Show and Tell: The Enhancement of English Literature through American Sign Language
by Jamie Rester
Many scholars dedicate their lives to the pursuit of interpreting classic pieces of English literature. Some spend hundreds of hours on research for dissertations and scholarly journals, while others agonize over poetry they have read dozens of times and yet still cannot fully comprehend. What many of them do not realize, however, is a resource that is already accessible at their fingertips which can easily enhance an interpretation of a text: American Sign Language (ASL). This is done through the use of translation, because as written text is translated into ASL, it is simultaneously being interpreted by both the signer and the recipient. Because of its many innate characteristics, ASL allows enrichment of one’s interpretation of texts versus if they were simply read in English. Through ASL, some texts can be renewed and given new life. This is done by the signer showing a picture of the text, rather than using words to tell about it.
When most people hear the term, “English Literature,” they may consider books, journals, poems, and other prose. With ASL, many people are unaware of the fact that it possesses a literacy all its own. It is very different from English literature in that it can include videos, performances, literature translations, and other mediums rather than simply written text. Due to this difference, Andrew Byrne, an ASL professor at Florida State University, notes that “…some people believe that works originally written in English and translated into ASL are placed into a separate category all their own. Some even believe that it should not be included in the definition of ASL literacy at all” (Byrne 57). While this paper’s purpose is not to dispute nor confirm this, it will examine the ways that watching a performer sign an English poem in ASL can potentially enhance the original interpretation.
A Brief History of ASL
To analyze this premise, the origin of ASL as a language must first be examined. ASL itself was not previously seen as a language, and therefore had no literacy associated with it. It was not until the 1960’s that Gallaudet University professor William Stokoe published his paper, “Sign Language Structure: An Outline of the Visual Communication Systems of the American Deaf,” which was groundbreaking because it was the first instance a scholar analyzing the language’s structure (Byrne 5). This research has since been examined at length, proven legitimate, and utilized to become an entirely new area of study – ASL linguistics. Because of Stokoe’s prodigious research and initiative, he is commonly known as the Father of ASL linguistics.
Stokoe’s work completely changed the way that linguists viewed ASL. His work is the basis for a plethora of articles and books on ASL linguistics and literature. In fact, “[linguist Ursel] Bellugi concludes that ‘the visual-gestural communication system of deaf people has been shaped into an independent language with its own grammatical rules’… In words, ASL is a real language-similar to yet different from all languages” (Brueggemann 413). Because ASL is now seen as a legitimate language with its own grammar and conventions, it therefore lends itself to different interpretations of texts.
The history of ASL has been the subject of many scholarly works, as well as the linguistical structure of the language itself. In his quintessential paper, “Sign Language Structure,” Stokoe takes a more analytical approach to ASL linguistics as he focuses on structural pieces. There has also been much research done on ASL linguistics since Stokoe’s work in the 1960’s. Introducing Sign Language Literature: Folklore and Creativity by Rachel Sutton-Spence and Michiko Kaneko, for instance, offers a comprehensive look into more recent studies on ASL. The authors provide an extensive analysis of Sign Language literature from its history, to its defining linguistic characteristics, to famous pieces of Sign Language literature, and so on.
These sources combined give readers a comprehensive view of the linguistical side of ASL and all of its components. Stokoe’s work focuses more on the structure and grammar of ASL and how it may vary from that of the English language, while Spence and Kaneko’s book does get into these components, but examines ASL literature specifically as well as other things surrounding ASL literature. However, while both of these sources mention ASL in relation to English, they do not go much beyond grammar and syntax. They do not reflect on how these differences of the languages are practically applied to interpretations and readings of texts, and thus leave a gap.
Stokoe, Sutton-Spence and Kaneko’s work speak of the deaf community and how it has been impacted by the creation and recognition of ASL, as well as ASL literature, but what they do not include are the impacts that such things could have on the hearing community. If more hearing literary scholars were to study ASL, they would see the plethora of interpretations of literature available to them that would otherwise not be available if simply read in English. There are many specific characteristics of ASL that encourage different explanations than simply just examining a text in English would. In this paper, the researcher will conjoin these ideas of ASL, English, interpretation, and impacts on the communities. By marrying all of these concepts together, the researcher intends to fill the gap left in the groundwork already laid and to also encourage the literary experts in the hearing and deaf communities to work together in order to see the varying interpretations on texts and broaden both of their horizons.
To examine this concept more closely, specific characteristics of ASL will be observed in practical ways through classic poetry. Timeless poems such as Walt Whitman’s “O Captain! My Captain!,” John Donne’s “Death, Be Not Proud,” as well as William Ernest Henley’s “Invictus” will be renewed when scrutinized under the microscope of ASL. The famous deaf comedian, Crom Saunders, took the liberty of translating many classic works of literature into ASL and posting the videos online for his audiences. It is important to take into account the fact that translation and word choice will not be examined in this paper, as these are qualities of interpretations from any language. Only characteristics unique to ASL will be surveyed, such as his use of body language, expression, classifiers, exaggeration, orientational metaphors, and neologistic signs that he created, because, “Whereas written or spoken forms use a string of words in sequence, signed forms utilize both sequential and simultaneous combinations of manual components…and a variety of non-manual components” (Sutton-Spence 6-7). Because so many more elements are occurring when a performer signs a poem than one reading it aloud, all of these aspects must be investigated.
Saunders’ use of expression in these three works is captivating and is one of the essential ingredients in a great work of ASL literature. In fact, “…we may suggest that in a similar way the facial expression and body posture of signing storytellers creates the soul of sign language storytelling” (Sutton-Spence 194-195). According to Glenn Stewart, a deaf ASL professor at Oakland Community College, expression is a necessity when it comes to communicating in ASL. He claims that, “Signing in ASL without facial expression is dead, no connection to what so ever. If you sign in no expression at all in ‘I am good and I am wonderful’ and you sign that… flat face no expression…it has no meaning [sic]” (Stewart). Saunders certainly utilizes this characteristic to his advantage in his interpretation of “O Captain! My Captain!”
From the very start, Saunders demonstrates his use of expression when he signs, “The ship has weather’d every rack,” as his face knits together in a tough expression and his mouth turns downward. He symbolizes the ship being thrown about, crashing on the sea, and riding over impossibly high waves and his mouth opens and closes to show a bam! and boom! sound. He creates lightening coming down and striking with his fingers to show a tumultuous storm that throws the ship around. This way, he paints a picture of what is happening so that the audience can actually see the poem coming to life before their eyes.
Throughout the entire poem, his eyebrows pull together in a tight furrow and droop over his eyelids in an utterly hopeless expression. This further displays the anguish that the speaker feels as he sees his captain lying dead before him. Once the speaker reaches the shore, it is obvious to see the citizens of the town rejoicing that “the prize we sought was won,” by Saunders’ hopeful expression, opened mouth, and waving of the hands when he signs, “Exult O shores, and ring O bells!” but he gives a glimpse into the next line before it is even reached. While his mouth is turned into a smile as he uses his entire torso to ring the bells, his eyes still are downcast as he signs “But I with mournful tread.” Even the way he chooses to tread with his fingers displays a slow, dragging of the feet, as if the speaker does not want to go on without his beloved captain. When he signs, “But O heart! heart! heart! / O the bleeding drops of red,” his expression is that of agony and anguish, and he even shows the wrenching of his heart as he twists his fists over it.
Saunders also uses this technique to enhance his audience’s understanding of Henley’s, “Invictus.” He uses a cold, hard expression with an upright, solid posture, chin raised, and a harsh sneer on his face throughout the performance. His movements are hard and quick to enforce this idea of his pride and his “unconquerable soul.” The tilted chin and solid posture show pride, while the sneer shows that the pride has likely come from a place of overcoming hardship. Saunders’ use of expression also shows pride in his translation of “Death, Be Not Proud.” As he signs the namesake, his back is erect and his chin is lifted high in the air to embody “pride.” He also enhances the thought that the speaker of the poem is diminishing death when he signs, “though some have called thee / Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so,” he shakes his head, raises his chin, and sneers slightly to show that he is, indeed, more powerful than death. All of these uses of expression come together to create an overall feeling of each poem.
Another characteristic of ASL that enhances the interpretation of these poems is Saunders’ use of classifiers. According to Sutton-Spence and Kaneko, classifiers can be defined in ASL as, “signs that are shaped to provide an accurate visual description of objects and people” (7). This allows for many opportunities for different interpretations as signers can actually become the subject of the work. In “O Captain! My Captain!” Saunders chooses to utilize these classifiers by acting out the banging of the ship instead of signing the exact words. He encompasses this in the line, “While follow eyes the steady keel,” as he forms his hands into a ship and acts out the process of the boat sailing on the sea. His hands beat back and forth on the “waves” in a steady, rhythmic motion to show the steadiness of the keel. He also uses the sign for “watch” or “look” with his other hand as it follows the formation of the ship in the same, steady motion. This way, the audience understands that the “eyes” following the “steady keel” are locked on it as they await the return of their beloved captain.
A reader simply looking at the text on paper can imagine this legendary captain’s death occurring in a number of ways, from a quick drop to the ground, to a slow crawl that eventually ends with no motion, to a man simply lying on the ground crying for help. However, Saunders’ fingers display a man standing in shock after the wound, then subsequently falling to his knees, not being able to stand any longer, then falling face-first onto the ground. This portrays a possibly noble death as the man was wounded while standing, possibly fighting, rather than lying down or crawling away. It emphasizes the drama of his death that this poem simply bleeds. Once the ship reaches the shore, he signs the bugles, bouquets, wreaths, and bows waiting for the captain with a look of hope and anguish, knowing that they are for his captain but that he will never see them. He uses his fingers to visualize the crowd and waves his hands back and forth to show them swaying, opens his mouth, and lifts his eyebrows to show their eager faces. By doing this, he paints a picture of the celebration awaiting his captain.
Saunders also uses classifiers to show the concept of “looking ahead” in “Invictus,” instead of precisely signing, “Beyond this place of wrath and tears,” his hands pull away from his face and he uses an inquisitive expression to peer into something far off in the distance. This way, the audience is left wondering what it could be that he is searching for and becomes a part of the poem along with the speaker. Bringing the audience into the poem is vital because, “For sign language literature to be effective, it needs to generate emotions in its audiences, and signers frequently achieve this by manipulating elements of their signing to produce striking visual images” (Sutton-Spence 57). This certainly applies to his use of classifiers as he works to create such images for his audience.
He also chooses to show the “bludgeonings of chance” by throwing punches at himself, as well as in the following line of, “my head is bloody but unbowed,” by tracing a line of blood dripping down his face, and then raising a fist that represents his head, as well as his actual head until his chin is in the air. His use of classifiers does not stop there, and continues on in his performance of “Death, Be Not Proud.” Saunders performs, “One short sleep past, we wake eternally,” by acting out falling asleep and time passing by sweeping his hands across his body slowly, and then waking with surprise. This displays how classifiers work to show the audience what is happening rather than leaving it up to them to create a picture in their minds. It takes out much of the uncertainty when attempting to understanding pieces of literature and helps the audience in this way.
While Saunders user of expression and classifiers are possibly the most utilized and well-known characteristics of ASL, he also includes other aides in the interpretations of the poems. One such aspect is the use of orientational metaphors. According to Sutton-Spence and Kaneko, “Orientational metaphor is the association between abstract concepts and directions (such as GOOD IS UP, BAD IS DOWN). Orientational metaphors are particularly popular in sign languages, because they are spatial languages” (106). Saunders utilizes such a metaphor when he signs, “The prize we sought is won” in Whitman’s poem. He does this by raising his arms up high and signing around his face which creates a feeling of victory as he raises his arms proclaiming that their prize is finally attained. He also makes a gesture that appears to be catching something when he mentions the prize, as though he has just won a trophy and has snatched it into his hands. This technique can be used to create a feeling or convey a message in a more subtle way.
Another aspect of ASL that Saunders utilizes is the neologistic sign, or signs that he has created all his own. Sutton-Spence and Kaneko argue that, “deaf poets can experiment with new signs much more than hearing poets composing in written language can. Whereas English language poets cannot create a poem only using new words and make them understood by the reader, signing poets can invent new vocabulary which is intelligible to the audience” (123-124). Saunders certainly takes advantage of this when he develops a new sign in “O Captain! My Captain!” in the line “Fallen cold and dead” in an unusual way. When “cold” would usually be signed as fists shivering against one’s body, he brings his hands around in a circular motion from his stomach up, and then into fists. This could symbolize that he is showing the cold coming from the inside of the Captain as the life is drained out of him. An interpretation such as this would not typically be drawn from the text if it were simply read on a page.
The final technique Saunders uses to enhance his audience’s interpretation of the poems is exaggeration in “Death, Be Not Proud.” He uses the symbol for pride in the first line by swiping his thumb up his chest, but then exaggerates it by elongating it all the way up to his chin and subsequently thrusting his chin in the air to display a pompous expression. He then touches his head with both index fingers and brings them up and away from himself, displaying the concept of being “big headed.” With this, he does not simply state the first line of the poem, but rather shows the concept of it so that the audience can visualize an overall picture. Therefore, understanding of the poem is enriched when the audience can actually see the poem unfold before their eyes.
Even though all of these quintessential characteristics of ASL would more easily lead any audience to an enhanced interpretation of any text, many would argue that the same could be done through spoken language. However, ASL does possess certain qualities that oral speaking does not:
…signers draw on a range of language devices to create extra enjoyment or new meanings…They can place signs in different parts of their signing space and move them through the space. They can select and repeatedly use specific handshapes for the signs. They can show multiple perspectives at the same time. …Signers can take on the role of humans, animals, plants and inanimate objects by mapping the physical features of these referents onto their body, so they seem to become the referent. In all these examples, the signers are drawing on the options available in their bodily language to create powerful visual images with movement, in ways that words in a spoken language cannot do (Sutton-Spence 8).
Because of these concepts, ASL is ideal for getting the idea of a passage. While other branches of Sign Language such as Signed Exact English may be better fit for observing the specifics as they sign every detail the way that it was written, ASL eloquently portrays the main ideas that the signer desires to present to his/her audience. It can beautifully paint a picture of any text, and can therefore elevate the overall interpretation of it and make it more understandable and relatable as the audience can physically see the words come alive. In fact, ASL can “simultaneously evoke a concreteness, a vividness, a realness, an aliveness, that spoken languages, if they ever had, have long since abandoned” (Brueggemann 414). ASL simply conjures a richness that may be missing from some pieces of written literature.
Unfortunately, not many Americans are acquainted with ASL, which means that they are bypassing another way to interpret literature. Knowing ASL and utilizing it to amplify one’s reading of a text can be very effective, but without knowing it, this beautiful language cannot be taken advantage of. Therefore, it is imperative that there be more of a dialogue between hearing and deaf literary scholars, especially where it concerns ASL and English literature. By working together, these two very different communities can find common ground and better understand the words of famous writers that may have been previously veiled. Concepts such as expression, exaggeration, and classifiers are notions that can speak across cultures and to a variety of people. Just as literature aims to connect people and share their thoughts and experiences, so ASL can also do if given the opportunity.
Brueggemann, Brenda Jo. “The Coming out of Deaf Culture and American Sign Language: An Exploration into Visual Rhetoric and Literacy.” Rhetoric Review, vol. 13, no. 2, 1995, pp. 409–420. JSTOR, JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/465841.
Byrne, Andrew P. J. “American Sign Language (ASL) Literacy and ASL Literature: A Critical Appraisal.” American Sign Language (ASL) Literacy and ASL Literature: A Critical Appraisal. York University, York University, Oct. 2013, yorkspace.library.yorku.ca.
“‘INVICTUS’ Translated into ASL.” Performance by Crom Saunders, “INVICTUS” Translated into ASL, YouTube, 23 Feb. 2015, youtube.com.
“John Donne’s ‘Death Be Not Proud’ translated into ASL.” Performance by Crom Saunders, John Donne’s “Death Be Not Proud” Translated into ASL, YouTube, 23 Feb. 2015, youtube.com.
Stewart, Glenn. “Expression in ASL.” 7 Oct. 2017.
Stokoe, William C. “Sign Language Structure: An Outline of the Visual Communication Systems of the American Deaf.” Journal of Deaf Studies and Deaf Education, vol. 10, no. 1, 1 Jan. 2005, pp. 3–37, academic.oup.com.
Sutton-Spence, Rachel, and Michiko Kaneko. Introducing Sign Language Literature: Folklore and Creativity. Palgrave, 2016.
“Walt Whitman’s ‘O Captain My Captain!’ translated into American Sign Language.” Performance by Crom Saunders, Walt Whitman’s “O Captain My Captain!” translated into American Sign Language, YouTube, 23 Feb. 2015, youtube.com.
Jamie Rester graduated from Rochester College in Rochester, MI in May of 2018 and obtained a Bachelor’s degree in Secondary Education with a focus in English and a minor in Reading. Her paper was written for one of her last classes while studying at Rochester where she wanted to combine her passion for literature as well as American Sign Language. Since graduating, she has begun teaching as a Title 1 Reading teacher in Detroit to at-risk middle and high school students.