Combining Forces: The South African Sign Language Bible Translation Project

Keywords: signed language translation, Bible translation, South African Sign Language, South African Deaf Community


This paper reports on the South African Sign Language Bible Translation Project, an ongoing project aiming to translate 110 Bible stories into South African Sign Language (SASL). The project started in 2014 and, at the time of writing, 32 stories have been finalised. A team of three Deaf[1] signers are translating the stories from written English to SASL. As signed languages have no written form, the signed translations are video-recorded. The Deaf translators are working with exegetical assistants, a Bible translation consultant with expertise in signed language (Bible) translations, a signed language interpreter who facilitates the communication between the Deaf translators and hearing collaborators, and an editor. Back translations are done by both Deaf and hearing collaborators who are proficient in SASL and English. The Deaf community of South Africa assists the Deaf translators with signs for Biblical names and terms when required. This paper documents the modus operandi of the team as a sequence of different steps. We focus on the many challenges involved in this process, specifically those related to working between the written form of a spoken language (English) and a visual-gestural language with no written form (SASL) and only a short history of institutionalisation.[1] In the literature in the fields of Signed Language Linguistics, Deaf Education, Deaf Studies, etc., the capital D is sometimes used to refer to people or organisations that self-identify as “culturally Deaf”. This allows for the differentiation between “deaf”, which most often refers to the hearing status, and “Deaf”, referring to a socio-cultural (and linguistic) identity. In view of the importance of self-identification, we have decided to only use capital D in this paper to refer to people and organisations when we know for certain that they self-identify as “Deaf”; in all other cases, we use “deaf”.