I never related well to peers growing up. I gravitated toward adults, always. Now that I'm that adult, it's tricky. Surrounded by college freshmen week after week, I forget sometimes that they were my kid's age when I graduated from college. I love these kids and will miss them an unreasonable amount, but I can't say I'm not bitter at how much faster they learn. I'm competitive.
I am learning American Sign Language. The reasons I went back to school having long ago secured a doctorate degree are personal and so I'm keeping the entire experience such. All my projects and presentations so far have been autobiographical and personal in nature, and when it came to selecting a song to interpret for my final exam, I picked End Game by Into the Presence-a song many may not know but one of tremendous personal meaning to me. Explaining why would not only divulge too much personal information but also be taking me off topic. Suffice it to say, the song is significance to me. I discovered it by accident. I saw Lisa Marie Presley perform live at New York City's City Winery in 2013 and when she introduced her bassist (Luis Carlos Maldonado), she mentioned that he had a band of his own. I looked up Into the Presence in a few days later, which also happened to be the day my live suddenly became gut wrenchingly hard, and downloaded its album and single. It was there for me when I needed it to be and I'd been grateful ever since. So back in September, when my professor first told us we were going to be interpreting a song for our final presentation, I'd contacted Luis, asking for complete lyrics. Graciously, he shared them. Unfortunately (or fortunately!), my professor postponed this assignment until we had not one but two semesters of ASL under our collective belt, so here I am, trying to remind myself that I'm not quite as good an actress as I imagine myself to be as I record take after take on my iPhone X.
I'm a freelance writer and translator, often taking on translation gigs of various size and complexity. I translate English to Russian and Russian to English. I've translated a play, I've translated subtitles, I've translated a short story, I've translated legal guides. What I'm saying is, I'm not foreign to taking material composed in one language, making sense of the essence of it, and then recording that meaning in a different language, and yet, I found this assignment unreasonably difficult. ASL is its own language, with its own grammar and syntax, and still I kept falling back on practically transliterating the lyrics verbatim, word for word, while my professor kept reiterating that what I was supposed to be doing was glossing. Glossing is what we call it when we write down one language in another. It's called glossing of a language because the target language may not have equivalent words to represent the original language. The result is what's called "gloss." What I was supposed to be doing was to go after the meaning of the text and represent that in American Sign Language, in proper ASL word order.
My problem was in the word "meaning." I'm an educated woman, a writer, and yet I would not rephrase "lying in stone" or "soldier and horse." I say "would" because I could, I just wouldn't. Obviously, there is no physical soldier or horse in the song. And there are no stones. It's an internal battle depicted lyrically. Like in an A.P. English class in high school, there I sat with my lined paper, taking stanzas apart. This exercise is the most important key to interpreting a song in ASL, but I still felt like I needed permission to stray from the original English words written by Luis. "But what is he trying to say when he says, 'with every turn I risk the end of the game'?" my professor would ask. "There is no game, right? You can't sign 'game'-no one's playing 'Mortal Combat' here." She was right. It's a visual, literal language, so I couldn't sign "turn," and I couldn't sign "game." Instead, I we compromised on, "Every challenge, closer to finish."
"But is it okay to stray from the text?" Seventeen older than most people in the class and here I was, arguing with the assignment.
Once I got rolling, and signing, I felt this giddy sensation take root in the pit of my stomach. It felt right-like I was creating a beautiful dance conveying the meaning of one of my favorite songs. Like I was discovering the song for myself all over again. My initial reservations were assuaged when the assignment finally clicked. I wasn't disrespecting the text. I had to remind myself that once the words are written and published, they no longer belong to the author, be it an essay, a novel, or a song. Once it's out, the word lives and breathes, and those on the receiving end are free to interpret your meaning as they see fit. And they'll do so through their own lens, whether you like it or hate it. They won't ask you. And technically, they shouldn't have to.
I have intimate experience with this. Right before my novel Effortless was published, I was asked to do a guest blog as part of building publicity for the release. The topic I was asked to discuss was how I balance writing and parenting. It was an interesting question but it wasn't particularly challenging because I knew exactly what I was going to write as soon as the request came in. I wrote that it was simple for me: as much as I love writing, it comes second to my kids. Because absolutely nothing comes before them. I believe the words I used were, "my children are not an inconvenience I have to manage." The article was generally well received, but there were a couple of women who took these as fighting words. I was apparently guilting "working" mothers, accusing them of not making their children a priority in favor of their careers. No matter how I tried to explain that nowhere did I say or even meant to say that, those who wanted to believe their version did not want to hear it, no matter how much I brought them back to the original text. It stung, I won't lie, but I had to remind myself that as readers, we all perceive information through our own set of preconceptions, our own set of goggles. I do it too, I'm sure. Perhaps someone felt envious that I was able to put my career second to my kids. Maybe someone struggled with their own guilt as they made choices that were second guessed by their own environment, and here I was with my article, putting salt on the wound, saying how easy it was for me to make that decision. No matter the reason, my reader was the interpreter, and as the author, I was no longer in control. You can only hope that when it's all said and done, your audience will give you the benefit of the doubt, hunker down and try to get to your authentic meaning, putting their own prejudices aside instead of projecting. I'm very careful nowadays to do just that.
With this reflection, I eventually made my peace with my ASL II final: I have the right to interpret the beautiful poetry Luis Carlos Maldonado penned, but it comes with a responsibility to do justice to the original. That's pressure. And I'm competitive.