When I first proposed to the DSQ book review editors the possibility of making a book review accessible in American Signed Language and written English, I had no idea how challenging this would be. (Because I assign videos to my students at Gallaudet University, who compose and are assessed bilingually, I knew something about setting up a simple video - though not as much as I do now!)

At some point, I realized that it might be of interest to have the review available not only in written English text and American Sign Language, but also as an audio file for people with print disabilities who prefer (for whatever reason) direct access to the author's voice. Once the formats were determined, a number of questions arose. Which language(s) should the review be composed in? Should the video be captioned in English or not? What would the process of translation entail?

I decided to compose the review in English for two reasons: the book under review (Song Without Words by Gerald Shea) is written in English, and I thought that by composing in English, I would be accessing those thoughts I had about it in English, e.g. what was sparked in my consciousness as an oral deaf person. Since the memoir was written by an oral deaf person, this seemed a reasonable way to proceed; although I could see the arguments for using ASL as the primary language, it struck me that that would be a different review. 2

After writing the review in English, the next step was to translate the content into ASL and record it. An unforeseen result of this was to discover that there's a significant, but obvious, difference in translating between modes. Linguists refer to language modes to distinguish how a language is expressed - spoken, signed or written are common language modes. This particular book review is captured in three modes: written English, spoken (read) English, and signed ASL. 3 When translators are working from one frozen text 4 to another in two written languages, both products are readily available - one can glance between, say, written English and written Spanish. When texts are in different modes, as with written English and signed ASL, a few additional challenges arise. The first is there is no standard notation for transcribing ASL. (Systems for converting a signed language to written form exist, but are not widely used.)

In my case, since I don't know Signwriting or other signed language notation, I opted to construct a glossed outline of the written English translation, which I would then interpret during the process of filming. This is an inexact description of the process, since I was not interpreting from one full language text to another. The practical issues of time constraints and a lack of access to the English text contributed to this. For example - when a signed language interpreter or spoken language interpreter is moving from one language to another, that person has full access to the content of the original language ("source language") while producing the interpreted version ("target language"). In my case, I could not figure out how to obtain the access to the original language -- hearing people could listen to a recording, but this was not an option for me, even though I had read the written text for use as an audio file. (Note: I think this is a nice example for pointing out the variability and asymmetry in the kinds of capacities people with disabilities display.)

Using a teleprompter in written English was too challenging for this non-interpreter, since the amount of text that was visible at one time didn't always match what needed to be seen in order to create a translation. The structure of ASL is considerably different from English, and to do this well would require a larger teleprompter screen, slower teleprompter speeds, and much more time than I had to do a line-by-line translation and edit the document accordingly.

When I began moving between the glossed written English outline on the teleprompter into the target language of ASL, I realized that keeping the academic register in ASL would be daunting. For one, there is disagreement about what academic ASL is. Another consideration was audience: most Deaf academic audiences would have access to the written English, as written language competency is one of the minimum requirements for obtaining a terminal degree. But DSQ is a publication of the Society for Disability Studies (SDS), and this is an organization composed of academics and advocates. (The two are not mutually exclusive, of course!) So I decided to provide an ASL translation that prioritized accessibility over the academic register of the written English text, though not without qualms.

One qualm is that Deaf academics using signed language interpreters often experience a difference in register between the source language and the target language. Not infrequently this is a matter of the limited expertise of the interpreter, who usually does not have the academic training to, say, sound like an analytic philosopher or to know which seemingly ordinary language phrases must be exactly transliterated in order to capture a technical meaning. Another qualm is a worry about perpetuating a stereotype about the limitations of ASL and the cognitive abilities of ASL users. Any limitations of this translation should be chalked up to my second-language capacities and the huge difficulties of the task, which I was unaware of when I volunteered to do this. I'm glad to have had this experience, and I urge others to consider doing the same, but I would emphasize the caveat that it will take far longer than one anticipates, and to do it well will probably require a team.

Penultimately, academics and writers know that before a document makes it into print, copyediting and proofreading takes place. When a document is being presented in three language modes, this means that a change to one mode is likely to necessitate changes to at least the other modes in the same language, but quite likely to all modes. Identifying which document will be the original, or source document, will make the copyediting and proofreading stages smoother.

Last, but not least, I want to thank my videographer, Stephen Roberts, who gallantly trudged on, even when we realized that this was a much larger undertaking than it seemed to be initially. I could not have done this without his skills and patience.


  1. With thanks to Jillian Mayer's MegaMega Upload for inspiration. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8dUVz5YOnIQ
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  2. This is not the place for a digression about how language shapes ones thoughts, and I don't mean to be making a strong claim for linguistic relativism, but I do think that there's something to the weaker claim of linguistic relativism that aspects of language affect cognition, including the mode of language. (For more on this, see Teresa Blankmeyer Burke, "Signs of Deaf Philosophy," forthcoming.)
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  3. Yet another digression beyond the scope of this book review is what constitutes ASL and what counts as signed English, given the continuum of the way that signed communication is used. In this review, I swing from ASL to features of signed English.
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  4. 'Frozen text,' among signed language interpreters and linguists, refers to a static unchanging text that is typically spoken. (Interpretation is the act of moving between two languages in a 'live' setting, and is most often used in spoken language contexts; translation refers to work with static texts, usually written, though they could also be signed or read. The immediacy of the process and the end product are the variables that determine whether something is an interpretation or translation.) Well-known examples of frozen text include the Pledge of Allegiance or the stages of a Roman Catholic mass (the homily or sermon is not frozen). Another use refers to the unchanging nature of a printed text; this is the usage intended here.
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Copyright (c) 2014 Teresa Blankmeyer Burke

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