Sign language has experienced a surge of interest in the past couple of years.
Deaf actress Rose Ayling-Ellis wowed on Strictly Come Dancing last year – and the film Coda, about a teenager who is the only hearing member of a deaf family, won best picture at the 2022 Oscars.
Now another project under way, with its roots stretching back more than 2,000 years: the Bible is being translated into British Sign Language (BSL).
Rev Dr Hannah Lewis, a Deaf priest based in Liverpool, always believed she had a good understanding of the Bible. As someone who is “completely bilingual in English and BSL”, she didn’t think she was missing out.
“I can read it, I can understand it, I can preach on it. But when I see the Bible in BSL it just hits me – emotionally, spiritually – in a way that reading never will.
“However good the interpreter, you’re receiving the Bible once-removed,” she told Radio 4’s Sunday programme.
BSL is Hannah’s first language and, as such, the most meaningful.
Currently, while there are some non-traditional versions of the Bible available in BSL, there has been no official translation until now. Previously it had come down to the subjective reading of individual interpreters – their take on the stories and words on any given day. Come the following week, or a different interpreter, the Bible stories might be signed slightly differently and convey slightly different meanings.
The BSL Bible Translation Project is trying to put that right. A team of Christian volunteers have been working with historical and biblical experts to translate the Bible from the original Greek and Hebrew texts into a BSL video version.
It will be the only definitive BSL version – and, because it will be a video, the signing will not be subject to change.
The project has involved about 20 people, from theological experts to BSL linguists, interpreters and presenters, at a cost of about £1,000 a day – all from sponsorship.
Their aim is to strike a balance between scholarly interpretations of the texts while ensuring the translation is accessible, accurate and looks natural in BSL
The team has so far translated Mark’s Gospel and has started on parts of Genesis, both of which are available on the project’s website.
But it’s not entirely straightforward. There are many versions of the Bible in English – because translators rarely agree on how to express the meaning of the original texts.
Janice Silo, a trustee of the project – who is Deaf and was a teacher of Deaf students before her retirement – says it has given the community a chance to think about its meaning in their own language.
“Growing up, it felt like I was always told what to think. When I became a teacher I wanted the children I taught to think for themselves.
“I feel that Christians should read the Bible for themselves, but Deaf people don’t have a Bible in their own language so this project will ensure they do.”