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Sign in Print

It’s 1995, and we’re standing on the sidewalk having a conversation. One of us is a six-year-old, and the other is her mother. We’re speaking in a language that’s not English, but this is Princeton, New Jersey, after all: French, Italian, Serbian, Arabic, Hebrew,  Mandarin, Hindustani…The Institute for Advanced Study and Princeton University draw all sorts of language-speakers here. So why is everyone staring at us?

Ah. We’re speaking American Sign Language, a language that’s seen, not heard. To viewers, our conversation is a public performance. To us, ASL is just the language we speak: ordinary, and a way to say ordinary kid-and-mum things to each other. For years, Deaf, deaf,* and hearing signers battled to have ASL acknowledged as a “real” language (and you can read a lively account of that struggle in Oliver Sacks’s Seeing Voices). Now it is accepted as a viable language — an American language that is not English — with all of language’s richness and complexity. Its arrival in literature for the young is relatively recent, however, and no wonder: ASL poses unique challenges for the writer.

ASL is a challenge to print for the very reason that it makes people look: it is a language of space, movement, and body. It is not a written language, but one of physical action of which the sensible medium of preservation is video. The content of ASL can certainly be translated into English — or any other language — and, indeed, in North American educational settings, ASL signers are taught English as a second language for purposes of writing and reading. But in print, in representing ASL communication, simply to translate ASL into English omits something important about its difference in mode — and what that difference in mode might suggest about the perspectives, perceptions, and experiences of characters who sign.

ASL poses a political and social challenge as well. On the one hand, in the spirit of inclusiveness, it is desirable to enfold ASL into the realm of all languages, to render its difference invisible and its users like anyone else. On the other hand, in the spirit of  celebrating cultural diversity, it is desirable to indicate  and preserve the distinctiveness of this mode of talking, of characters whose limbs and faces are engaged in language in ways that have no counterpart in the acts of speech and hearing. The shape of this paradox will be familiar to many — the difficulty of upholding the dual values of sameness and difference.

How, we wondered, do writers of children’s and young adult novels manage all these elements when they incorporate ASL into their stories? Or do they even perceive them? What might be some effective ways to present sign in print? And what are the  implications of representing ASL in those ways?

In Marlee Matlin’s Deaf Child Crossing (2002) and Delia Ray’s Singing Hands (2006), only the verb denotes whether the language is spoken or signed. Ray often uses the word signed, but even more frequently, she uses any verb we might use for  communication in general (asked, explained, rambled on), sometimes with accompanying phrases that give nuance to the communication — “her hands moving quickly”; “I circled my heart with my fist” (i.e., the sign for “sorry”). Signed language and  spoken language are differentiated, but ASL isn’t marked visibly on the page. It doesn’t jump out at the reader’s eye — and hence it’s the content more than the mode or language of communication that commands our attention.

It’s refreshing to see ASL differentiated and yet still rendered “normal” in this way. Communication is a simple need, a universal  human desire and pleasure. Why should how we communicate distract from what we communicate? Matlin and Ray seem to answer that question with an implicit: “It shouldn’t.” Both authors incorporate sign naturally and (appropriately enough) quietly  into their stories.

But not all writers are content to see ASL absorbed so modestly into the text. In Of Sound Mind (2001), a novel about a teenager with deaf parents, Jean Ferris signals communications in ASL through a change in print: while most of the text is printed in a plain Garamond font, all ASL exchanges are in a version of Courier printed in boldface. Visually, this makes the ASL conversation jump out at us: it conveys difference — but what sort of difference? The switch in font and style is effective at sustaining our awareness of the two languages the characters use, but it also makes ASL seem strange: a visible marker of a visible weirdness. ASL, this presentation suggests, is bold, striking, and “other.”

Ferris provides her rationale in an introductory author’s note: Although the grammar and syntax of American Sign Language are quite different from those of English, for purposes of clarity I have transliterated the conversations in ASL into standard English.

The signed conversations are printed in a different font from the rest of the text so that it’s clear when words are being spoken and when they’re being signed.

Actually, Ferris hasn’t transliterated the ASL (to transliterate is to render the sounds of words in one alphabet into the letters and phonics of another language); she has translated it into English. But why would she not, since her novel is written in English? Her impulse to explain her method suggests something at the heart of the awkwardness of rendering ASL in print: ASL is an American language, after all — not a foreign one. Had the family in Ferris’s novel been, say, Spanish-speaking, we doubt she would have felt the same need to confess to translating their conversation into standard English. In explaining her method of representing ASL, Ferris is being inclusive and respectful: we know you and your language belong to us and I apologize for trampling on your grammar and syntax.

But no doubt Ferris is also anticipating her vulnerability to ongoing debates about Deaf culture and the right for ASL to be represented as a language with its own integrity and its own rules of grammar. She is trying to respect and preserve an awareness of ASL’s linguistic distinctiveness, while at the same time acknowledging that in order to give her readers the content, tone, and

eloquence of signed communication, she must efface those differences. ASL is not English, the language of the hearing and the speaking (in ASL, the sign for “hearing” person is the same as the old-fashioned sign for “speaking”), and maintaining that awareness throughout the story is critical to recognizing the elements of Deaf culture, experience, and identity.

In the novel Strong Deaf (2012), author Lynn McElfresh accentuates ASL’s features of grammar and syntax by trying to preserve ASL word order. Strong Deaf is told in the voices of two sisters: Marla, who is Deaf; and Jade, who is hearing. They’re daughters of Deaf parents; their Deaf grandparents run a residential school for the deaf; ASL is the family’s first language, and Deaf is their culture. McElfresh presents the voice of Jade, the hearing sister, in standard English; but she represents Marla’s narration with a straight word-for-sign English gloss of what, as readers, we take to be ASL:

Jade smile. Smile make anger flame hot. “Hungry now,” I tell Father. “Fish smell. Maybe vomit.” I open cabinet, take first box.  Leave kitchen, go room.

…Mother work university science library. Work big project. Go early. Work late. Hope project finish soon. Need Mother home. Mother know Jade act with mean purpose. Father easy fooled. Father no understand.

Rather than giving us an English translation of Marla’s ASL narrative, McElfresh gives us words for the basic signs in which Marla apparently thinks or that she uses in the signed dialogues she recounts. In her attempt to present Marla’s ASL narration on the page, McElfresh shuns elements of English that seem to have no discrete counterpart in ASL — definite and indefinite articles (the, a, and an) — as well as grammatical indicators such as verbal inflections (I smile, you smile, she smiles), auxiliary verbs, present participles and prepositions (Mother is working on a big project), and many other elements of English grammar and syntax that make for clear communication. Were we simply to sign Marla’s words in the order they’re presented, we’d end up with functional ASL sentences, although their ASL grammar would often be shaky.

But in eschewing the elements of English grammar without counterparts in ASL, McElfresh disregards grammatical inflections that are folded into ASL through physical orientation, direction, facial expression, motion, pace, and rhythm. In attributing a limited, flat-footed vocabulary to Marla, McElfresh also disregards nuances in vocabulary. For example, there is a basic sign for  “smile,” but a slight change of expression, movement, and/or placement of the fingers might suggest we translate it as “grin,” “smirk,” “leer,” and so on. None of these sorts of subtleties in ASL is reflected in the English words of the text.

Grammatically and syntactically incorrect, simplistic, and disjointed, McElfresh’s English version of Marla’s ASL narration makes Marla and the story’s other ASL users appear ineptly lingual. It seems to forsake the explicit messages McElfresh otherwise pushes: that ASL is a language with its own sophistication and eloquence and that Deaf culture is coherent, powerful, and joyous. In trying to preserve ASL’s word order, McElfresh produces pidgin English; despite her clear intentions, her awkward English-ASL narration seems to denigrate Deaf language — as if ASL amounts to English used badly — rather than supporting Deaf ownership of ASL in all its expressiveness and fluency.

Most authors who incorporate interactions in foreign languages into stories written in English don’t preserve the word order and syntax of the other language — nor do they feel compelled to excuse themselves for it. So why, in Strong Deaf, does McElfresh present ASL in this way? Because she wants to confront us with ASL’s difference from English, and with the difference of Deaf from hearing, and keep that difference in our faces. Her experiment with non-grammatical English attempts to ensure that hearing/English-speaking readers must accommodate Deaf language, not the other way around — a worthy aim, allowing the reader the opportunity to be the minority. But at the same time, it makes ASL look like a blunt instrument, rather than the nuanced language it is; it makes ASL signers appear to be verbally impaired. And that’s because, in the end, to present ASL in English is to present it as English.

It’s completely possible to preserve linguistic otherness without sacrificing grammar and syntax. In young adult novels written in English, it’s common practice for non-English words to be italicized: “Mögen Sie eine endlose Wüste auf dem Rücken eines furzenden Kamels durchqueren,” the ghost of Jacob Grimm tells Jeremy Johnson Johnson in Tom McNeal’s Far Far Away (2013). (Jacob’s translation: “May you cross an endless desert on the back of a flatulent camel” — not “may you an endless waste on the  back of a farting camel through-wander.”) But McNeal uses italics for two purposes in Far Far Away: one is to indicate non-English words; the other is to signal an exceptional mode of communicating — in this case, a mode neither oral nor audible. The ghost of Jacob Grimm communicates telepathically with Jeremy — in italics, whether in German or otherwise.

This is using font style to indicate a different form of otherness: the mode of communication as much as the language. Italics  signal that something’s different, unusual (a different look to the print, a slant), but still keeping to the same font — the default of  the book’s communication. It’s different, but it’s not totally strange. It doesn’t leap out and clutch you by the throat — like boldface Courier. This is part of what makes italics seem suitable for representing sign language — and indeed that’s how it’s done by  Antony John in Five Flavors of Dumb (2010) and Sherryl Jordan in The Raging Quiet (1999). And John, particularly, manages to convey some of the physical realities of signed conversation.

John’s deaf protagonist, Piper, is a whiz-kid lip-reader and gets along orally much of the time, but she often turns to ASL for clandestine communication with her brother, usually on sensitive topics. Like McNeal’s italicized telepathic communication, this italicized ASL emphasizes the language’s silence. The italics of Piper’s signing also emphasize its power, enhancing our sense of when and where Piper chooses to use ASL — surreptitiously, as part of a power dynamic; sometimes to intimidate; sometimes to be intimate. Because Piper is bilingual, we often see her gauge situations to determine how she’ll approach an interaction — in ASLwith her brother as interpreter, or as a proficient lip-reader. She makes a deliberate choice when she presents herself physically as a signing person; physically, because one can’t converse in sign without being wholly, attentively, bodily present to one’s interlocutor. Thus both whisper and shout underlie Piper’s italicized ASL communication: it’s visual; it’s a “foreign” language; it’s expressive; it’s physically commanding; it’s emotionally loaded. But whatever it is, it isn’t the “ordinary communication” of speech and narrative, as the italics show us.

The very variety of choices made by these writers tips us toward challenging paradoxes. To differentiate ASL in print is to acknowledge that it is genuinely different from speech and from English; it is to respect its integrity as a language and mode of communication for the minority culture of the Deaf in a world dominated by speech and hearing. At the same time, that differentiation makes ASL look exotic and strange, even though it’s a language and mode of communication that is, after all, “normal” — and most of these stories are trying to emphasize just how reasonable and “normal” it is (which is why McElfresh’s simplistic word clusters and ungrammatical expressions seem wrong). In a way, to differentiate ASL visibly in print is to be one of those people who stops in the street and stares at a child and her mum arguing, marveling at how strange and beautiful their communication looks without really registering that they’re saying something. Yet we need both of these elements, the familiar and the strange, to convey the qualities of ASL conversation.

The visual markers — whether boldface Courier, italics, or grammar bad — are a nod to something else, too, something less articulated in the stories: ASL’s kinetic nature and the body’s involvement in it. They hint at a different perspective and  experience of the world, a visible sign of an element invisible in the stories — just as in the world, ASL is often the only visible sign of the invisible physical feature of deafness.

None of these markers is wholly successful, however, for ASL in itself is unprintable: it is, again, a language of space, motion, and body. To differentiate it with italics or boldface is to signal a quality that’s missing, a characteristic that defies translation to a  static medium. More deeply, these markers tip us off to something that is true of all communication — that it’s flawed. And that is where the valiant, thoughtful, flawed efforts to represent sign in print leave us, right there on the page: these italics are telling you something that isn’t complete.

*For the purposes of this article, we are using the term “Deaf” to refer to those who identify linguistically, physically, and culturally with ASL and other aspects of American Deaf culture; and “deaf” to refer to someone who  is physically deaf, but does not necessarily claim ASL as their primary language or engage with the culture unique to the American Deaf community.

From the September/October 2013 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

About Ariel Baker-Gibbs and Deirdre Baker

Deirdre F. Baker, a reviewer for The Horn Book Magazine and the
Toronto Star, teaches children’s literature at the University of Toronto
and is the author of Becca at Sea (Groundwood). Ariel Baker-Gibbs, a
2011 graduate of Yale University, is an editorial assistant at MIT Press.

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