Monday, August 6, 2012

TTYU Retro: The Trouble with Translating ASL by Rebecca Inch-Partridge

The Trouble with Translating ASL

By Rebecca Inch-Partridge

As an aspiring Science Fiction writer, I often wonder if a visual or gestural language would be the best choice for a first-contact situation. After all, there’s no guarantee humans and aliens could even make the same sounds or be able to hear each other. As an avid reader, I’ve noticed that the whole issue of communication is often glossed over in order to keep the plot moving unless the author is a linguist like Juliette. But the truth is translating an idea from one language to another is always going to be fraught with the potential for misunderstanding. Though I am not an interpreter, I have been around the field of American Sign Language for over twenty years, and when translating from spoken English to a visual lingual like ASL, there are some unique challenges to consider.

Finger spelling. Spelling is often people’s least favorite subject. Now imagine having to spell out a large percentage of the words when having a conversation. You have to remember how to spell all those words. You have to slow down the conversation in order to spell out each letter of words that have no equivalent sign as well as the names of whomever or wherever you’re talking about. This is time consuming and after a while can become quite painful on the joints of your hands.

In order to make sign language more practical people are often given unique name signs and long words and phrases are abbreviated. However, the interpreter and the deaf person very likely won’t be familiar with all the same shortcuts. This can lead to misinterpretations or a lot of extra time spent clarifying what’s meant. On a larger scale, the names of major land marks in an area are often abbreviated because it would be too cumbersome to constantly fingerspell them. Thus, in the San Francisco bay are, the letters S and F in a downward motion means San Francisco. However, those same initials could stand for a completely different city in other parts of the state.  So if the interpreter is from a different area than the deaf person, there are even more terms that will have to be clarified.

Line of Sight. Sign Language is made up of four components: hand shape, hand location, hand movement and facial expression. People who are deaf rely on facial expression nearly as much as the other three components combined. One of the problems with utilizing an interpreter with a visual language is logistics. It is not always possible to have the hearing person and interpreter in the same line of sight, so the deaf person can watch both at the same time.  This means they are constantly shifting their gaze between speaker and interpreter. They miss some of what is being done by those speaking, such as expression, body language and gestures. They also miss some of what is being signed by the interpreter.

This becomes an even bigger issue when a single interpreter is translating for more than one speaker or several people having a conversation. The deaf person can easily become confused as to who said what. Interpreters try to solve this by shifting position back and forth to represent the two people in a dialog. But since they are often signing the previous sentence, they will often be out of sink with the speakers. So in essence the deaf person is watching one person while the interpreter might still be translating the other person’s comment or question. This can make following a conversation difficult. It’s even harder if the deaf person is has to swing their head back and forth like someone watching a tennis match.  

Need to Tag Team. As mentioned about, signing can become painful. Long durations of signing can put quite a strain on the tendons, muscles and joints of your hands and wrists. Interpreters translating spoken word into ASL face the additional issue of trying to keep up with the speaker when talking is a bit faster than signing.  To protect interpreters for repetitive stress injuring, whenever an event or meeting is expected to last more than two hours there must be two interpreters. This means that it’s not enough to find one competent interpreter that you and the deaf person are comfortable with, you have to find and schedule two. Not only does this make it twice as expensive, it creates a few other issues with consistency. The two interpreters might not use the same signs for some terms or they may do some of the signs slightly different.  

So those are a few of the challenges when communicating with human in the same country who just happen to be deaf. I can imagine just like with any language, there would be additional complication when using Sign Language for first contact with an alien race. They might have hands shaped anything like ours. After all, we are talking about aliens. Also, sign language is a visual language so naturally many of the signs look like the concepts they represent. This makes basic ASL vocabulary easy to learn. The words tree looks like a tree. Cat is done by drawing whiskers in the air. Bird is making a beak with your pointing finger and thumb. But what if aliens don’t have trees, cats, or birds? What if the gesture for tree resembles a monster on their world? What if they have whiskers? What if the motion for bird seems to indicate shutting a mouth or telling someone to shut up? Then you have the heavy reliance on facial expressions, which might not be universal at all. In ASL the sign “Fine” can mean “good or great”, “okay whatever you say” or it can mean “whatever, you jerk. I’m done.” It all depends on the facial expression and body language, just as verbally it depends on the tone of voice. How confusing would it be to the aliens that while usually more emphatic means more of whatever the sign means but in some cases being too emphatic actually means the opposite of the root sign.     

A reader might infer from this list of challenges that a visual or gestural language just wouldn’t be worth attempting. But I’d argue that the second you gesture to a chair as an offer to sit down or point to yourself and say your name, you are using gestures for communications. Until spoken translations are worked out, a gestural language might be the only option. As a first contact language, Sign Language would have several advantages, such as not relying on any equipment and being very graphic. However, that’s an article for a different time.

By day Rebecca Partridge is a mild mannered social worker. By night, she is the ruler of the Paraxous Star Cluster. Her first Paraxous Cluster novel, Captured, is available through her chapter of the week club at


  1. This is why, while I think it would be cool to confirm intelligent life on another planet, actually meeting them would be a nightmare. Think about it? Will they have diseases, will they be violent, will they want to communicate at all? Consider humans of different backgrounds meeting: Someone from China and the US meet, neither speak a word of the others language, and if there's not an interpreter both would probably digress into a nonsensical gesture system that mean very different things to both. And they'd still get further than 2 different species because on some level an understanding of basic human interaction and manners would kick in and they'd offer each other a drink or a seat. An alien might think a sign for "drinking" is a threat (to the aliens in Signs water was deadly) or gesturing "sit down" might be seen as a command to lower themselves or they would think we are offering to be subjugated.

  2. Silent Dances (StarBridge #2, 1998) by A.C. Crispin and Kathleen O'Malley has a deaf human using not only ASL but the sign language of an avian race.

  3. Interesting thoughts. I'll have to keep those in mind.

  4. In theory, there are topics that would be universal - mathematics, for example, and physical science data (though figuring out the corresponding units of measurement would be a challenge). I'm curious about other aspects, like tenses. As I understand it, ASL's default is present tense, with modifiers used to indicate past or future. How would this work in talking to an alien? We seem to have the same situation with dolphin languages, where so far we haven't been able to figure out what those modifiers are, or whether they even exist. Seems to me that could be a serious problem.

  5. When it comes to aliens, who know what the tense modifiers might be. My experience with ASL is that just as you establish the person you are talking about before telling the story, you set up the time frame. Since ASL is full of spacial concepts the sign for future is in front and you demonstrate how far in the future. Likewise, the sign for past moves behind you. Then once that time frame is established there is no differences in the verbs. This works fine as long as the other person caught the start of the conversation. I must admit to some confusion a few times when I thought someone was saying they were about to do something, when in fact they were telling about something they had just done. It can be kind of embarrassing and cause confusion when people join a conversation in progress.