In my last post, I talked about the issues I have with beginning level sign language students attempting to “interpret” songs in a public venue, when they do not have the appropriate skills for doing so.

To continue this discussion, I would like to discuss in greater depth one of the reasons for my concerns with such…

One of the big complaints that I have about people attempting to sign songs is that the vast majority tend to take the lyrics of the song and basically sign them word by word, in English order.

It’s important to understand that while this might look nice… it’s not ASL. Please remember that ASL (American Sign Language) is a language of its own, and does not follow English grammar and syntax.

Signing songs in English is not necessarily a terrible thing, but it lacks the true meaning and feel of the song that ASL can give to it. When one signs the song in true ASL, it takes on a whole new dimension. Signs are chosen and used to convey the actual message of the song, not merely to demonstrate the words.

Most of the videos that one sees on YouTube are done by beginning signers who do not understand this difference. The individuals who create and post them may think they are signing in ASL…but the majority of the time they are not. They are merely conveying the lyrics of the song in a manual-visual form – word by word.

First, I want to explain: When people take a song (or spoken word, for that matter) and convert it into sign language to be comprehended by a Deaf audience, this is NOT called translating. It drives me nuts how many people still refer to such individuals as “translators for the deaf.” They are not. They are Interpreters for the Deaf. Yes, there is a difference.

A translator translates written documents, and works with text. An interpreter conveys spoken/signed messages between two people who use different languages.

To take it a step further, there is interpretation, and then there is transliteration.

Interpretation is when the interpreter takes the message from the source language (English) and converts it to the target language of ASL for comprehension by a Deaf person who utilizes ASL. Interpreting involves the use of ASL. When this is done, there are two distinct different languages in use, each having its own grammar and syntax.

Transliteration, on the hand, involves taking words that are spoken verbally and conveying them in a manual-visual mode, but still utilizing the basic English grammar and syntax. In other words, there’s no distinguishable difference in language here – the interpreter is still utilizing English, albeit signing it as opposed to speaking it. Transliteration involves the use of a Signed English system; most often what is known as CASE (Conceptually Accurate Signed English) or what is sometimes known as PSE (Pidgin Signed English).

A large percentage of what I see on YouTube is not ASL, and it’s not an interpretation of the song. It’s a transliteration, and often a poor one, at that. As I said above, transliterating is not necessarily a bad thing; there are times when it is better choice, or perhaps even the necessary choice…although generally speaking it doesn’t work so well for theatric or musical purposes. But even if this is the chosen format, a word-for-word transliteration of a song can still be challenging, even when done by a skilled signer (which the majority of these YouTube signers are not.)

But now and then I come across a video incorporating an actual ASL interpretation of the song, and that makes all the difference. In the hands of an individual (often a Deaf person, or at least an individual with credentials, such as a certified interpreter) who actually knows and is fluent both in ASL and in Musical Interpretation, such a performance is a beautiful sight to behold.

But as one can imagine, a true interpretation of a song is even more of a challenge – especially for a beginning signer. But it conveys a more meaningful expression of the song.

This is why I tend to be so critical of beginning sign students posting videos showing themselves attempting to sign songs….and why I am also critical of the instructors who “require” such as part of a class/school project. Please do us all a favor and drop this requirement. It serves no practical purpose. Come up with a different kind of requirement – such as interviewing a Deaf person, doing research on Deaf Culture, going to a Deaf event, etc. But leave the interpreting of songs out of it.

But if you are going to require it, here’s my advice:

Don’t allow your students to post these videos in public on social media – such as Facebook, Youtube, Instagram, Twitter, and the like. Find other private formats for your students to share such videos with you and the class. There is no need for the entire world to see their efforts. If it’s a classroom project, then keep it in the classroom, to be seen only by student and/or instructor eyes. If it is necessary to use YouTube, then at least change the settings to make the video private so only specific individuals can see it.

But getting back to the transliteration vs. interpretation thing as it pertains to signing music, I’d like to share a video showing this difference.

Below is an excellent video showing two different signers (both of whom have fluent skills) performing the same song. They are both staff members of the American School for the Deaf in Hartford, Connecticut.

The person on the right (Kerry, who is hearing) is doing the traditional transliteration of a word-for-word rendition of the song, using what you might call CASE – Conceptually Accurate Signed English. She is basically following the lyrics.

The person on the left (Milly, who is Deaf) is doing an actual interpretation of the song using ASL. Her performance demonstrates the actual linguistics of ASL and how it is used to convey the message and meaning of the song, but not necessarily the same English words.

An English speaker may indeed find the transliteration of the song on the right to be more pleasing – because it stays within their linguistic comfort zone. It’s basically English… in manual-visual form.

But if the overall intent is to convey the song in the target language of ASL for a Deaf audience – which is what Music Interpretation is actually all about – then the performance on the left is going to be more accurate and more preferred.

And isn’t that really the whole point???