By Mary Esther Penner

“For 300,000 Japanese Deaf people, Japanese is a foreign language they have to study arduously to learn. In reality, their first language (their heart language that is naturally absorbed), is Japanese Sign Language (JSL). JSL is a visual language more different from Japanese than English is from Chinese.”  This is how the website reads for a group working to translate the Bible into JSL.

Accessibility issues are not limited to concrete obstacles.  A language you have never heard and never will hear, yet that is all around you, is a significant barrier for many Japanese Deaf people. It is a challenging task to learn to read a language you have never heard.

This Deaf led project has completed translating 26% of the Bible.  When it began translation, work was published for use on VHS cassettes.  Now the most popular access is a free app.  Search either JSLBible, or 手話訳聖書 to see what it looks like.

No sign language anywhere in the world (there are approximately 400 sign languages) has the entire Bible in their own language.  Translation work between any two spoken languages can be a challenge.  But to take a language written in linear form and translate it into a language that uses dynamic manual signs as well as the face to convey grammar, changing the medium from written to video format,  it all adds new levels of complexity not found in text only versions.

The translation aims to take what was written in the original (Greek and Hebrew) and convey it in natural JSL.  The original text is explored and the signer records a draft on video.  After the translation consultant is satisfied– sometimes up to 8 drafts are required– Japanese Deaf people unfamiliar with the text come view the video and answer questions as to what they understand the passage to be saying.  This comprehension check gives vital feedback that the team uses to make further corrections.  After the final version is recorded post production includes adding chapter and verse references and chapter breaks before publishing on DVD and the app.  At this year’s final recording the camera rolled 498 times to get 114 good takes of the 725 verses recorded.

The board members for the Japanese translation project come from a variety of Christian groups; Assemblies of God, Baptist, Holiness, Nazarene, Roman Catholic, and the work is published under the auspice of the Japan Bible Society.  For more information in English, visit For the Japanese Facebook Page,, or the website at

Taking a short break from her nursing job in California, Mary Penner went to Yamagata and met Japanese Deaf people for the first time 37 years ago.  She returned to Japan and now lives in Tokyo volunteering in PR/Communications at the Japanese Sign Language Bible translation project.

She is also involved at Wheelchairs of Hope, a Japanese NPO that repairs and refurbishes used wheelchairs to distribute throughout Asia.


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