Celeste Oram & Chris Holdaway


translating Sign : violence & superfluity


CO: In the 1950s, that pinnacle locus of well-to-do Western nostalgia, the mentality pushed in Deaf schools was “don’t sign—people are watching” (Manning & Wolffram, 2006). This new kind of grotesquely physical communication was frowned upon by those (perhaps) well-meaning specialists who would see these people aided to be as ‘normal’ as possible. There had to be a better way than this “embarrassing system” that seemed to throw out everything we knew about language. For Sign is not merely a switching of some syntaco-semantic parameters, like the word-order differences between English, French, and German. It’s a complete modality shift.

CH: Sign calls itself forth in—for the most part—only ephemeral & performative terms. Not that Sign isn’t material, when it’s the bodies that are vehicles to the language. It is writing as such, but it’s like taking a sparkler to scribble in passing air.

In English you string together one word at a time; in Sign, two hands, a body, and a face simultaneously collaborate in generating semantics.1 An English text can sit on a page as a sempiternal entity, the reader being able to zoom out, see the whole shape at once, and flit amidst the lines’ concrete form; Sign exists only in the moment of its perception. In English a text exists autonomously, apart from the author; in Sign the ‘text’ can only exist through the body of the author (makes you think twice about their supposed ‘death’).

At the risk of sounding a little Chomskyan, I don’t want to assume that things are necessarily different just for the sake of it, because at some level I’d like to believe that we’re all just humans communicating and expressing, whether deaf or hearing. But it would also be wrong to expect that Sign should readily absorb into existing ideas & categories of verbal language.

A literal literary body has been worked up by sign language poets, scattering the comfortable dust that has settled as poetry’s squiggles-on-page. But for Sign to renovate poetry as radically as it can, does the hearing mainstream need some kind of back door into Sign – in other words, a translation?

Yet translation is invisible. Johannes Göransson is particularly vocal here concerning American contemporary poetry. How the scene’s requisite ‘best of’ lists yearly avoid translation for the most part; how little translation is done into English, compared to its exports. Much of this involves what is at worst a fear of, at best a discomfort with, poetry in translation. That a translated text is somehow disabled, or not fully ablebodied: “But the text can’t stand on its own!” “But something is lost, ruined, missing!” As if this prevents us from really getting (into) things …

It might be inaudible; but a Sign poem is the most visible poem imaginable. And yet, so long as mainstream poetry never looks up—never gets its nose out of the book, off the page—Sign poetry, like much ‘foreign language’ poetry, suffers a rendering into invisibility.

Given how Deaf culture is already forced to the perimeter, to demand translation of Sign into English is brutally hegemonic in suggesting that it cannot attain legitimacy in the confines of its own community. The bigtime is in the hearing world, it says. Imposing the works of verbal language onto signers via translation similarly whispers that this is ‘the real stuff’ they should be digesting. This is not unique to translation in/out of Sign: it occurs any time there is an imbalance of power between source & target language. This is part of Johannes’ ‘violence of translation’: “Of course translation is a violence: It’s a violence against “the original text” and the new culture into which it is introduced. No wonder translation has to be continually quarantined.”

In the case of translating Sign, as well as this politics, an additional violence comes about in how the potential to translocate or map information from one mode to the other has severe limits. With the multiplicity of all that constitutes Sign, there are not enough available ‘slots’ to be filled within the architecture of verbal language. The saturating abilities of two hands performing different signs, the nonmanual aspects, & the myriad of operations such as relative movement, might not have anywhere to go in more rigidly linear verbal language. A language like English cannot hope to contain all of Sign.

But attempts have been made. Professor Larry Polansky, a Californian composer who has worked closely and extensively with ASL (American Sign Language) poets, includes in an essay a hearing poet’s translation of Clayton Valli’s ASL poem Dandelions, which he says “isn’t bad”:

Yellow Flower
The wind rolls yellow flowers in the grass.
When a man sees them he grows angry,
Screams “Dandelions!”
He yanks them, mows,
Leaves the lawn perfectly green.Watered by rain, warmed by the sun,
Roots stir beneath the soil.
Shoots poke through, yellow flowers bloom.
In the breeze bees dance among the waving plants.
Every night the flowers fold, at dawn open.
The yellow flowers become white puffs
Swaying in the wind
Until the man returns, “They’re back!”
He uproots a dandelion
And the seeds scatter.

Polansky points to some nice things that it does with vocabulary; how the “unadorned” language tries admirably to live up to Valli’s gestural rhythm. But as a synthesis, it “ultimately fails”. Given the scale imbalance of material & container already seen, this shouldn’t be surprising. Any Sign→ENG translation is going to be a violent act of pressure cooking information—force-funnelling, jumping on suitcases; ultimately discarding garments or paring off entire limbs to close.

The Violence of Translation

More often than attempting fully rendered translations, rudimentary glosses are provided, to give the gist. Here’s one Polansky made for the same Valli poem:

YELLS: “D-A-N-D-E-L-I-O-N-S”          (:13 SEC)
YELLOW FLOWER                             (:33)

But these are not translations, and emphatically so. There’s another instance of violence here, in the brutal bluntness of this representation. It stands up against the hearing culture that it was designed for, and refuses to offer everything. It passes on just the intertitles to a silent film; the bit you don’t actually need. Under the hood, the translation attempt probably isn’t all that different from the gloss; but one puts on a suit & tie and tries to pretend everything’s ok, while the other cries out to tell you something’s missing.

Climbing from the opposite base camp, any ENG→Sign translation is going to experience a reverse information crush. The new world looks terrifyingly big; agoraphobia ensues. There exist all these slots in the target Sign with no obviously corresponding information being transmitted from the source English text. I’m starting to get out of my depth here, because I don’t have an intimate enough understanding of all the functions that can be performed by each aspect of Sign. But I can’t help but feeling that with all the dynamic simultaneity it can achieve, porting information from a stream as monophonic and linear verbal language would leave Sign feeling a little empty. Monique Holt is a performer-poet who has an ongoing project to render all of Shakespeare’s sonnets in ASL. In the video of her performing her working of Sonnet XXIV, there are moments where the camera cuts to showing only her hands on her torso. I am not sure if this is in any way telling on this point, in terms of the full signing icon not being used, but it seems clear to me that English cannot hope to fill Sign either. The shoes are just too big.

How could translation—in either direction—hope to unify the comparatively rigid classical mechanics of verbal linguistics with the quantum nature of Sign? It might just be that certain aspects, completely irreconcilable with verbal conventions, leave no choice but to have the tops of heads physically taken off.

* * *

The ultimate violence of orthodox, utilitarian translation is its erasure of the original text (Hinson, 2012). Charles Bernstein advises that “we must be wary of translation that is less ambiguous than the original” (Bernstein, 1998). Written English can crudely transmit the semantics of Sign; yet it erases the modal ambiguities that house Sign’s expressivity. A written English translation of a Sign poem effectively erases the poetry.

A Sign poem—if it is to be translated—seems to invite translation into a medium that shares its temporality and embodiment – that will honour the slippery fluidity of its liveness.


Of course, this is paradoxical: Sign is meaning without sound; music is sound without meaning (Polansky, 2013b). Music would largely (but not utterly) fail in transmitting the semantic content of a Sign poem. But it could eloquently transl[iter]ate within the modal parameters it shares with Sign: rhythm, consonance, dissonance, and dynamic shape. After all, that’s where you find the poetry.

This idea of transliterating the real poetry starts to sound(/look?) a lot like homophonic translation: where the sound of the source language is preserved, not necessarily the semantic meaning. The schoolboy’s favourite example: the Latin ‘Caesar adsum iam forte’ (Caesar, I am here now by chance) becomes ‘Caesar had some jam for tea’. The textbook example of a more extended homophonic translation is the wildly decadent Catullus, by American poets Louis and Celia Zukofsky. The original Catullus verses:

Pæne insularum, Sirmio, insularumque
ocelle, quascumque in liquentibus stagnis
marique vasto fert uterque Neptunus…

become, in the Zukovskys’ translation:

Peninsular arm, Sirmio, insular arm, well-
ing eye, kiss come to what in liquid won’t stagnate,
mark of the vast fare and tugging that Neptune is…

(Zukovsky, 1991)

It’s easy to dismiss this as an irreverent, schoolboy-ish parody of the original (canonic) text: it’s useless at communicating ‘meaning’; it’s a deceitful representation of the poem; it’s downright wrong!! Yet there is also deceit in the orthodox, utilitarian translator’s claim to neutrality, to ‘accuracy’: his tidy cover-ups of translation’s inevitable inaccuracies. Poet Jeff Hilson describes homophonic translation as “an excessive art, whose purpose is not to contain, but rather to explode the original” (Hilson, 2012). Homophonic translation revels in the very glitches which are orthodox translation’s nemesis.

The task of the homophonic translator is not to look through the text, but to look at it (Hilson, 2012). A Sign poem also demands to be looked at: not through to an image beyond. The poem IS image. One ASL poem in particular makes yet another demand: to look at music. Eye Music, by American Ella Mae Lentz, describes an experience common to deaf and hearing people alike: ‘seeing’ music in the passing of sinewy telephone wires (a stave/piano/flute) and rhythmically regular telephone poles (drumbeats) outside a car window.

In the discipline of ‘classical’ music, the aural is most often privileged over the ocular. How the performance looks (the conductor’s flappy hair/the soprano’s racy dress) is often deemed ‘distracting’ from how it sounds (the main course/what you’ve really paid for). But a Sign poem—especially Eye Music—reminds a hearing audience that music is only the audible residue of visible movement. In both scientific terms (sound IS the motion of waves) and in terms of how music is made (people have to DO things to make sound; even a speaker has to MOVE air to play music), music is motion before it is registered in brains as sound; anyone in the back of the throng at a giant outdoor concert will tell you music is seen before it is heard. Or, to flip into the negative, as Deaf poet David Wright observes, “silence is not the absence of sound, but of movement” (Wright, 1991).

Bundling together these thoughts, I decided to try a kind of musical homophonic translation of Eye Music: an attempt to fulfill Sign’s demand for an explosive, excessive translation which throws utilitarianism to the wind and instead revels in Sign’s deeper poetry. But, because Sign is something not heard, but seen (people are watching!!), my setting of Eye Music transliterated not the imagined sound of the poem—no ‘filling in the blanks’—but its movement. Not homophonic, but homogestic: the musician mirroring the gesture of the Sign. I chose to write for percussionist because their music-making—like Sign—is crucially dependent on gesture, and embodiment. A disinclination to (violently) erase the original poem led me to include in the performance a video of Lentz signing Eye Music projected alongside the percussionist. So it was really a duet between original and translation: a dynamic simultaneity not possible with translations of written texts (sure, you can print them on facing pages, but you can’t read them both at the same time).

In existing musical convention, a vocal text-setting of a written poem is essentially a homophonic translation. When a written poem is set to music, the original text is erased from the performed result. It’s a defeat admitted in the inevitable printing of the text in the programme notes, or projecting of supertitles even for an English opera; without this, the text is unrecognizable. The vocal line bears some homophonic resemblance to the spoken text’s pattern of consonants and vowels, and—if it is a conventionally ‘good’ setting—the rhythm/metre. But singing a poem meant for the page radically transforms its intelligibility, form, modality, and expressive tenor; to sing a text is to explode it with over-determined excess, with a surfeit of signifiers. The conventionality of musical text-setting has numbed the conception of just how radical the text-to-music transformation really is.

A homogestic, mirrored approach to text-setting seems to be one of literal transference. In the case of setting a written text to sung music, literalism is looked on by thee taste-makers as a bit naff. Word-painting, they say, is a delicate negotiation along the tightrope-boundaries of taste. Those descending-third “cuckoos” in that Mahler lied are cute, but a bit kitsch. It’s not a particularly sophisticated approach to text-setting. What’s sophisticated is when music plays against the words, exploding a rich subtext. Like ‘Mack the Knife’: lyrics about creepy serial killer set to perky, jaunty showtune.

But the absoluteness of literal homogestic transliteration from Sign to music changes the taste-games. I can think of no other circumstance in which ‘word-painting’ could be achieved with such perfect obedience. Setting a Sign poem for percussionist allows the text to be literally finger-painted onto/into music: the brushstrokes of manual gestures making contact with the canvas of drums – skin on skin. With Sign, the text itself can make direct, physical contact with sound, and be the gesture which activates its waves.

Joyelle McSweeney, after Jacques Attali: “Sound is a kind of violence—it touches and changes the air”. Basic physics rears its head — as if we needed another instance of violence in translation. The sound waves of speech, breathing onto the molecules of air, morphs into literally hitting them out of the way, and swatting light reflections. Suddenly speech seems like the radio edit, or cinema trailer with the juicy bits taken out so it can be given wider audience.

But literalism is never as cleanly literal as it seemed in the laboratory. In the case of many signs, literally performing them onto a percussion instrument results in a sound nowhere near as sonically rich as the sign is semantically expressive. These glitches refuse to comply with expected parallelisms of gesture and sound; like the BRUTALLY CAPITALIZED gloss of Daffodils, they advertise their translated-ness. While an orthodox translator might have furtively stashed them away, in the name of sweeping embarrassing compromise under the carpet, I left them in – as a reminder that we’re not here to listen: we’re here to look.

* * *

The elephant in the room is that my piece takes an ASL poem and renders it into sound. In doing this, it takes a treasured part of Deaf culture, and renders it into something which the people of that culture cannot—and can never—access. Whatever translational violence I sought to undo via homogestic translation seems to have been re-done by the medium chosen for the task.

But compare these charges to conventions of orthodox translation. Translating a poem from Chinese to English renders it incomprehensible to a Chinese speaker. Yes—you might say—but a Chinese speaker could learn English if they wanted to; that accessibility is available to them, unlike a deaf person’s accessibility to sounding music. Yet it seems patronizing to hinge an ethics of translation on the imperative that translation have a utility for the speakers of the original language.

Maybe there’s a case to be made that the hearing shouldn’t need translation to access Sign poetry. Taking the information-richness in tandem with signs frequently being iconic, there’s more to latch onto for someone who doesn’t understand Sign than there is in a written poem for someone who doesn’t know that language. I wouldn’t know where to start with a poem in Finnish, or Czech, let alone something like Mandarin with a foreign script. The more primal expressivity of Sign cuts right through that stuff.

In setting a Sign poem to music, the experience of comprehension, non-comprehension, and on-the-threshold-of-comprehension extends to all observers.

This reminds me of Terence McKenna’s version of telepathy. This isn’t your science-fiction telepathy, where someone hears the verbal language of another being somehow within their own head, or ambient in the environment. For McKenna, telepathy actually goes part-&-parcel with a departure from the language of small mouth noises, towards a Visual Language: “a transformation of the physiological impulse towards syntax into a final product, speech, which is not heard with the ears, but beheld with the eyes.” If/when humans get to operating at some higher level of consciousness, be it by a technological or spiritual advancement, at some point we’ll start to experience language by means of literally manifesting visual constructs of intention. This is what it will mean to say “I see what you mean”.

Signers are already on the way there.


Footnotes & References:

1 Of course, reading an English poem aloud invites expressive use of the hands, face and body. But this is in addition to the text, an interpretive bauble – not a fundamental mechanism of the language.

– Bernstein, Charles. (1998), Attack of the Difficult Poems: Essays and Inventions. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
– Hilson, Jeff. (2012), ‘Homophonic Translation’. In Minors, H.J. (ed.) Music, Text, and Translation. London: Bloomsbury Academic.
– Manning, Victoria & Paul Wolffram (dirs.) (2006), Sign of the times : the story of New Zealand’s visual language [Documentary]. New Zealand: Handmade Productions Aotearoa.
– Polansky, Larry. (2013a), The Best American Poetry You’ll Never Read. Retrieved from eamusic.dartmouth.edu/~larry/
– Polansky, Larry. (2013b), Sound without meaning, meaning without sound. Retrieved from eamusic.dartmouth.edu/~larry/
– Wright, David. (1991), Deafness: A Personal Account. London: Faber & Faber.
– Zukofsky, Celia & Louis (tr.) (1991), ‘Catullus (Gai Valeri Catulli Veronensis Liber)’. In Complete Short Poetry. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP.