British Sign Language Bible Translation Project

Most of us are probably at least a little familiar with the idea of ‘signing’. Some TV broadcasts are accompanied by signing for the benefit of the Deaf and during the Covid pandemic the Scottish government had its TV pronouncements ‘signed’ (unlike the UK government). Beyond that, I don’t suppose many of us have much, if any knowledge of how ‘signing’ works.

Why is the word "Deaf" capitalised? - See note at the end of this page.

Those TV broadcasts use British Sign Language (BSL) which is not just a set of signs for English words but a language in its own right. BSL does not transliterate English, that is, it does not replace individual English words with individual signs. Like spoken languages, BSL has its own grammar and syntax based on the use of handshape, orientation, location, movement, and non-manual features such as facial expression. It is often considered the "dynamic interpretation" of language, meaning it is used to convey thought-for-thought rather than word-for-word. It focuses on feelings and nouns, rather than conjunctions such as "for", "and" or "but". Unlike English and other spoken languages, it does not have a written form.

For Deaf people in the UK, BSL may be their first or ‘heart’ language and English may be a second language used for reading and writing. Similarly, hearing people may learn BSL to communicate with Deaf family members for example as a second language in addition to English as their first language.

While Deaf people can read the Bible there has not been a version in their own language, BSL. This would be akin to me having access to the Bible in Italian but not in English. When signed in church, the Bible readings are the signers’ ‘interpretation’ of what is being read and will vary with both the individual signer and the version of the Bible being used. The British Bible Translation Project sets out to address this issue and to provide British Deaf people with the Bible in their own language.

Starting from original Greek and Hebrew texts a team of Christian volunteers including BSL linguists, interpreters and presenters has been working with historical and biblical experts to produce a video version of the Bible in which the signing used will not alter. Their aim is to strike a balance between scholarly interpretation of the texts while ensuring the translation is accessible, accurate and looks natural in BSL. So far, the team has translated the Gospel of St Mark and has begun working on Genesis. It will, however be some considerable time before the task of translating the whole Bible will be completed – it took 40 years to produce a version of the Bible in American Sign Language.

Versions of the Bible in English first started to appear in the 16th century so those of us who are not Deaf are very used to being able to read the Bible (and any number of versions of it) in our own language. Imagine what it must be like for a Deaf person to be able to ‘see’ the Bible in their own language for the first time. The effect can be revelatory.

Rev Canon Gill Behenna, a Church of England priest and one of the trustees of the project says, "Although a huge number of Deaf people are bilingual, it's different having the words of scripture in your own heart language - the language you use and you identify with." Furthermore, Janice Silo, another trustee of the project who is Deaf notes that having the Bible in BSL has given the Deaf community a chance to think about its meaning in their own language.

The British Sign Language Bible Translation Project is being financed entirely by sponsorship and is making its translation free to view on its website – go to to find out more.

Incidentally, you might wonder why the Bible in American Sign Language (ASL) can’t be used in this country. It’s because ASL and BSL are very different languages with just 31% of signs being identical.

Why is the word "Deaf" capitalised?

The capitalised version of "Deaf" is widely used for those who are Deaf and use BSL. They define themselves as culturally Deaf, with their own language. Where "deaf" with a small "d" is used, it is typically for people who consider they have a hearing problem and whose first language is English.

First published on: 23rd February 2023
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