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Signing Shakespeare: What goes into a Signed Performance?

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An Explanation from Holly Thomas-Mowery- ASL Interpreter for ISF

I would say I put about 100 to 120 intense hours into preparing for a Shakespeare play, so a team of two interpreters are working about 200-240 hours of prep for one play.

Interpreter Holly Thomas-Mowery in action

An interpreter has to become extremely familiar with the script (the plot, scenes, back-story, the beats, character motivations, jokes, etc.).  We sit in on several rehearsals to understand where each actor is taking their character and to understand the director’s vision.  We spend about four hours watching a full performance of the play to see how characters play off of each other, and to particularly observe emotionality/sarcasm/cadence/sound effects that can’t be discerned from the script.  We have about ten meetings (2-3 hours long each) among the interpreting team to prepare for a play.  These meetings include analysis of each scene so that characters can be divided between each interpreter, depending on which characters are in which scene, and who’s dialoguing with whom in each scene.  I spend about 50 – 60 hours working alone simply translating and nearly memorizing the play.  Because ASL is a visual/spatial language, all of this analysis is necessary to accurately depict the action, plot and resolution.  We tone-down or ramp-up the graphic/explicit nature of the translation choices based on if the play is intended for all ages or 14 years old and up.

A significant dimension to our preparation is the double translation needed for a Shakespeare play.  We translate Shakespearian English into modern English, and then translate modern English into ASL.  The goal is by the time of the signed performance we’re able to hear the original text and produce ASL – we actively translate every phrase/sentence twice in our heads the night of Signing Shakespeare.  We also establish sign names for significant characters, typically based on a character’s personality or physical features so that the dialogue flows well, especially when two characters are discussing a third, absent character in a given scene.

As we’ve all heard, humor doesn’t directly translate well into other languages.  This is very true of English and ASL.  Things that are very funny in ASL might make a monolingual English speaker scratch her head, while a hilarious moment in spoken English might not be funny at all in ASL.  This is particularly true when it comes to humor based on sound.  What might be funny is the accent the actor is using, the particular misuse of word choices that ‘sound’ funny, the pitch of an actor’s voice for effect, and the speed of delivery – all of which are naturally undetectable and non-funny to a person who doesn’t hear.  Interpreters work very hard to tweak jokes just enough and make accents/cadence/pitch/idiosyncrasies visible in order for deaf audience members to laugh right along with the rest of the audience.  We work to never have the non-deaf audience laughing while the deaf audience is not (and vice versa).  A clever example of this is in Complete Works, where there’s an entire scene (Macbeth in ridiculous Scottish accents) where they macspeak maceverything with mac in macfront of every macword, which sounds hilarious to non-deaf people.  Our translation uses an odd handshape that we continually repeat throughout that one scene that is visually very funny and over-the-top to the deaf audience.

Analysis of the Greenshow is a whole other piece to our preparation.