Toward a Literature of Sign Language
Ross Showalter on ASL, Translation, and Deaf Culture
When I was eight, I transferred from a deaf school to my local elementary school. It was a shock; the deaf school, where I was surrounded by deaf classmates and sign language, was the only learning environment I’d ever known. Now I was thrust 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 happening around me. When the interpreter wasn’t around, I paid attention to people’s mouths. I pulled clues from their movements and attached words and meaning to them, learning, bit by bit, how to read lips. I quickly tired of this and retreated to the library. With its no-noise policy and shelves of stories, it was a relief. Every recess, I read pages instead of reading lips; the dialogue was laid out for me, and I didn’t have to fill in gaps.
Stories held more meaning for me than people did, and stories were my tool for learning about the hearing world in which I lived. Romance novels taught me about how hearing people moaned in pleasure. Thrillers and mysteries taught me how whispers and secret conversations took place in shadowed hallways or forgotten rooms. Science fiction taught me about the possibility of technology that would foreshadow health concerns, birth defects, lifelong disabilities, and premature death.
Stories also taught me about hearing people’s perceptions about deaf people: we were apparently fragile, strange beings. We were unreachable, untamed, unwilling to bend to popular (read: hearing) opinion. We had personhood, but little agency and autonomy.
By the time I reached college, my signing skills had declined—when I moved away from the deaf school, I replaced signing with hours of speech therapy. When I started signing regularly again, months after I graduated from high school, I struggled to remember basic words and phrasing.
“You’re so English, so robotic,” a college classmate told me once when we were signing together. “Do you even know ASL?”
I felt my back straighten, my defenses up. “Yeah, of course,” I replied. I had started learning language at a deaf school, after all. Sign language had been my first mode of communication, my first entry into any community. “Am I not doing it right?” I asked.
“Use your body. It’s more than just hands.”
As I relearned ASL, I also discovered Deaf authors. I thrilled in finding people like me who were adding nuance and cultural specificity as they wrote about Deaf people. In those stories, Deaf people had power and agency in a narrative. As I adopted a “big-D” Deaf identity (the uppercase D signifies a cultural identity, rather than a medical condition) and grew into a Deaf adult, I turned to literature written by Deaf writers to validate my existence.
When I read their stories about Deaf people who used American Sign Language, my classmate’s words echoed in my mind. You’re so English. Most stories that included American Sign Language (ASL) seemed to only acknowledge ASL on the page as its English equivalent.
The more I read this, the more it dissatisfied me. When I think about sign language, it is entirely on its own, as a language separate from English—even if Deaf students are often taught how to write English in conjecture with ASL. (The deaf school I attended often adopted English grammar rules and syntax in signing to better teach us English.) But to write in English about someone signing is to translate one language to another; when Deaf authors wrote sign language into English, those Deaf authors did so through translation, through the act of converting one language to another.
Most of the time, when we translate something, we think about the act of translation as changing the meaning that comes from one language and conveying it in another language. But the act of translation, particularly in writing, becomes complicated if there is technically no written equivalent of ASL. After all, the translation of a language happens, first, with the acknowledgment of where it comes from.To see sign language and English as interchangeable ignores the cultural legacy that comes with sign language.
To think about sign language as something to be translated, rather than transcribed, gives it space on its own terms. For it to be written without an acknowledgment of where it comes from ignores the meaning of sign language itself. Sign language, after all, is the language associated with Deaf culture. It’s a language for Deaf people to communicate with each other outside hearing expectations. Even as Deaf people write in English, we converse in sign. Our stories about Deaf people live on in sign. We gossip in sign. We share experiences in sign. We build connections in sign. Sign language is the lifeblood 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 the mainstream for a space and language outside standard expectations.
To see sign language and English as interchangeable ignores the cultural legacy that comes with sign language. It ignores the storytelling already shared through signing. Most importantly, it ignores the physical specificity of sign language and the body work required in order to sign effectively.
If we use ASL in our stories, we should acknowledge ASL as it is: a language of its own. It is a language of the body. Sign language begins and ends in the body.
To capture sign language on the page, we need to see sign where it begins; we need to see sign language in the body, written upon the page. We must write about the hands and how they move, the face and its accompanying expression, the speed and force behind every sign. All of that can and should happen upon the page before English translation.
Every conversion needs a beginning point. It’s why we acknowledge translated books’ native languages, and the story’s translators, before the story begins.
Some Deaf authors have tried to bring as much of sign language into English instead of translating sign language into English. Those Deaf authors have 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 how this dialogue looks to a Deaf person. In essence, ASL syntax is rendered in written English. This form is commonly known as ASL gloss. For example, in Raymond Luczak’s Men with their Hands, Luczak translates a character’s signing the simple phrase, “sorry I’m late,” into, “Sorry-sorry me l-a-t-e.”
Sign language begins and ends in the body.
This approach of rendering signed dialogue gets the grammar and spelling of ASL on the page, but I would argue that it doesn’t fully acknowledge the spatial and physical needs of ASL, and it also misses the emotional nuance of this language. Someone who doesn’t know ASL wouldn’t know why sorry (a sign that’s made with your fist rubbing in a circle upon your chest, as if you’re washing your heart) is repeated twice, or why the word late is spelled out.
They wouldn’t realize the specificity of what is being communicated when a person repeats a sign or spells out a word. This approach, in effect, portrays sign language as akin to English, albeit following different syntax rules. There is little acknowledgment of how the body works to create the dialogue on the page, and why.
For someone to know what happens with the character’s body and just how they sign, they would have to know sign language to the point where they could 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 the grammar of ASL, preserved and captured only in syntax—but syntax is only part of a language. To try to render ASL in writing is to suspend yourself halfway between ASL and English.
To do justice to ASL, we need to treat it on its own terms.
ASL comes from the body. Signs are made, not just with hands, but with fingers, arms, chests, jawlines, faces. ASL teachers often emphasize facial expressions and the direction and spatial specificities of any given signs. And, depending on the context and the emotional climate, a sign could either be delivered languidly or quickly. A sign could be delivered, heavy with tension, the hand vibrating with emotion. Before we consider approaching English, we need to think about what the body is doing. What does the body do? How does the hand form the shape? Is the character struggling to sign? Is whoever watching noticing? Do they care?
Before we think about sign language as dialogue, let’s think about it as action. Sign language is not only language. It is an action you take with a body, an action that conveys meaning. It is an action that grounds you in Deaf ideals and Deaf community. Sign language is our language and our way to communicate. It is our way of interacting with the world around us. If we are to write American Sign Language, we must bring the body in first. We must foreground the body and think about what it does, first, before we move to any form of English. Otherwise, sign language exists in a liminal space.
As someone who existed 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 ground it in where it begins. I don’t want to read about it only in a language that either 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 spread out and be seen as what it is: a language that is acknowledged where it begins.