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Archive for June, 2008

In this post, Ocean discusses the struggles of translating expressions from one language to the other, and offers up a challenge to her readership (scroll down to the bottom to read the challenge!)

Note: This post does use some language that might be considered crude and vulgar, but is necessary as part of the writing of such. My apologies to those who might be offended.

Now, before anyone starts misunderstanding things, I want to clarify –

This is not a post about having sexual intercourse with Lassie. We’re not discussing how to make love to your pet poodle.

We’re talking linguistics here. We’re talking about idioms. We’re talking about the challenges of interpreting from one language to another, and how something often gets lost in the translation.

We’re talking about screwing the pooch.

“Screwing the pooch” is an idiomatic expression; a slang phrase that means to make a whopper of a mistake.

Basically – when you’ve screwed the pooch, you’ve fucked up big time.

The expression became popular through Tom Wolfe’s book “The Right Stuff,” which described the early years of America’s space program (and was later made into a movie starring Fred Ward, Ed Harris, and Sam Shepard.) In the book, Wolfe uses the phrase to describe a major boo-boo that Gus Grissom – one of the original “Mercury Seven” astronauts – allegedly made while aboard his Mercury space capsule:

But now – surely! It was so obvious! Grissom had just screwed the pooch! In flight tests, if you did something that stupid, if you destroyed a major prototype through some lame-brain mistake such as hitting the wrong button – you were through! You’d be lucky to end up in Flight Engineering. Oh, it was obvious to everybody at Edwards (Air Force Base) that Grissom had just f***cked it, screwed the pooch, that was all.

– page 230 of The Right Stuff, by Tom Wolfe

From what I understand, the original term goes back even further in military history… but we won’t discuss all of that here – if you’re interested in studying more about this phrase, you can always Google it (see here for one person’s explanation of the term…)

My real question – and the reason for writing this post in the first place – is to ask my readers:

Just how does one go about translating this expression into American Sign Language?

Somehow I get the feeling that signing “f-ck the dog” wouldn’t be entirely appropriate.

I suppose the best thing to do would be to sign the concept of the term… in which case, you would probably want to sign something along the lines of “big mistake” or “mess up” (using C handshapes making twisting movements in a sideways movement.) This would certainly convey the meaning of the expression.

photo by ktpupp

And yet… there is something endearingly funny about the actual wording of this phrase. Yes, it’s crude and vulgar, but that’s its charm. It’s all part of the history of the language and its usage in various segments of both polite and not-so-polite society. Idioms and slang phrases play an important role in that history – they help to define not only the language itself, but the people who use it… their thoughts, their beliefs, and how they express themselves.

But they can be mighty tricky to translate from one language into another.

And it’s not just translating from English to American Sign Language (ASL) either. It works both ways. There are concepts, idioms, classifiers, etc. in ASL that don’t translate so effectively into English either. It’s not that it can’t be done, but English just seems like a poor substitute for trying to explain some of the rich imagery and the little nuances that can be found in ASL. Shane Feldman does an excellent job of explaining this in his post about Austin Andrews and the Deaf Ninja video – see DeafDC’s Deaf Ninja – A Benchmark for ASL Videos.

For myself, English is my native language. I didn’t begin learning American Sign Language until I was a teenager, and didn’t start using ASL on a regular basis until I entered Gallaudet at the ripe old age of eighteen. Even though I have been signing now for over 30 years, I’m still an English-thinking person, and it shows… I’m never going to be a top-notch ASL user. That’s okay… although I admit there are times when I look at some of my Deaf peers with a bit of envy, wishing I could sign like they do!

But more to the point – in the same way that I love ASL, I love English too. In the same way that I love the “emotion and nuance and minutiae detail” (thanks, Shane!) found in ASL… I love the play on words and the tongue-in-cheek humor and the imagery that can be found in the English language.

Somehow, signing “big mistake” just doesn’t cut it.

This whole issue came up recently during a discussion I was having with some hearing friends, where someone used the phrase – which got the rest of us laughing (okay, admittedly we were drinking at the time, but it still seemed funny!) I was asked how one would go about signing such a phrase in ASL, and must admit that I was left a bit stumped.

So once again I appeal to the readership… and I offer up this challenge to my fellow members of the Deaf Community; many of whom are far more competent in ASL than I am:

How would YOU sign the phrase “screw the pooch” – as explained above?

Interpreters… how would you translate this phrase if it was to come up in the classroom, or perhaps even during a lecture where Tom Wolfe himself is quoting from the book? Would it depend on the Deaf person(s) and his command of English? Would you fingerspell it first and then sign it? Sign it more graphically (i.e. “bleeping the dog”) and then follow up with the sign for “messed up”???

How does one deal with the translation of idioms and slang phrases from English to ASL?

Hmmm… something to think about.

Feel free to leave a written comment with your explanation of translating this phrase, or you can leave a link to a video showing how you’d sign it. Let’s get the Deaf B/Vlogosphere “screwing the pooch!” Just don’t mess up while you’re doing it (WINK!)

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