Don’t Sign That!



Don’t Sign That!!

Recently, after reading a conversation among sign language interpreters, I was reminded of a dramatic episode tucked away in my memory banks. Some memories stick with us long past their expiration date.

In a group discussion, an interpreter asked about signing lyrics to rap songs and hip-hop songs that likely include language deemed taboo by many. Some interpreters felt the question was inappropriate. Some felt a Caucasian interpreter should not be interpreting songs by Black artists. Emotional responses became a bit heated and the interpreter who initially asked the question removed the post. The general consensus seemed to be that Artist’s lyrics should not be censored simply because they are uncomfortable for the interpreter.

Some members argued that the white interpreter was just doing her job, simply parroting someone else’s words—even if that meant occasionally signing things that white people should not say. But other posters eschewed this notion of objectivity, arguing that the role of an interpreter is closer to that of a storyteller, and that in their storytelling, interpreters inevitably filter musicians’ lyrics through the lens of their own experiences.

Definitely a heated debate

Which brings me to a memory of my own…

Travel with me back to the 1980s. My family is gathered around the TV to watch a movie.

Mary Anne, my older sister– Deaf graduate from Gallaudet and working at the University

Mom and Dad – hearing (no sign language communication skills)

Bill, my younger brother – hearing. Working and learning sign language at Gallaudet

And me – hearing (completed sign language classes with Will Stewart at Gallaudet)

The movie?   On Golden Pond with Henry Fonda, Katherine Hepburn, and Jane Fonda

If you’ve seen the movie, you might recall that Henry Fonda plays the cantankerous Father with very colorful language. I cringed every time he said something that I knew would offend Mom. Bless her heart; Mom could have easily lived in a Norman Rockwell painting.

These were the days before Closed Captioning, so my brother sat next to the TV and started interpreting all of the dialogue for my sister. Things would have gone smoothly had we been watching Mary Poppins.

At one point, Henry Fonda mutters one of his salty comments and my Mom said to my brother “don’t sign that.”

Bill looked at Mom and said “what?”

Mom repeated her direction to him and Mary Anne became aware of Mom’s desire to censor the language.

A hush fell over the room.

My sister walked over to the television and turned the volume all the way down. She then said ……

“Fine!  We’ll ALL watch it this way!”

This was my first experience with the attempted censoring of information involving my sister. This episode has stuck with me for over 35 years.

Parents will often cover the eyes and/or ears of their children when trying to protect them from seeing / hearing information they feel might cause their child distress. But we were adults. We can cover our own ears or eyes if we choose to, but at some point, at some age, protection becomes enforced censorship and is just wrong … even with the best of intentions.

So, back to the role of interpreters signing the colorful lyrics often found in today’s popular music.

In my research, I came across a site called DEAFinitely Dope, the black-owned, Houston-based interpretation company specifically catering to hip-hop. They now work with Chance the Rapper and can truly show how it’s done.

Equal access for all.


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About Evelyn

Evelyn Hunter is a SODA with years of experiential study in Deaf Culture. She attended Gallaudet University to immerse herself in this unique deaf world while working for the University and studying sign language to hone her skills. Evelyn has served in training, relationship sales, and marketing -- always seeking to expand awareness of Deaf Culture and the unique challenges the deaf face on a daily basis. The Sign Language Company has recently established a presence on Facebook, Twitter, Youtube and a website with a blog, as Evelyn coordinates the marketing and outreach efforts for the agency. Her goal is to attract new clients seeking exceptional service, while maintaining optimal relationships with clients who have selected The Sign Language Company for over 20 years.

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