Thoughts on Interpreting Songs into ASL – Bonobo’s ‘Days to Come’

There are many common misgivings that hearing people have about signed languages, particularly American Sign Language (ASL). The most common, in my experience, is the assumption that ASL is a universal language used by all Deaf people. In actuality, ASL is mostly used in the United States, parts of English-speaking Canada, and in some parts of Mexico. British Sign Language (BSL), on the other hand, is a completely distinct language. English and ASL are not companion languages that accompany each other across the globe, and their grammars are hardly similar. Based on word order and sentence structure alone, ASL’s grammar is more similar to Japanese than it is to English.

As a matter of fact, ASL is closer to French Sign Language (LSF) than it is to BSL, but the focus on the relationship between signed languages to the languages spoken by hearing people in the same region is really more of a self-gratifying cultural orientation for the hearing than it is a serious sociological or anthropological line of inquiry. The problem is that so many hearing people imagine that Deaf cultures are satellites orbiting our aural (and audist) sun. Deaf languages are unique and independent, with their own histories, grammars, and vocabularies. Many signed languages, in fact, are native languages to the regions where they are used, including ASL, while English, on the other hand, is a cultural import in most of the places that it is spoken.

Another common assumption that many hearing people have is that ASL interpretations of song lyrics are as interesting to Deaf people as they are to hearing people. While I cannot claim to have any scientific evidence for this point, I can recall a number of conversations with Deaf friends regarding what it is about lyrical music that is so interesting to the hearing. One friend of mine in particular, I can recall, remarked that he finds ASL interpretations of music to be boring. Why? Lyrics are extremely repetitive and watching the interpreter repeat herself or himself over and over is tiring. How it is that hearing people can find such repetition in music to be interesting?, he asked me. My response was something along the lines of ‘I don’t know, perhaps because repetition is easier on the ear than on the eye.’ It is no coincidence that seeing a visual pattern can so quickly numb the mind but hearing a song over and over takes much longer before it wears us out. And while hearing readers of this post may be quick to say that hearing a song on repeat can be mind numbing as well, can we also deny that our iTunes play counts for our top twenty-five songs usually include numbers in excess of several dozen to anywhere in the several hundreds?

I think the wide-spread interest in ASL interpretations of song lyrics that you find on YouTube is mostly from the hearing. I would offer the number of comments that I see from hearing students of ASL as evidence. Saying this, I do not mean to diminish the value of these videos — I happen to think that they are wonderful tools for exposing hearing people to ASL and Deaf culture–, but to conflate the interest of the hearing with the interests of the Deaf would be a mistake. Trying to view Deaf culture and signed languages through the lense of hearing cultures and languages is to repeat the same cultural imperialism that gave audism its name.

While there is nothing wrong with being a hearing person who loves to watch songs interpreted into ASL — quite the opposite, I would hope that more hearing people should take an interest in the third-most common language of our country, ASL — it is incorrect to assume that because it is of interest to a hearing person that it must also be of interest to the Deaf. Let’s not erase our cultural differences, but instead acknowledge and celebrate them.

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4 Responses to Thoughts on Interpreting Songs into ASL – Bonobo’s ‘Days to Come’

  1. Earl says:

    This is a good post. It clearly draws the line of difference between ASL and BSL. Some people who do not know BSL or ASL should read this and be informed. It is good to know BSL or ASL exist because it is not only exclusively be used by deaf people but people who have special needs when speech is a challenge.

  2. Dani says:

    Wow! Refreshing to read a blurb that actually takes the facts into consideration! So many people think ASL is just a bunch of gestures to supplement English without knowing the stories behind the signs or the culture that accompanies it.

    Thanks for getting it right :)

  3. Hannah says:

    What advice would you give a hearing person trying to interpret a song into ASL?

    • Brendan Behan says:

      Hi Hannah. Excellent question. The most essential skill to interpreting songs is fluency in ASL. Some of the best instruction in how to interpret a song comes from watching and understanding the approach of other ASL-fluent interpreters.

      There are plenty examples on YouTube of interpretations that are labeled as ASL interpretations but which are in fact a kind of singed English. These kinds of “interpretations” tend to prefer English grammatical structures and Subject-Verb-Object word order in stead of ASL’s Subject-Object-Verb.

      I think a key foundation in interpretation in general, with song lyric interpretation included, to understand the difference between transliterations, where you replace each word in one language with the corresponding dictionary definition in the destination language, and interpretations, where you pay more attention to conveying the intended meaning and worry less about specific translations of individual words outside the context in which they are used.

      It is always important to research and locate ASL interpretations from professional interpreters and to watch and learn from their techniques at interpretation. ewitteborg on YouTube is a CODA has a number of excellent ASL song interpretations:

      For more perspective on issues concerning interpreting songs into ASL, see: “Question about songs being translated into ASL [Video]“)

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