Interpreting or Transliterating?

In previous installments, I’ve written about the importance of matching the Deaf speaker’s mastery of language, vocabulary, and register, especially when it comes to our ability to produce spoken English that is worthy of that speaker’s signed language. In my last, somewhat “controversial,” column, I wrote about the dilemmas we must face as interpreters when Deaf speakers produce signed English that is “wrong” or “broken English,” (as many second language speakers do). I believe that some of the controversy really turns upon the issue of whether we are voice interpreting or voice transliterating. This article will examine more closely the process that we might use to determine whether a Deaf speaker is producing an ASL message that must be interpreted or a signed English message that must be transliterated.

I’d like to start off with the assertion that, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it!” Many of the sentences that Deaf people sign, either in ASL or some form of manually (and orally!) coded English, follow the same syntax as regular, spoken English sentences, and should be voiced exactly as they are signed. This means that we, as interpreters/transliterators, must constantly assess the speaker’s syntax and encoding system to ascertain whether each particular word, phrase, and sentence should be interpreted or transliterated. We must ask ourselves, “if I say exactly what they are signing (and mouthing), will the Hearing audience receive the same message as the Deaf speaker intended, or must I change the wording and/or phrasing in order to produce an equivalent message to the speaker’s intent?” My assertion is that, more often than some would have us believe, transliteration is the way to go. (more…)

Correcting the Message

A while ago, a colleague of mine made an interesting interpreting choice that got me to thinking about how much we should “correct” the signed messages we voice in English. As my team person was voicing, the deaf client misused an English idiom, and my team person voiced the English idiom in the same “broken” way the deaf person had signed and mouthed it. The hearing people in the room softly chuckled, not only because the deaf person had said something funny, but because the way s/he said it was funny as well. I will point out here that the deaf person was taking a turn speaking in a group in which the register was casual, and the deaf person was using a combination of ASL and PSE with a good deal of semi-audible mouthing. “Interesting choice!” I thought to myself, as my ears pricked up when I heard this “broken” English coming out of the interpreter’s mouth. Why did the interpreter choose not to “correct” the deaf person’s English? Is it our job to interpret any and all signed messages into perfect English, no matter how they are signed? Perhaps not, I thought, and I’ve been thinking about this issue ever since.

Let’s take the above scenario and place a hearing immigrant in the deaf person’s place. Let’s take the interpreter out of the picture as well, because in the above case I believe it can be said that the deaf person did not need the interpreter so much to bridge languages as to bridge communication modes (from aural/oral to visual/gestural). The immigrant is likely to speak English like a foreigner and occasionally misuse English idioms (sometimes to charmingly humorous effect) just as the deaf person did. The native members of the group might softly chuckle and might, perhaps, offer the correct English idiom to the foreigner, so as to teach them the right way to say it. Or perhaps they will try to be polite and not correct the foreigner’s speech. The immigrant either learns the correct idiom or not. Either way, a natural process has occurred among people whose respective languages have come into contact with each other. The natives acquire a natural understanding of the foreigner’s level of familiarity with English, and the foreigner may or may not acquire a better familiarity of English through the feedback s/he receives from the natives. There is no intermediary present to smooth out all imperfections and create a false sense of the foreigner’s fluency in the natives’ language. Without the intermediary, mistakes come to light, and the participants are empowered to make choices based on this knowledge.


Befriending Phonemes

In my first column, back in June 1998, I wrote about how we as sign language interpreters for the Deaf are also “spoken language interpreters for the Hearing.” I emphasized the importance of brushing up on our English so that we could do justice to our clients—both Deaf and Hearing—when we voice-interpret. But is English really all we speak when we voice-interpret? Consider the following scenario:

You are interpreting for a Deaf man who is teaching a Deaf Culture class about the origins of ASL and how it differs from signed languages of foreign countries. How many foreign words and names, from how many different countries, are you going to need to pronounce? How many different speech-sound systems, or phonologies, do you need to have at least a passing familiarity with in order to successfully complete this assignment? How many phonemes will you be able to “pull out of your hat”? (Phonemes are the smallest units of meaningful sound in a language, for example, the sounds “f” and “th” [IPA Θ] which make the difference between “deaf” and “death”—a distinction I’m sure many of us wish more people understood!)

In the above scenario, I guarantee you’ll be pronouncing such venerated French names as Abbé de l’Epée, Jean Massieu, and Laurent Clerc, and such mouthfuls as La Langue des Signes Quebecquoise. You may even have to pronounce words like chercher which sound nothing like they are spelled (the French verb to search, chercher, is pronounced SHARE-SHAY, with the phoneme “r” pronounced as though you were gargling). Then, of course, there are the Spanish names like Ponce de Leon (which is pronounced more like PONE-SAY DAY LAY-OWN than PONTZ DUH LEE-ON, and which is much easier to pronounce than common names like Jorge Villapeña, which contain at least ten (10!) special phonemes that are unlike English). On top of that, you may have to pronounce phonemes from Japan, Italy, China, Africa, Russia, and the Czech Republic! Maybe, just for kicks, this teacher watches a lot of Seinfeld, and he’ll throw in some Yiddish along the way. And you thought all you’d have to speak was English? Oy, were you wrong!

No, my friends and colleagues, the wonderful truth is that (more…)

Making Sense of Tenses

“If I was you, I wouldn’t have went there and did that.”

“This agency is ran by the Deaf.”

“I move that the board purchases a new computer.”

“It is mandatory that she is on time, and that she has fun and does a good job.”

Do the above phrases sound right to you? If you answered no, your ear is finely tuned to the proper use of tenses in English grammar. If you answered yes, or were unsure, you may be running the risk of annoying—or worse, confusing—your hearing audience, and making a Deaf person sound less educated than s/he is.

This article will cover two of the most often misused tenses in the English language: the past participle and the subjunctive. In some regional dialects, these tenses seem to have disappeared, but they are still very much a part of Standard English. Let’s look at the examples above to see if we can make more sense of them with the proper tenses.


Finding Your Voice

Just as your body is the instrument you use to interpret from English to American Sign Language, your voice is the instrument you use to interpret from American Sign Language to English. This article is about learning to tune that instrument so that you may play it like a virtuoso when giving voice to a deaf person’s signed communication.

Although many people speak throughout their lives without ever giving a second thought to their language or their voices, there is a rich tradition of vocal training and oratory discipline that traces humankind’s history through the millennia. It is said that the great orator Demosthenes, of ancient Greece, overcame his habit of mumbling inaudibly by going to the seashore, filling his mouth full of pebbles, and forcing himself to articulate his words through the pebbles, projecting his voice out beyond the crashing waves. Certainly we interpreters, whose charge it is to render inaudible signed messages into audible spoken messages, could benefit those for whom we interpret by applying some of Demosthenes’ diligence toward developing our own voices.

Here are some of the resources that you may find invaluable in your vocal development: