A conversation about sign language Bible translation consulting

Stuart Thiessen is a sign language translation consultant with DOOR International. He also is Deaf himself. We interviewed him in a written dialogue about sign language consulting in global Bible translation movements. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Stuart Thiessen, Translation/Linguistics Consultant, DOOR International

What are the most encouraging things happening in the sign language Bible translation consulting space right now?

Probably for me, one of the most encouraging things is the development of the Sign Language Translation Tool, SLTT. Today, it is a collaborative effort between the United Bible Societies and DOOR International with extensive feedback from Bible translation partners engaged in sign language Bible translation.

The SLTT developed from a conversation I had with Nathan Miles from the United Bible Societies in 2015. He approached me to inquire about how Paratext could be adapted for sign languages. I told him that it probably would be next to impossible to do that in a way that would work well for Deaf people.

What was the common approach then?

Teams gave their videos to the consultant on a USB drive or a DVD, or maybe they uploaded it to Google Drive or Dropbox. Then consultants typically used ELAN or Word to document their feedback on the videos. Then they had to wait until they could meet with the teams in person to explain their feedback, unless someone on the team could read the consultant’s feedback. Or sometimes the consultant would videotape their feedback—but that process would typically take several additional hours to film and edit. Teams struggled with getting the videos to the consultants on time and consultants struggled in getting the feedback back to the teams in time.

That must have been frustrating.

Each team and consultant used whatever assortment of tools that worked best for them. Translation teams were often in silos, unaware of what other translation teams were publishing unless someone had a copy of another team’s DVDs or knew what website they had created. So, there wasn’t an easy way to see how other translation teams were solving the translation issues they were struggling with.

Screenshot of the SLTT, taken March 2024

So how did the SLTT happen?

Nathan asked me to explain to him what would be needed. Then he developed a prototype and asked for my feedback. Later, we started adding more teams and getting their feedback. Today we have over 50 active teams involved in using the SLTT to draft their Bible translation or to develop resources that support Bible translation and Scripture engagement.

I believe users and partners in the sign language Bible translation space would agree that the SLTT was a significant factor in helping teams make progress toward their translation goals during and after the events of 2020. But it also continues to be helpful, particularly when in-person visits from the consultant may only occur once or twice a year.

How does the SLTT work?

Here is just a glimpse:

  • Videos can be drafted within the SLTT or filmed in a studio and uploaded to the SLTT.
  • Consultants can log in and see the videos as soon as the teams have uploaded them. They can provide both video and written feedback on the translation right there.
  • Teams can directly access sign language translations published through Digital Bible Library and Deaf Bible Society to see how other translation teams addressed specific passages.

So, in less than 10 years, we have a significant improvement in the drafting and checking processes for sign language translations. In short, the SLTT can support translation teams during the drafting and feedback stage of the translation to make their final product more ready for final editing.

Stuart Thiessen presents on sign language Translation Resources at a FOBAI meeting in Sao Paulo, Brazil in April 2024.

What is the global state of collaboration among sign language translators?

We are seeing more collaboration happening, though I believe there are some growing pains involved. We have the Deaf Development Group in the Forum of Bible Agencies International (FOBAI). We have the 55 Table in Every Tribe Every Nation. Both groups are composed of strong Deaf leaders and hearing allies. There may not always be agreement on all the details, but there is agreement that we need to work together to see more Bibles available for Deaf communities around the world.

What are some of the challenges in sign language Bible translation consulting?

I often talk about the challenges falling into three areas:

1. Compensation: The traditional model is that the consultant develops their own team of financial partners by contacting churches and individuals to give toward their ministry. For Deaf consultants, this model is difficult to sustain. Most Deaf churches already struggle to support the salary of leaders, costs of buildings and programs. They don’t have the resources to support missions. Deaf missionaries then must visit hearing churches to build that team of financial partners.

Most hearing churches do not have a Deaf ministry, so the Deaf missionary must cover the cost of having an interpreter present for any presentations. Even if a Deaf missionary has an interpreter and the church or group of individuals are willing to hear their presentation, they still have to convince those listening that ministry to Deaf people is something that is worthy of their investment. This challenge of compensation then can cause otherwise very capable candidates for translation consultant to decline to pursue consultant work.

2. Training: Most of the training for Bible translation consultants has only been available in spoken language, whether formal training, informal training or mentoring. Not much training has been available in sign languages. That is beginning to change. One helpful change has been the shift to using competency-based criteria instead of merely relying on formal training.While some training can be made available via sign language interpretation, the success of that training often depends on a variety of factors such as the linguistic skill of the Deaf participant(s), the educational background of the Deaf participant(s), the skill of the interpreter(s) and the style of the instructor(s). When all of these factors are positive, the training is often successful. If any of these factors are negative, then the training will either take longer or be less effective.

Screenshot from introductory video on translationresources.org signed by Ron Lawer of the Deaf Harbor ASL translation team, June 2024.

3. Resources: As DOOR has already experienced, it is possible to train Deaf people to be excellent consultants, but if they are not able to access the resources they need to do the checking, they are limited in what they can check. This would be true of all consultants. Take away the spoken-language libraries that most consultants use, and those consultants will also be limited in what they can check.

The ideal solution is to develop more resources in sign languages so that Deaf consultants can access information in a language they can easily access. Additionally, spoken-language resources do not address issues that sign language Bible translation frequently needs to address. So having resources in a sign language to discuss sign language translation is ideal. The Translation Resources project (30 hours of video content) is an example of this kind of resource that is focused on Deaf translators. The SLTT library now contains this and other signed resources.

What are some cultural factors unique to Deaf communities that affect consulting?

One unique challenge that Deaf people often face is limited access to language and education. Unlike other linguistic minorities, most Deaf people do not learn their sign language from their parents. They learn it from their peers or at a Deaf school or in some other context. Deaf people might not achieve a reasonable fluency in their own sign language because there are not accessible sources to learn their sign language or they were not exposed to it early enough in their lives—or their parents, teachers, doctors, etc. actively discouraged acquisition of their sign language.

This lack of access to language is typically called language deprivation. While hearing people are continuously surrounded by accessible language, Deaf children often may not have that access until later in their lives. The varying degrees of language deprivation significantly impact how to target a sign language translation and Scripture engagement efforts. A translation consultant needs to be aware of the situation in that country and work with the team to support translation goals that will meet the needs of Deaf people in their context.

Are there technology challenges as well?

Managing and storing videos is another challenge. Recently, Deaf Harbor translated the book of Jonah. Just the “text” of the translation is about 20 minutes. They also tend to have a second video that contains the full text plus “more information” segments, which function like translation notes in print Bibles. The text plus more information is about one hour long.  On the editing side, the videos, pictures, etc. needed to create these two videos total 650 gigabytes. So you can imagine the data implications of storing the raw data for all 66 books of the Bible if just 48 verses of Jonah take 650 gigabytes.

Internet bandwidth is a related issue. For those who have reasonable internet access, disseminating videos through the internet is one solution, but there are bandwidth costs that someone will have to cover. Another option is to make it possible to download content, but then each person may need significant hard drive space to store the videos. For now, figuring this out is still a work in progress.

Stuart Thiessen participates in a community check of Scripture in Burundi in 2008, with a camera to film people’s comments.

What was your path to becoming a sign language translation consultant?

I was exposed to Bible translation from an early age, through relatives who served with Wycliffe Bible Translators USA at JAARS. I was hard of hearing and the SIL linguists I met said that they rarely discouraged anyone from working in Bible translation, but they thought it would just be too difficult for me. (And, of course, spoken-language Bible translation would have been a difficult task.) SIL itself would not begin to think about sign languages until the early 1990s and even then, it was still a very new idea.

In college, I lost the remainder of my hearing and began to learn ASL (American Sign Language). I asked a good friend, who later became my wife, what she knew about a Bible for Deaf people. She introduced me to Deaf Missions (which was translating the Bible into ASL). Of course, at that time it was all on videotapes and I could not see how videotapes could be used in the same way as books.

I decided to become involved in Deaf ministry and began working as a Deaf church planter. In both congregations that I served, I saw the limitations of using the English Bible to have effective ministry because while some Deaf people learn to read a spoken language well, many others do not have that opportunity. I realised that I had become their Bible, but they couldn’t take me home to read during the week. That led me to conclude that maybe I should consider becoming involved in Bible translation. In 2007, I began as a consultant-in-training. By 2014, I was certified as a sign language translation consultant and then in 2016, as a sign language linguistics consultant.

How difficult is it to check translations in other sign languages?

I have checked translations in Kenya, Burundi, Paraguay, Chile and the United States. I also assisted with training translation teams in a number of other countries. It was always a challenging experience because I will never know their sign language as well as they do, but my effectiveness doesn’t depend on that. It depends on how well I can communicate with them to build trust and serve them to see their translations succeed. For ASL translations, I can usually make more suggestions. But for other sign languages, it is more about how to ask good questions so that they can evaluate the translation choices they made.

What are the ideal qualifications of a sign language consultant?

Basically, the qualifications of a sign language consultant and a spoken language consultant are essentially the same. The difference here, though, is that a sign language consultant (whether hearing or Deaf) needs to be aware of the Deaf context, particularly of the translation community that they are serving. Ideally, sign language consultants should be fluent in at least one sign language and working toward learning the sign language in which they are working so they can check the translation directly and communicate with the Deaf translation team directly.

Stuart Thiessen and Deaf Harbor’s ASL Chronological Bible Translation team model how a consultant helps a translation team puzzle through a translation challenge in Translation Resources video ‘Principles of Translation, Part I’.

Is being Deaf an advantage for the consultant?

It is often easier for a Deaf team to work directly with a Deaf consultant. Deaf consultants tend to acquire new sign languages more easily and share similar experiences as Deaf people. This more easily builds bridges between a Deaf consultant and a Deaf team.

But hearing sign language consultants are still valued. To be successful, they need to have strong interpersonal skills and be able to connect well with Deaf translation teams. Often, they are already fluent in at least one sign language and working on learning that team’s sign language. They are culturally aware of the power they have as a hearing person and how they have access to some things that Deaf people do not. They are careful to leverage that power in collaborative ways so that their power is not detrimental to the team. In fact, one way to tell this about a hearing sign language consultant is when Deaf people forget that the sign language consultant is hearing. All this said, even when a hearing consultant cannot sign, Deaf people still often value their knowledge and experience because they are an opportunity for access to information that Deaf people do not currently have.

You used the word “power.” That feels very significant to this process.

Probably the most important characteristic for hearing sign language consultants is that they understand the power and access they have as hearing people and use it in appropriate ways that support their Deaf colleagues so that they are equipped and enabled to accomplish their translation work well. Hearing (or Deaf) consultants who use their power and access to help sign language Bible translation, but obviously for their own edification, are less likely to have successful collaborative ministry with teams. Deaf people will recognise that difference. Effectiveness comes when we realise we are there as servants who want to see the team succeed and the team recognised.

Can relationships help teams handle that potential power imbalance?

So often, being the last to know has a downside. It puts Deaf people at the mercy of those who know this information. Sometimes, that creates a context where people can use that “power” to “do for” Deaf people. Relationship and in-person connection is often where it is easier to identify who is “doing for” and who is “doing with”. It is refreshing for Deaf people when they experience someone who wants to do things with / in partnership with them. Having that relational connection builds stronger collaboration and trust.

What have you learned personally that you can apply moving forward?

One thing I’ve realised is that this role requires me to be constantly learning. Some people think of a consultant as someone who has arrived at some pinnacle and is able to dispense advice from that lofty mountaintop. But, in reality, translation consulting is more about how well we can learn, gather, and communicate information on the questions we encounter in translation. We have to hone the skill of building that web of knowledge that can help us serve translation teams. We have to be ready to continually challenge our assumptions about how Deaf people communicate information, especially when we are working with a sign language that is new to us.

Today, I want to see more Deaf consultants become equipped and sent out, so my ministry is shifting more in that direction. If we want to see more consultants, we have to invest in training and mentoring. I could just do consulting, but then when I’m ready to retire, who will come behind?


Story: Gwen Davies and Jim Killam

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