I began my ASL journey for a very personal reason—I wanted to learn this language for someone dear to me. It wasn’t meant to be something I was doing for myself but… Perhaps it’s a symptom of selfishness or some kind of egotism but somewhere along the way that’s exactly what this little exercise slowly morphed into. Two years worth of college classes have become a refuge of sorts of me. I’m a writer so there’s no surprise there, I guess: any chance I get to escape into another world, I’ll take it. This was not different: a college class with so many characters to study, a culture and a language so nuanced, it makes you reexamine all your word choices. What better exercise for an author?! And what a fabulous reminder of just how much I love learning, in general.
I’m no stranger to translation work but translating a verbal language to a visual one was not an easy transition for me. I spoke about this in my post a year ago, when I’d completed two semesters of ASL. The word “glossing” was thrown around a lot back then, going for the meaning and all that jazz, but it was a hard concept for me. It wasn’t until ASL 3 that I had my proverbial “lightbulb moment.” The way my professor put it, we aren’t looking for a verbatim translation because some concepts may not exist in ASL (or in any other language you’re interpreting). What you do is try to figure out what the meaning of the phrase is and then ask yourself how can you rephrase it in a way that you can actually communicate (as in sign). BOOM. This is what my rigid brain needed to hear.
Here are some examples from my ASL 3 and 4 finals to illustrate:
For my ASL 3 final, we got to interpret a dialogue from a film. Because I was surrounded with college-aged kids twice a week and the very fact had me reminiscing about my own college years, I picked a movie I associate so deeply with those late teens/early 20s—Bridget Jones’ Diary. Here is an excerpt from my “gloss”:
(Bridget) WAIT…MUST SAY SORRY...PAST D-A-N-I-E-L (point) SAY YOU SEDUCE HIS FIANCÉE…BROKENHEARTED
(Mark) NO (nod-) OPPOSITE…PAST MY WIFE…MY HEART (soul)
(Bridget) SORRY (nod+)…NOW UNDERSTAND (nod+) HE (CL: 1) COME NEAR YOU ACT WEIRD++ BEAT HIM HARD… GOOD JOB (nod+)
Here is the original text for reference:
Bridget: Listen, uh…I owe you an apology about Daniel. He said that you ran off with his fiancee…and left him broken hearted, he said.
Marc: Ah. No, it was the other way around. It was my wife…my heart.
Bridget: Sorry. That's why you always acted so strangely around him...and beat him to a pulp, quite rightly. Well done.
As you can tell, everything is different: word order, the use of tenses, the little symbols meant to help another interpreter sign exactly the way you’d scripted it etc. I couldn’t literally sign “the other way around” because those words stringed together like that would make no sense in ASL. So I asked myself—what does that phrase mean in English and how can I sign that. Marc obviously wasn’t trying to point to “another way around” direction-wise. Voila—”OPPOSITE.” It sounds simple but let me tell you, it was not easy arriving at this “lightbulb moment.” It was no an easy step to go from “but it says ‘ran off with his fiancee’, why can’t I just say that?!” to "‘SEDUCE HIS FIANCEE is literally what that means and makes way more sense than literally signing "‘run.’”
Here is another example; this one from my ASL 4 final, where we had to interpret a song. I wanted to interpret a song by Noa and Mira Awad called, “There Must Be Another Way.” It’s a song with a wonderful and simple message of peace and coexistence between Israelis and Palestinians. The song is in three language and I only know one of them so that was one additional layer of difficulty for me. What can I say, I love a challenge. My friend Mira (whom I interviewed last May) was kind enough to translate the Arabic and the Hebrew for me, and I interpreted from English to ASL. Here is an excerpt:
And when I cry, I cry for both of us
My pain has no name
And when I cry, I cry to the merciless sky and say
There must be another way
There must be another way
CRY HEARTBREAK UNITED
HEARTBREAK LABEL WHAT NOTHING
CRY (role shift) REQUEST UNIVERSE
DO BETTER MUST
ACTIONS CHANGE MUST
Signing “there must be another way” literally would imply that a new geographical direction was sought. That’s not what the song is about. We’re talking about changing actions, doing better as people, so that’s what it is when translated to ASL. As for crying for “both of us,” what’s meant is that the two people are bound together by this conflict and that the tribulations the two suffer are heartbreaking no matter who is suffering physical pain at any one particular moment. ”HEARTBREAK LABEL WHAT NOTHING”—the pain has no name. This is me, delivering my final project for a grade (I got an A!): Marina’s ASL4 Final
These projects were so rewarding and educational for me. They pushed me beyond my comfort zone, made me think instead of blindingly delivering literal words, context be damned. Now that I am done with my coursework at my local college (only four levels are available here), I am glossing songs and monologues on my own for practice as I look for a place where I would be able to continue my studies. Let’s not kid ourselves—I am nowhere near fluent, especially receptively, but expressively I’ve grown so much by doing this. And the skill translates back into English, miraculously enough, making me a more thoughtful writer and speaker (or so I hope). Word choices are that much more careful now: I ask myself, always, what it is I am trying to say and what is the best way to actually say it. I am so excited to continue on this journey. I love learning new things (frankly, I love school!), and to feel tangible results is exhilarating. I don’t want to stop so expect more videos:)