How to translate Shakespeare into American Sign Language

The Economist


There are few lines in literature as memorable as “To be, or not to be—that is the question.” Uttered in the third act of “Hamlet”, the soliloquy offers a poignant examination of whether it is better to quietly bear the “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” or to die, and “end the heartache”. The line has been delivered innumerable times across the world, and each actor offers a unique interpretation through pauses, tone and gesture. When David Tennant performed the line with the Royal Shakespeare Company, he spoke softly, with one long pause in the middle of the line, as though talking to himself. But when Rory Kinnear took on the role at the National Theatre, he said the line with a quiet nervousness, breaking it up with three separate pauses.

The soliloquy has been rendered in a myriad number of ways in American Sign Language, too. ASL masters—who translate English into ASL for theatre—must consider the same questions of feeling and interpretation. ASL is a distinct language with its own vocabulary and grammar, not a signed version of English (which is why it also mutually incomprehensible with British Sign Language). For this line in “Hamlet”, the translator might choose to focus on the character’s struggle to make a decision about his fate. He might have the actor consider whether to grow up or give up, followed by the sign “problem”, to indicate that the difficulty lay in making a decision.

Shakespeare read in Elizabethan accent reveals 'puns, jokes and rhymes' - Photo: Telegraph

A verbatim translation is impossible: there are far fewer signs in ASL than there are words in the English language. Often ASL masters cannot simply transfer words—they have to replace them entirely. “To be or not to be” poses a particular problem because the verb “to be” does not exist in ASL—as with many spoken languages, it is implicit instead. The master might decide to interpret the line as an existential crisis, by signing about living and then signing about giving up, followed by the sign “which?”. Another might see it as a more urgent life or death question, using the signs “live” and “die” to offer “to live or to die—that is the question”.

Replacement inevitably means that some of the nuances of the original text are lost, says Jill Bradbury, a professor at Gallaudet University, which specialises in teaching students that are deaf or hard of hearing. But that the same is true of any translation, whether to ASL, French, Hindi or even modern English. “When you translate Shakespeare into a different language, you’re really translating him into a different cultural context and cultural background,” she said during a recent podcast.

Generally, however, Shakespeare’s texts lend themselves to ASL, says Aaron Kelstone, performing arts director at Rochester Institute of Technology’s National Technical Institute for the Deaf. Shakespeare’s language is often visual, and can be easily expressed in sign language; a signer can show that “the course of true love never did run smooth”, for example, by simulating bumpiness in a storytelling system of gestures known as constructed action. They could show that “the wall is down that parted their fathers” by simulating a crumbling partition. The New York Deaf Theatre (pictured) has recently completed an adaptation of “Titus Adronicus”; a play based on “Romeo and Juliet” showed for several months at the Red Theatre in Chicago. “Through the power of the body, you could have a deeper understanding of Shakespeare’s meanings and his words than you could simply through sound alone,” says Ms Bradbury. Shakespeare’s plays have been a key artistic medium in the deaf community for more than 200 years as a result of this natural fit.

ASL translations often require creative staging. A scene in “Twelfth Night” has Malvolio deliver his lines from inside a pit, a problem for audiences who must be able to see the actor’s hands. A production in Philadelphia worked around this by having the actor reach through a grate to sign his lines. It “actually made for a visually interesting and funny bit to the play,” says Mr Kelstone.

Shakespeare is far from the only playwright whose work translates quite beautifully into sign language. Last year, when Steven Sater and Duncan Sheik’s 2006 musical “Spring Awakening” returned to Broadway, half its cast was deaf. Each main role was given to two actors, one of which would vocalise the text while the other signed it. The combination of the soulful songs with a visual representation of the lines through sign took the emotionally poignant show to a new level. The production ended up earning multiple Tony Award nominations. More recently, Sarah Tubert, captain of the National Deaf Women’s Volleyball Team, released a video of her ASL cover of the opening song from “Hamilton”. The video has gone viral for its elegant juxtaposition of sign and rap.

Some plays and musicals would prove more difficult. In “Avenue Q”, for example, characters use puppets. Plays by David Mamet would be tough to translate, says Mr Kelstone, where the dialogue is often extremely dense and words—and silences—are loaded with meaning. “It would take a lot of work to translate Mr Mamet into ASL where you could feel like you did the playwright and the play justice,” he says. Rendering the guilt, weakness and loyalty inherent in the silence of a character such as George Aaronow (“Glengarry Glen Ross”) is not impossible—but it is certainly more challenging.

That does not have to be a bad thing. Sometimes it is those very challenges that help to usher in new meaning to a well-worn play. Making plays accessible for all ages, all abilities and all time is well worth the effort.

(The Economist)