I have always regarded translation and language interpreting as means of communication and translators/interpreters as communicators. What is the purpose of transposing texts from a source language to a target language, if not to make sure that the people who read the target text have access to the same information as the ones reading the source text? That the target audience is provided with everything they need in order to understand and respond to a certain communication? Maybe this is why I chose this profession, to make sure that I do my best to mediate communication between people and advocate for the importance of faithfully conveying meaning and enhancing equal access to information and knowledge.
And I would go even further in terms of communication, by raising awareness on a special type of interpreting and conveying meanings, that most of us do not pay enough attention to, because we do not find ourselves in need of it. Yes, we have seen a lot of texts written on classical translation and conference interpreting…but what about sign language interpreting? Most of us, who are not deaf or who do not suffer from hearing impairment or who do not have a close relative or friend struggling with this, take hearing for granted and do not think about the special needs of those who benefit from sign language interpreting.
The idea for this article occurred to me after I saw two videos featuring two sign language interpreters stealing the show in quite diverse ways, one at an Eminem gig and the other at a Slayer concert in the USA. I was impressed with the speed, passion and accuracy the ladies used in order to convey the lyrics and the musical experience, at the lightning speed of rap and heavy metal. What may look like dancing to most of us was actually communication with the deaf community who attended the concerts.
Fascinated by these outstanding interpreters I came across by chance, I started reading a bit about sign language, as visual-manual modality to convey meaning. To my amazement, I found out that sign language is very old – one of the earliest written records of it dates back to the fifth century BC, in Plato’s Cratylus. Furthermore, I would have thought that there is only one universal system of language interpreting, signaling universal concepts, but go figure, there are several languages, with several typologies (ASL-American Sign Language, French/Spanish/British Sign Language). Actually, sign languages are fully-fledged natural languages with their own grammar, lexicon and semantics, that include visual elements like facial expressions and use of space to show meaning, emotions, and relationships. This means that sign languages are not universal, and they are not mutually intelligible, although there are also striking similarities between them.
Mind you, sign language is not to be mistaken for “body language”, which is a type of nonverbal communication. What is even more intriguing is that in terms of linguistics, sign languages are as rich and complex as any spoken language. Common linguistic features of many sign languages are the occurrence of classifiers and a high degree of inflection by means of changes of movement. More than spoken languages, sign languages can convey meaning by simultaneous means, e.g. by the use of space, two manual articulators, and the signer’s face and body.
Another common misconception regarding sign languages is that sign languages somehow depend on spoken languages, that they are spoken language expressed in signs, or that they were invented by hearing people. The arguments encouraging and enhancing this misconception are the similarities in the way the human brain processes language, both in terms of spoken and sign language, and the fact that several hearing teachers in deaf schools are often incorrectly referred to as the “inventors” of sign language – well, newsflash, sign languages are developed by the people who use them, deaf people, who may have little or no knowledge of any spoken language.
You may be as surprised as I was to find out that sign languages vary in word-order typology. For instance, Austrian Sign Language and Japanese Sign Language are Subject-Object-Verb, whereas ASL is Subject-Verb-Object. And also, in terms of acquisition, children who are exposed to a sign language from birth will acquire it, just as hearing children acquire their native spoken language.
And now, going back to interpreting sign languages… experts say that the interpretation flow is normally between a sign language and a spoken language that are customarily used in the same country, such as French Sign Language (LSF) and spoken French in France, Spanish Sign Language (LSE) and spoken Spanish in Spain, British Sign Language (BSL) and spoken English in the U.K., and American Sign Language (ASL) and spoken English in the USA and most of anglophone Canada (since BSL and ASL are distinct sign languages both used in English-speaking countries).
However, an auxiliary language often referred to as International Sign (IS) has developed for use at international gatherings. This is not a fully-fledged language; however, it is a communication solution when having to provide access to a diverse audience. It cannot replace national sign languages but can be an acceptable solution at European and international level meetings and events, although it is not optimal.
As you may have already inferred, sign language interpreting, as communication of meaning, is no piece of cake. And to go back to the reason that got me to share this information on sign language interpreting with you, namely music… I could not conceive life without music and I find it even more challenging and commendable that sign interpreters do their best to bring the enjoyment of music to people who need special attention to this purpose. When I think about the fact that rhyming, metaphors and wordplay are difficult to convey even in written translation or conference interpreting, to actually put it in sign language seems a great challenge, especially given that these are the very essence of music – let alone hip-hop, rap or heavy metal genres? Transforming that into a visual form of communication implies heroic effort, stamina, research and skills for achieving something most of us take for granted – a wonderful concert experience.
You may or may not be familiar with the fact that ever since 1990, with the adoption of the “Americans with Disabilities Act”, it is mandatory for concert venues in USA to provide sign language interpreters for hearing impaired attendees. Maybe it would be nice to extend this initiative in other places of the world, as well, for a change.
I believe I would not exaggerate if I referred to the people simultaneously conveying emotions, lyrics and music to the less fortunate as magicians, not mere interpreters; given their special task, maybe they are the greatest, most fantastic communicators ever practicing their magic…maybe one thing to ponder on next time we go to a concert…