURED IMAGE: Ruth Bullard studies the first complete Bible released in American Sign Language.
Two Years Since Release of World’s First Sign Language Bible, Deaf Describe the Translation’s Impact
“It’s our emotions, it’s the grammar, it’s who we are,” said Ruth Bullard, a congregant in the Sign Language Congregation in Las Vegas, Nevada, of the importance of the ASL Bible to the deaf community. “It’s the experience of watching something and fully comprehending … because it’s in our language.” Like many whose native language is ASL, Bullard “suffered through” not having a full understanding of the Bible written as words on a page.
Katiewu Thomas was astounded 15 years ago when she learned Jehovah’s Witnesses had begun work on what would become the first complete American Sign Language (ASL) translation of the Bible.
“I never dreamed of having a Bible translation for the deaf,” said Thomas, a native of Aurora, Illinois, who lost her hearing early in childhood.
As a college instructor in sign language interpretation, she knew just how massive an undertaking it would be. The 66 books that make up the Bible had to be translated thought by thought into the unique grammar and sign “vocabulary” of ASL and then recorded on video, with attention to facial expressions and even how to signal a shift between different speakers in a passage.
The seemingly impossible became a reality when the final book of the “New World Translation of the Holy Scriptures”” was officially released at a special ceremony in West Palm Beach, Florida, on February 15, 2020. In the two years since the release of what may be the world’s first complete sign language Bible, many in the deaf community have described a profound impact on their lives
That’s been the experience of Iris Torres of Brooklyn, New York, who, despite having an interest in Scriptures since childhood, struggled to take to heart what she learned before the release of the Bible in ASL. “Reading the Bible in English or Spanish didn’t have an impact on me,” said Torres, who is deaf. “I just didn’t understand it clearly.”
She now faces a very different challenge with the Scriptures in ASL: stopping once she’s started. “It’s hard for me to press ‘pause’ once I start watching a verse,” she said. “I want to see the whole story of what’s happening. The translation is amazing!”
Although Katiewu Thomas reads English fluently, she’s seen both her understanding of Scripture and her personal relationship with God change for the better since receiving the Bible in ASL. “The signing feels very direct and personal to me,” she said. “In my heart, I can understand and create a full picture. It’s like I can see God talking to me.”
The impact of the new ASL translation has reached well beyond the some 2,282 deaf Jehovah’s Witnesses in the United States. Since the Bible’s release, more than 1.1 million complete copies and nearly 50 million individual sections have been downloaded for free via jw.org and the JW Sign Language App.
“This new ASL Bible has been feeding the world,” said Robert Hendriks, U.S. spokesman for Jehovah’s Witnesses. “ASL is a beautiful language that breathes life into the most powerful collection of words ever documented in a book. It is our mandate as an organization and our responsibility to the Author of the Bible to make God’s Word available at no cost to all who want to read it, irrespective of their language.”
In just the last two years, Jehovah’s Witnesses have released the “New World Translation of the Holy Scriptures” in nearly 70 additional languages, bringing the total available without cost on jw.org to more than
- Scores of other sign language translations of the Bible are now in development.
Torres calls the ASL Bible a beautiful gift that still leaves her overwhelmed—and proves God’s love for the deaf community. “There are so many hearing people compared to the amount of deaf people, but God has love for us all, no matter what language we speak,” she said.