When I was eight, I transferred from a school for the deaf to my local elementary school. It was a shock; the school for the deaf, where I was surrounded by deaf and sign-language classmates, was the only learning environment I ever experienced. Now I was thrown into a place where I was the only deaf student.
In my new school, I worked with a sign language interpreter who helped me understand everything that was going on around me. When the interpreter wasn’t there, I paid attention to people’s mouths. I took cues from their movements and attached words and meaning to them, slowly learning to read lips. I soon had enough and retired to the library. With its no-noise policy and shelves of stories, it was a relief. At each recess, I read pages instead of lip-reading; the dialogue was mapped out for me, and I didn’t have to fill in the gaps.
Stories meant more to me than people, and stories were my tool to learn more about the hearing world in which I lived. Romance novels taught me how to hear people moan in pleasure. Thrillers and mysteries have taught me how whispers and secret conversations take place in shadowy hallways or forgotten rooms. Science fiction taught me the possibility of technology that would foreshadow ill health, birth defects, lifelong disabilities, and premature death.
The stories also taught me to hear people’s perceptions of deaf people: we were seemingly strange and fragile beings. We were unapproachable, untamed, unwilling to pander to popular opinion (read: hear). We had personality, but little agency and autonomy.
By the time I got to college, my sign language skills had declined – when I left school for the deaf, I replaced sign language with hours of speech therapy. When I started signing regularly again, months after graduating from high school, I struggled to remember basic words and phrasing.
“You are so English, so robotic,” a classmate once told me as we signed together. “Do you even know ASL?”
The stories were my tool to learn more about the hearing world in which I lived.
I felt my back straighten, my defenses straighten. “Yes, of course,” I replied. I had started learning the language at a school for the deaf, after all. Sign language had been my first mode of communication, my first entry into a community. “Am I doing it wrong? ” I asked.
“Use your body. It’s more than hands.
While relearning ASL, I also discovered deaf authors. I was thrilled to find people like me who added nuance and cultural specificity when writing about deaf people. In these stories, Deaf people had power and agency in a narrative. As I adopted a “big-D” deaf identity (the capital D signifies a cultural identity rather than a medical condition) and became a deaf adult, I turned to literature written by deaf writers to validate my existence.
When I read their stories about deaf people using American Sign Language, my classmate’s words resonated in my mind. You are so English. Most stories that included American Sign Language (ASL) seemed to only recognize ASL on the page as its English equivalent.
The more I read this, the more it pissed me off. When I think of sign language, it’s a language in its own right, as a separate language from English, even though deaf students often learn to write English conjecturally along with ASL. (The school for the deaf I attended often adopted English grammar rules and sign syntax to better teach us English.) But writing in English about someone signing is translating a language in another; when Deaf authors wrote sign language in English, those Deaf authors did so through translation, through the act of converting one language into another.
Most of the time, when we translate something, we think of the act of translation as changing the meaning that comes from one language and transmitting it into another language. But the act of translating, especially in writing, becomes more complicated if there is technically no written equivalent of ASL. After all, the translation of a language first occurs with the recognition of its origin.
Viewing sign language and English as interchangeable ignores the cultural heritage that comes with sign language.
Thinking of sign language as something to be translated, rather than transcribed, gives it space on its own terms. For it to be written without recognizing where it comes from, it ignores the meaning of sign language itself. Sign language, after all, is the language associated with Deaf culture. It is a language that allows deaf people to communicate with each other outside of auditory expectations. Even though deaf people write in English, we converse by signs. Our stories about deaf people live in sign. We chat in sign. We share experiences in sign. We build connections in sign. Sign language is the cornerstone of Deaf culture and the Deaf community.
If you use sign language, you sublimate yourself within the deaf community. You step away from English and mainstream to space and language outside of standard expectations.
Viewing sign language and English as interchangeable ignores the cultural heritage that comes with sign language. It ignores the narration already shared by the signature. More importantly, it ignores the physical specificity of sign language and the body work required to sign effectively.
If we use ASL in our stories, we should recognize ASL for what it is: a language in its own right. It’s body language. Sign language begins and ends in the body.
To capture sign language on the page, we need to see the sign where it begins; we need to see the sign language in the body, written on the page. We have to write about the hands and their movement, the face and the accompanying expression, the speed and the force behind each sign. All of this can and should happen on the page before English translation.
Every conversion needs a starting point. This is why we recognize the mother tongues of the translated books and the translators of the story before the story begins.
Some deaf authors have tried to bring as much sign language into English instead of translating sign language into English. These Deaf authors tried to retain the traits of sign language while writing in English. One possible approach is to write stories with signed dialogue that adopts ASL grammar in order to literally show what that dialogue looks like to a deaf person. Essentially, the ASL syntax is rendered in written English. This form is commonly referred to as brilliant ASL. For example, in Raymond Luczak men with their handsLuczak translates a character’s signature from the simple phrase “Sorry, I’m late” to “Sorry, sorry, I’m late.”
Sign language begins and ends in the body.
This approach to rendering signed dialogue gets the grammar and spelling of ASL on the page, but I’d say it doesn’t fully recognize the spatial and physical needs of ASL, and also misses the nuance emotion of this language. Someone unfamiliar with ASL wouldn’t know why sorry (a sign made with your fist rubbing in a circle across your chest, as if washing your heart) is repeated twice, or why the word late is stated.
They would not realize the specificity of what is communicated when a person repeats a sign or spells a word. This approach, in effect, portrays sign language as akin to English, although it follows different syntax rules. There is little recognition of how the body works to create dialogue on the page, and why.
In order for someone to know what is going on with the character’s body and how they are signing, they would need to know sign language to the point of being able to visualize the phrases in their mind.
Therein lies the contradiction of this method: to render ASL in written English with its syntax intact is to create a strange tension. There is ASL grammar, preserved and captured only in the syntax, but the syntax is only part of a language. Trying to render ASL in writing is to hang halfway between ASL and English.
To do the FSA justice, we have to treat it on its own terms.
ASL comes from the body. The signs are made, not only with the hands, but with the fingers, the arms, the chest, the jaws, the faces. ASL teachers often emphasize facial expressions as well as the direction and spatial specifics of any given sign. And, depending on the context and the emotional climate, a sign can be delivered languidly or quickly. A sign could be delivered, heavy with tension, the hand vibrating with emotion. Before we consider tackling English, we need to think about what the body does. What does the body do? How does the hand form the shape? Does the character have trouble signing? Does anyone looking notice it? Do they care?
Before thinking of sign language as dialogue, let’s think of it as action. Sign language is not just a language. It is an action that one poses with a body, an action that carries meaning. It is an action that roots you in Deaf ideals and the Deaf community. Sign language is our language and our way of communicating. It is our way of interacting with the world around us. If we are to write American Sign Language, we must first integrate the body. We need to put the body first and think about what it does, first, before moving on to any form of English. Otherwise, sign language exists in a liminal space.
As someone who lived in a liminal space before finding community and finding communication, I want sign language in literature to have its place as its own language. I want it to take up space on the page, as it is. I want to anchor it where it begins. I don’t want to read about it only in language that converts it or strips it of nuance. Just as I found a space, eventually, where I could grow into my identity as a deaf person, I want the written page to be a space for sign language and its idiosyncrasies to unfold and be seen as what they are: a language that is recognized where it begins.