Watch Tower’s Confusion About Handling Sign Language
During the beginning of the Watch Tower’s involvement with the deaf ministry there was some confusion about how the organization would handle sign language. Were these people disabled and in need of special attention? Did they have special needs? Or were they simply another language group? The presence of Gallaudet University for the Deaf in Washington militated against such a view. To their everlasting credit, the Society eventually decided to treat sign language as another language group. However, at this point, the endemic ignorance of the organization in matters beyond writing Watch Tower literature manifested itself. There were a number of issues that the Society proved both unwilling and unable to handle.
The American Sign Language Department was the first major sign language department to be set up. The Writing Committee labored under the assumption that all sign languages were the same, since globally, sign languages are iconic, and therefore sometimes have signs that “look the same.” (This was also a common mistake of linguists until at least the mid-1970’s.) Of course, if those involved at the Society had done some serious research, they would have dealt with this assumption at the beginning. Then, if American Sign Language set the lead in translating, other sign language teams globally could simply copy them, in terms of both approach and translation solutions, etc.
The assigned decision makers at the Society believed, if not in word at least in attitude, the following: American Sign Language was a “simplified form of American English.” Thus, you would not have to stray far from the English when translating. The same would apply to other sign languages. This caused numerous difficulties when the American Sign Language team tried to explain that “we can’t just say that; it doesn’t work in our language.”
Often, in English, there is certain implicit information that needs to be explicated in another language. There are many other linguistic issues in sign language. The Writing Committee did not really understand this and tried to enforce a wooden “Literal Translation” onto the translators because they said in their inter-office departmental manual, Translating For Our Publications: “The translator is not at liberty to insert his own ideas into the text.” This is a very sound translation principle. However, American Sign Language teams were not trying to insert their own ideas, but needed to say certain things to convey the correct understanding and overseers had little understanding of the problem. To some extent, those the Society appointed made a half-hearted attempt to moderate this situation. But the sign language team ended up being driven to a type of wooden literalism. It took the research and publication of another translation manual to really effect change internationally, not only in sign language but in many languages.
As to the British Sign Language situation, in the UK there are quite a number of British Sign Language congregations and groups. In 2009, discussion was underway to reorganize the field, and the number of groups and congregations were in flux. To give the reader an idea how many deaf attend congregations, the British Sign Language Convention at Dudley Assembly Hall regularly attracted an attendance of around 1000, and, of that, maybe only 90 or so are actually deaf—some baptized, some interested. The rest of the attendees are hearing persons who are learning or have some vested interest in sign language. This is the way it is with sign language congregations in the UK as well as in the US.
It was reported that at the Dudley, UK convention, the quality of the sign language provision by the Society was a source of some frustration and disappointment to those in the deaf field. Whether in the US or the UK, many of those who learned sign language had no real idea of what they were doing and used “theocratic” coined signs that have no meaning outside of the Witness community. They were viewed as “English” signers (a term of some disrepute used by deaf about hearing signers who haven’t mastered the grammar and syntax of sign language), and are said to be culturally insensitive.
This is not the fault of the publisher but rather the Society who caused the problem which eventually some in sign language supervisory positions endeavored to fix by assigning skilled translators to provide naturalness and linguistic competence to sign language translation in general. Now Jehovah’s Witnesses are actually known as very good ASL signers, but they are by and large uneducated, and most don’t have interpreter training. Therefore, Jehovah’s Witnesses develop a very distinct “accent” in their signing due to copying the few people who really do know what they’re doing. Not having done their own research in the language, or received training, many are very limited in language range and ability. This is especially evident when Witnesses try to sign to educated deaf people. It can be quite insulting to them when uneducated or untrained hearing Witnesses are passing themselves off as interpreters when the deaf and interpreter community fought so hard for the provision of trained and qualified interpreting services for the deaf.
Initially, signers in Translation Services were the best signers among Jehovah’s Witnesses, the ones who cared enough to receive training and education to get the language right. (Many thought simply copying the results of their hard work equaled getting their own education and training.) Often, there were both professional deaf and hearing signers at Bethel brought in as consultants and they too pushed to get the language right. This also involved heavy input from deaf people and sisters. Later, though, things changed because there were prominent Witnesses resistant to using these people.
In recent years, especially in the UK, those who made appointments at headquarters brought into Bethel’s Translation Services deaf staff some who were incompetent in this field, but were appointed primarily because they were “spiritual” men. In fact, less qualified signers have been used in videos based on having greater “spiritual” qualifications – which troubled many.
At Bethel, “spiritual” qualifications are viewed as of higher value than technical proficiency. For instance, the overseers of specialized departments usually have no expertise or experience in the field or discipline they oversee. At one time, the overseer of the Photography Department in the US Branch was a car mechanic, and the overseer of the Art Department was the former branch overseer of Denmark and couldn’t draw a straight line. Both were said to be “spiritual men.” Consequently, personnel of the departments were very unhappy and department operations were often in disarray.
The Society reaps what they sow; they have discouraged higher education, and so in areas like translation competence, the burden falls on a few competent individuals to choose the publications, translate them, and attempt to train team members and the wider Translation Department.
Some Witnesses directly involved in the Watch Tower’s deaf ministry in the UK and Europe contend that there are many issues with the Watchtower’s international sign language program especially complaining of absolutely awful signers globally, whose wooden “English” signing is frankly incomprehensible. Many are, unknown to themselves, teaching things that are wrong because the signing is so bad. This disparity is often seen when a local hearing elder who has recently begun learning sign language gives a public talk or conducts the Watchtower Study. The difference in quality between these novice signers and the experts on the Watchtower’s DVDs is stark, sometimes to the point of distraction for the audience.
In the US, compared to other religions, the Witnesses quality of sign language is known to be high even among non-Witness professionals. In fact, in New York City there is a joke that if a male signs well and is not gay, he must be CODA or a Jehovah’s Witness. However, an overall lack of higher education among Jehovah’s Witnesses limits the quality of many signers. Leaders within the Witness “deaf ministry” see disparities between what the Society is producing and the quality of the local Witnesses’ sign language. The problem is that people blindly copy the concepts used by signers on Watch Tower videos without really understanding the underlying meaning – then they use the concepts wrong and don’t have the education to know any better.
The average deaf Witness has a very poor grasp of concepts but because of the definitional quality of sign language, probably understands core Witness concepts a little better than the average hearing Witness, that is, if they watch the videos.
Many Witnesses, deaf or hearing, don’t study on their own so know very little about all of their religion’s teachings. One signer explained that he found out what his religion really taught when he learned it in sign language. For example, most do not know that the concept “only-begotten” means that Jehovah took from his own spiritual body the very substance to create Jesus from – that according to Jehovah’s Witnesses, Jesus was literally made out of part of Jehovah’s body. This was only understood by this signer when seeing the sign for “only-begotten” and discussing it with people in the Translation Services Department. He observed:
The real problem is that the “truth” makes no sense, and when you’re presenting it in a language that demands a concept to be clear and straightforward the message falls apart. The whole “generation” teaching was a disaster in sign language because it makes no sense in English – but English, unlike ASL, leaves a lot of room for ambiguity and couching of language.
As an example of Watch Tower Society deaf supervisors’ untrustworthiness in using American Sign Language, they managed to hide the idea that men are above women in the organization by translating the concept “submission” with the sign used for “humble” instead of the more appropriate sign for being in submission to another person, which clearly shows men being above women. This was clever because the signs look the same and using “humble” tells sisters “by being in submission you are humble” which has powerful psychological effects. A lot of effort was made to try and convince us that “humble” means “submissive.” That language game was one of the alarms that went off for me as a Witness that something was clearly wrong.
From the vantage point of some of those seeking more deaf members, perhaps it doesn’t matter that the message is really not understood. Certainly this is seen on the hearing side of things in the Watch Tower as well, as their current introductory book What Does the Bible Really Teach? is a dumbed-down, far cry from the Truth book of forty some years ago.
Another factor contributing to this problem of average Witnesses having a poor grasp of doctrinal concepts is that the Watch Tower and Jehovah’s Witnesses use loaded and uniquely defined words and phrases liberally throughout their literature and talk outlines to the point that a deaf audience member has to learn a new language in order to learn a new religion. Anyone who has learned a new language can attest that it takes extensive time and effort to master. Continued on next page…