Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Signing, translation and Christianity

I’m a member of a Sign Choir. In a nutshell this means that we translate songs, usually church songs, into British Sign Language (BSL), and perform them. Some of us mouth the words as we are performing, some don’t. We definitely don’t sing out loud. Instead, there will either be a stereo playing the songs or there we will perform next to a vocal choir.

I have been a member of this for about 9 months now and I love doing it. I’ve been learning BSL for about 5 years, which doesn’t mean I’m proficient or fluent, far from it, but being part of the choir is a brilliant way to keep learning, as well as being just straight up fun.

For those that don’t know a lot about Ddeafness or sign languages I shall elucidate.

Sign languages are not based on spoken languages. They are wholly separate and have their own grammar, syntax and everything else that goes to make up a language. They are most definitely languages, and are certainly not just a series of mimes or gestures. There are words and phrases in signed languages that have no translation to the countries equivalent spoken language.

The structure and grammar of sign languages varies form country to country. In fact, each country has it’s own sign language. BSL is entirely different from Irish Sign Language (ISL), American Sign Language (ASL), French, German, Brasilian, Norwegian etc sign language. However, the languages may be related. Like you can trace the roots of French and English to a common point, I believe that BSL and Australian Sign Language (Auslan) have some aspects in common. But, if I were to go to Australia and start using BSL, Auslan users wouldn’t understand me. For another example, the ASL fingerspelt alphabet is on one hand whereas the BSL fingerspelt alphabet is done on 2 hands. There are signs that exist in ASL that don’t exist in BSL, and vice versa. There is an international sign language but I think it’s about as commonly used as Esperanto.

There are also regional variations in BSL. For example, the number systems change between where I live and the next county just a 1 hour train ride away. So, it’s complicated. You can’t learn BSL from books you need to be taught in person, preferably by a Deaf person.

Regarding the distinction between Deafness and deafness, this is to do with the language that the individual uses, whether they are part of Deaf culture or hearing culture and partly concerned with the type of hearing loss. Typically, Deaf people are profoundly deaf, use BSL as their first language and are fully part of Deaf culture. They tend to be very proud of being Deaf and wouldn’t necessarily want to be hearing, given the option.

On the other hand, deaf people are typically deafened or hard of hearing, use English as their first language and are part of hearing culture. At least as much as you can be when you’re in a culture that can disable you at nearly every step, but that’s my own personal view.

Should you be interested in finding out more about Ddeaf issues I have a list of online Ddeaf resources in my recommended list. Have a look on the right hand side of this blog.

Oh, yes, I should say that I am hearing, so if anyone who is more involved with or knowledgable about Ddeaf issues is reading this and thinks I’m talking crap, then I apologise, and if you let me know I’ll do my best to rectify the information given.

Back to the Sign Choir. I am thoroughly loving it. There are 4 of us in the choir, with an occasional fifth member, 2 of us are Christian, 2 not. The occasional fifth member is spiritual. 1 of us is deaf, or Deaf, I wouldn’t like to speak for her. The Choir leader is Deaf and I believe is a Lay Pastor for the Church. My mother tried to bring me and my sister up Catholic, we’ve been confirmed and went to Sunday School and all that, but we never really believed it. Now, although I believe in Gods, I am not Christian and highly unlikely to convert. I haven’t been regularly involved with Church stuff since I was about 10. The other regular, non-Christian member, doesn’t know a lot about Christianity. So between me and her there are enough questions about what the whole shebang means, even as much as working out how to translate the songs.

You see, when you translate songs, it’s not as easy as simply picking out the first literal translation you think of. You’ve got to fit the signs into the rhythm, make sure they also fit the mood of the song, and sometimes translate what can appear to be abstract poetry. You also don’t tend to translate to pure BSL because sometimes that just doesn’t fit the song. You have to find a halfway house and you have to present the lyrics in a manner in which Deaf people will understand. To do this you’ve got to really understand what the English version of the songs means.

For example, recently we did Morning Has Broken. Lovely song, dead easy to translate until you get to the final verse:

Mine is the sunlight!
Mine is the morning
born of the one light
Eden saw play!
Praise with elation,
praise every morning,
God’s recreation
Of the new day!

The problem lines were ‘Mine is the morning, born of the one light Eden saw play’. To translate literally you would sign:
Mine morning
Childbirth one light
God see play (use the sign for children playing, not a theatre play)

But the song doesn’t mean literal childbirth, or playing like children playing. It’s an odd lyric, like poetry, and to me at least, isn’t immediately clear on what it’s talking about.

Typically, this song came up when our most learned Christian and hearing member was on holiday. She came back, and after 4 or 5 weeks of discussions and thinking, and getting second opinions, we have come up with the following way of translating it:

Mine morning
Start one light
Garden can happen

See the difference?

I’ve started translating songs at home for fun. The first one I did was Lord of the Dance. I’m very proud of myself for working this one out and I shall take it back to Choir next week and see what the others think of my translation. There’s a few areas I’m stuck on, mostly to do with how to sign Pharisee, and the line ‘they ripped and they stripped and they strung me up high’. I’m having trouble working out how to show the context it’s in. But I’m pretty happy with the rest of it.

I’ve also had a go at translating some Manics songs and a Wildhearts song. When songwriters choose words to rhyme and use metaphors, it gets tricky. You wouldn’t translate ‘it’s raining cats and dogs’ as Rain Cat Dog, because that would mean animals were literally dropping out of the sky. Instead you’d use the sign for rain combined with the appropriate facial expression and also use other non manual features. In this way you would indicate that the weather is pissing it down.

If you want to view some BSL interpreted songs on Youtube I have some listed in the Ddeaf resources section of my links. Go check them out.

(This is probably the last post of mine for a week. I'm away this weekend and am likely to be working late Wed and Thurs. As I have no posts lined up I'll be out of commission for a while. Roll on July I say.)


cerebus660 said...

Hats off to you, Saranga. That sounds like incredibly hard work. But obviously very rewarding.

Boudica said...

This is fascinating. Thank you for opening a window on to this experience.