Interview with Paul Hostovsky and Karyn Lie-Nielsen
WG: Paul, recently your poem "Caterpillar" based upon Ian Sanbornís ASL poem was published by Poetry magazine. Can you talk about what motivated you to write the poem and what issues you had to consider?
PH: Actually, I intended my poem to be a translation of Ian Sanbornís poem.: I see now that it was presumptuous of me to even try and translate it. But what happened was this: John Lee Clark (a DeafBlind poet from Minnesota) had asked me to translate several ASL poems into English, Ian Sanbornís "Caterpllar" among them, with an eye toward putting together an issue or special section of Poetry devoted to ASL/Deaf poetry. John himself has appeared in Poetry four times, and so he has a relationship with Don Share, the editor of Poetry, who had expressed an interest in possibly showcasing Deaf poets and ASL poetry in translation. When I first watched Ianís poem I thought: this is untranslatable. I mean, thereís just so much there, the visual-gestural euphony of it, the humor, the wit, the blend of the literal and the figurative, and just the whole cinematography of the ASL–all the various "camera angles"–the sheer beauty and inventiveness of the signing, and finally, that quirky, jarring choice to include no facial grammar or facial expression whatsoever for the first two-thirds of the poem, as though that disembodied wooden face is the tree in the poem (maybe it is the tree in the poem) or maybe just a neighboring tree, the sun, the moon, the sky… I mean, where to begin?
So I began: "A man with eyes as blank/ as the indifference of nature/ is staring straight ahead/ as the whole thing unfolds." Of course, there is no "man" in the poem itself; and yet, clearly, this man–Ian–is here, center-stage, performing the poem and embodying the poem. He both is the poem and is telling the poem; heís the poet, the performer, all of the characters in the poem, and also, wryly, a disengaged observer–ignorer, really–of the poem, and so it seemed to me that he needed to be mentioned, described in some way, right at the beginning, because of that choice to show only blankness and indifference on his face, and because of the inseparable and irreducible physicality of the signer/poet/poem. So that was a choice I made, a liberty I took, and I took more liberties as I went along, trying to create an equivalent assemblage of delights and surprises, turns and returns, in the English, which of course canít come close to the virtuosity of the original ASL, which ultimately is untranslatable. Translation, you could say, is an exercise in futility. But it can sometimes be a fun exercise.
When I sent my translation to John he said he liked it but he didnít think it could properly be called a translation. It took too many liberties, he said. For example, thereís no mention of the "indifference of nature" in the ASL poem, he said. And he said I added those lines describing the signerís demeanor and dress: "He has a black beard, black/ shirt, black woolen cap–/ he could be a thief, you better/ keep your eyes on his hands/ which have begun clearing/ a clearing." Thatís all stuff that wasnít in the original, said John. But I argued it was in the original: the totally blank face of the signer staring straight ahead while the tree in the poem springs up and the caterpillar comes along and does its beautiful amazing thing, that blank face that doesnít seem to see anything (which is one of the most striking and memorable devices of the poem) is the very picture of indifference. And since the landscape of the poem is nature–a natural landscape–to say that those blank staring eyes are like "the indifference of nature" is rather spot-on, I thought. And the demeanor of the signer, his dress–black shirt, black woolen cap–those are deliberate choices that the poet made. He looks like a safecracker or a thief, doesnít he? Sure he does! Itís a very visual–visible–thing, so I put that in my translation even though the ASL doesnít explicitly say anything about a thief, or keeping your eyes on his hands, or address the reader at all. Nevertheless, I would argue that all of that is in there. But John insisted my poem was more of an observation, an adaptation, an ekphrastic poem based on Ianís poem. So we agreed to disagree.
Then, a year or so later, he sent it off, along with a bunch of other translated ASL poems, and "Deaf poems" (poems in English by or about Deaf people), to Don Share at Poetry. And lo and behold, mine was one of the only ones that Don was interested in publishing. When Poetry contacted me about publishing my "translation" of Ianís poem, I told them Iíd be delighted but since John was the one who submitted it to them and since John doesnít think itís a translation, um, we need to address that question, donít we? So then there were some emails back and forth between Poetry, John, and me, about whether to call it a translation of Ianís poem and give him the byline, or to give me the byline and call it my poem based on Ianís, with an epigraph saying as much. I argued for the former, i.e., call it Ianís poem; give him the byline. After all, I wrote it as a translation of his poem. Without his poem, my poem wouldnít exist. We asked John what Ian thought about it all, but it turned out Ian hadnít even seen my translation yet. John had never showed it to him. So we dutifully sent it off to Ian and asked him to make the final decision: mine or his. He sided with John, saying it was clever and interesting but couldnít properly be called a translation of his poem. So I lost. Or I won. Depending on how you look at it. I mean, I got the byline–theyíre calling it my poem. But theyíre saying my poem failed as a translation.
Though Poetry publishes translations, they do not normally include the original poem in its original language alongside the translation. During the back-and-forth conversations with the editor about whether or not my poem was a translation, I insisted that, either way, they had to include a link to Ianís poem. I would not allow them to publish my poem if they didnít also "publish" Ianís. So in the end they agreed to include a link to Ianís ASL poem in the online version of the magazine, and a footnote in the print version urging readers to view the ASL poem by googling "Ian Sanborn Caterpillar." And if readers are doing that, then my poem will have been a success.
KLN: I consider Paul's poem an ekphrastic piece, an observation rather than a translation. I thought the ekphrastic approach was deliberate on Paul's part, and I thought that was a brilliant choice. Why? Because when I viewed Ian Sanborn's original poem, I saw an adept performance delivered genuinely in the purely visual language of ASL; Sanborn was not concerned with English, or how it might translate. He was reveling in the language of Sign. Consequently, there are gestures that have no equal translatable words. It is movement, expression, (or lack of expression, as Paul points out), and imagery made physical. If I were asked to translate the ASL poem on the spot, I'm sure I would have stopped speaking and simply watched, transfixed by the performance, wordless, knowing that a spoken/written lexicon was not immediately available. So, that's why the ekphrastic choice seems to me, to be the right one for this piece.
Imagine a translator saying to Ian Sanborn, "That's very nice, but could you make it more translatable?" Paul didn't do that. Paul gave us the picture, including his personal impressions that were not "written" in the original; and I think Paul's poem turned out particularly right.
I want to emphasize how important it feels to me that the prestigious Poetry magazine included the link to Ian Sanborn's original poem. I don't think that's happened before. ASL poetry is not included in many print magazines because it must be seen. Not read, but seen, experienced, viewed, either live or captured on video. It is remarkable, that Poetry agreed to include the video link. I hope this marks an opening to future inclusion of ASL poetry.
Another point about Sanborn's poem, if you've seen it, the video does not include a voice-over translation, as often video performances do. When you watch this performance, you're getting pure ASL poetry. Hearing, non-signing audiences might prefer having an English translation, and it's probably a good idea if you want to promote interest in the genre, but in this particular piece, "Caterpillar," I love the original, as is. I don't think non-signing viewers would lose much without the translation. It's that engaging.
I want to go back to what I said earlier about translating an ASL poem "on the spot." Readers should be aware that, of course, poetry translations are not done like that, impromptu, off the cuff, on the spur of the moment, unplanned. When Clare Cavanagh, the acclaimed Slavic translator, works on poetry translations, don't think she just sits down one afternoon and dashes something off that sort of, kind of, gets the general gist of the original piece. Translations are almost as deeply creative and involved as making a poem appear from a blank sheet of paper. When Paul Hostovsky considered how to translate Ian Sanborn's "Caterpillar," he recognized the "virtuosity of the original ASL." Translations are demanding. The translator's assignment is to capture the original mood, message, meaning, ambiance, intent and voice of the first, actual poem. It's challenging as well as stimulating. But it's almost never easy. If you've done a good job, the resulting translation should be, must be, as honest, as full of sparkle, and as remarkable as the original.
PH: By the way, Ian posted (published) another version of "Caterpillar" earlier this year (2017). The original version, which my poem is based on, was first published in 2014, and itís still online, but in this newer, revised version he has deleted that blank face which weíve already talked about at length. Instead, there is quite a bit of facial expression throughout the poem, right from the beginning. I have no idea why he chose to make that revision. Personally, I like the earlier version better, but it might be interesting for viewers to compare the two versions of the same poem. And while youíre at it, check out some of his other ASL poems online: "Rooster", "The Squirrel Story", and a real tour de force, "Tick Tock", which also has two versions.
I agree with Karyn about the choice not to add a voiced-over or captioned English translation to ASL poetry. Most ASL poets refuse to do it. Doing so would diminish the ASL poem, oversimplify it, cheapen it, violate it even. I say violate because the visual is sacrosanct among Deaf people. Itís rude to look away in Deaf culture, and hearing people are forever looking away–at what they hear. And Deaf people will tell you: hearing people are blind. Translation: hearing peopleís visual attention is anemic. They donít see things, not the way Deaf people do. So watching the poem–without any auditory distraction, without any English at all– is sort of a requirement of the ASL poem. Non-signing viewers can probably get some small sense of the visual music–and maybe even a little of the meaning–of the ASL poem without knowing ASL. But they canít truly appreciate the poem–the creative use of classifiers, prosody, visual rhyme, eye-gaze, facial expression, point of view, etc.–without being fluent in ASL; without being able to see the way Deaf people see. The best English translation in the world canít provide that. Partly, it has to do with modality. ASL is visual/gestural while English is aural/oral. Two different modalities; two different worlds. You simply canít bridge that gap. We ASL interpreters try (and fail) to do so every day. But the best we can do, to quote Samuel Beckett, is "fail better". On the other hand, translating an ASL poem into another signed language–BSL, LSF, LSQ, etc–now that could work quite well. Because all signed languages (though there is a different signed language in every country where there are Deaf people) share the same visual modality, and also certain signed-language universals. Which is why Deaf people, in general, are usually better at conversing with foreign Deaf people than hearing people are at communicating with other hearing people who donít speak their language.
All of this reminds me of an interpreting assignment I had years ago: I interpreted a Doobie Brothers concert at Great Woods, about an hour south of Boston. Several Deaf people had requested interpreters, and though I donít usually do this kind of work, an interpreter friend of mine asked me to team with her, and also it paid really well, so I said what the hell. At one point during the concert, after theyíd played "Rambliní Man", "Midnight Rider", "Southbound" and "Melissa", and Iíd done my best to sign all the words and shake my booty at the same time, the band started playing "Jessica", which is an instrumental–no words. There was nothing for me to do but sit down. But then one of the Deaf people said: Hey, tell us which intstruments. Tell us what it sounds like.. But how do you translate music for a Deaf person? All I could do was dance around in place and sign: guitar, drums, flute, sax, etc. It was hopeless, but I gave it my best shot and felt not a little foolish. Well, I would argue that trying to translate an ASL poem into English for the benefit of a non-signer is as futile as trying to explain music to a profoundly deaf person: because they canít hear it. Maybe they can feel the bass, feel the beat, but they have no access to all the nuances of sound that are giving the hearing people so much pleasure. Similarly, the non- signer cannot see the visual music of the ASL. Though they can sort of see the rhythm, the beat, see the hands and face moving, they have no access to all of the nuances of meaning and expression and humor and creativity that are giving the Deaf people so much pleasure.
KLN: I very much appreciate Paul's explanation about the modality differences between ASL and spoken languages. And I totally get it in regards to silently watching a performance of a poem created in ASL. But since ASL is a fully-developed language, like French or Spanish, then translation plays an important role in communicating with someone else who does not use that language.
I would say that ASL poetry deserves the same respect and attention as poetry in any language. That might include the initial requirement of watching a poem without sound. However, there can be allowable time and space for translation. Maybe not simultaneous translation, maybe after the performance, but something to bridge the gap or broaden the connection. ASL poetry needs a wider audience. At present I meet people all the time who never considered that a poem could possible be generated in Sign. This lack of exposure can–and needs–to be eliminated. As Charles Wright said, "Without poetry there's just talk."
It's a heartfelt story that Paul tells about interpreting an instrumental piece at the Doobie Brothers concert. That's one interpreting stumbling block that I've encountered too. Music–that aural form of art that is everywhere, filling the air in elevators, on street corners, bars and restaurants, marking holidays, shaping our culture, religion and patriotism, giving us reference points through time–is the single most difficult part of sound that is the hardest to translate. Dance comes very close. And in many ways, poetry is musical as well.
WG: If, as Paul argues, an attempt at direct translation of an ASL poem is futile or, at best, distorts it, what do you see as the value of an ekphrastic version of a poem such as the one Paul created with "Caterpillar?"
PH: Yes, I suppose any attempt to translate or interpret or emulate ASL poetry will help bridge the gap–which is more of a gulf really, an abyss–between the state of mind that is known as Deafhood and the medical diagnosis that is known as deafness; between the view of the existence of Deaf people as a good and desirable thing versus something that needs to be fixed, eradicated. Yes, ASL is a fully developed language, but it is also an oppressed language, a dying language. In spite of the fact that it's popular, that it's "in", that it's being taught in high schools and colleges all over the country, there is a genocide going on against Deaf people, Deaf culture and signed languages worldwide. Ninety percent of Deaf people are born to hearing parents who do not know Sign and have never met a Deaf person. And those parents are now being offered a "cure" for their Deaf babies: the cochlear implant, which, they are told, will go a long way toward making their Deaf children "normal", i.e., someone who hears and speaks and does not "rely on sign language." Deaf infants and toddlers are being implanted at such an alarming rate that it boggles the mind, and to call it genocide is no exaggeration. Andrew Solomon, in his book Far from the Tree, predicts that Deaf culture and ASL will go the way of candles in the age of electricity, i.e., they're still around but they are not, as they once were, a major source of light.
ASL poetry celebrates the light of ASL and Deaf culture, and if we can give non-signers a glimpse of that light, I guess that might help in some small way to spread the light and to overcome the darkness, the darkness of ignorance, of audism: the pervasive belief that it is inherently better to be hearing than to be Deaf. This is a deeply held belief, so deep and insidious that many interpreters and teachers and other "professionals" working with Deaf people–and many Deaf people themselves–entertain this belief without even realizing it.
I suppose it's true that "without poetry there is just talk." But there is also poetry talk. We use poetic devices all the time when we talk to each other, and when you listen to the way people talk you can hear the found poetry there. My favorite poems have a conversational, colloquial voice that is accessible yet musical, delightful yet wise. "All men are poets at heart," as the poet said. And all Deaf people, too, are ASL poets at heart. Because ASL, in the hands of Deaf people, is literally poetry in motion. Watching Deaf people sign, just chatting them up, hanging out with them, basking in the sheer inventiveness of the language–is the peerless perk of my profession as an interpreter. And it's very humbling. Because that level of fluency–of poetry, if you will–is very difficult for a hearing person to achieve. I've been signing for 35 years and I'm not there yet. But I know it when I see it. And it always puts a smile on my face.
KLN: I just want to say, Paul, your remarks are wonderful, passionate…really stirred me up! That deafness is considered a disease that needs a cure is startling. That all Deaf people are ASL poets at heart strikes a chord as well, since I've long felt that the language of Sign is so much like poetry itself in that it condenses experiences to a few "words", a single gestures, a clear image. I love how you delight in ASL and the Deaf. I wish I could have read your words when I was a child, growing up with Deaf parents in the time before William Stokoe revolutionized the culture by legitimizing Sign.
WG: There is certainly much in Paulís comments that merit further discussion, but I also want to get Karynís perspective on translating from ASL. In a previous interview, you discussed how you had translated your own ASL poem "Christinaís World" into English. In light of this discussion about "Caterpillar" do you think that you would call your own English version a translation or an ekphrastic poem. Did you have concerns similar to Paulís in the translation or do you think there were differences given that you were the author of both versions?
KLN: Not being Deaf, sound is elemental to how I process language, so it was perhaps a far-fetched idea for me to generate a poem in ASL, and then turn around and translate the piece into English. I decided the door in was to describe a scene–in other words, to make my first ASL-generated poem an ekphrastic. I chose Andrew Wyeth's painting "Christina's World." The process went along better when I had something to work with, something visual.
When I got it down, I video-taped the performance and went on to the next step, translating it into English.
Was my translation an ekphrastic piece? Not in my opinion.
Ekphrastic means to describe. I didn't describe the ASL, I translated it. I looked at each gesture and attitude, the facial expressions, the way the area around the signer was utilized, and made the effort to move the visual into a written text. Furthermore, I did not develop any personal musings on how the original image (ASL poem) affected me, as one might do in an ekphrastic piece.
Paul's ekphrastic poem, "The Caterpillar", describes what he sees in the original scene: the signer's facial expression, gestures and movement. Then in the end, he writes "we" (meaning the viewers) "are blown away." That's such a hip-vernacular statement! That attitude is personal. Although it reflects the airiness of the butterfly, it's not the attitude that Ian Sanborn shows us. Sanborn isn't "blown away," that's Paul speaking his mind, describing. And then I discover myself sort of sitting there watching the video along with Paul, saying, "Yes! I feel that way too!" That's why it's such an effective ekphrastic poem.
All that said, when we're discussing an ASL poem, I can understand a mix-up between what is translation and what is ekphrastic description. After all, ASL is a "scene," a language that is image rich. So in some readers/viewers minds, there might be a fine line that marks the difference between translation and description.
PH: Karyn's poem is lovely. I think I prefer the English version, though, which is so much more deft (no pun intended). It's interesting that the ASL came first. The English "translation" is very successful: the line breaks, diction, pauses, repetition, tone, and voice of the poem in English are very effective and show great skill. The ASL version, though it's a fine effort, is less effective, I think, if you'll permit me to be candid in the Deaf way. Karyn's face, like the faces of most hearing signers, is a sort of missed opportunity here. Much of ASL–arguably, most of ASL–occurs on the face, not the hands, and the relative immobility of the face in the ASL version of this poem is a kind of visual monotony. Please don't take this the wrong way–my own signing suffers from the same facial monotony. But a Deaf signer's performance of this poem would likely look a lot different. There's an old movie about the life of the silent film actor Lon Chaney (also a CODA), played by James Cagney, called "Man of a Thousand Faces." I love the title of that movie, not only because Chaney was a master of make-up and played so many different characters in his career, but also because it captures the Deaf angle: Deaf people, too, have a thousand faces. In ASL, the face is the voice.
WG: A few months ago, the first anthology of UK disability poetry, Stairs and Whispers appeared. One of the editors, Sandra Alland, who is also a poet, is proficient in BSL. In the hard copy of the book, the editors not only provided CD links to most of the poems in SoundCloud for blind and visually impaired readers but also linked to YouTube videos of several poems either composed in or translated into BSL. It was an almost unprecedented effort by an anthology to provide for as large an audience as possible.
On the other hand, John Lee Clark said fairly recently, "I am now sort of othering the abled…addressing my own community…The public is not my audience, though it is welcome to eavesdrop."
My question is how you feel about ASL poetry with respect to these approaches. Should it be something that limits itself to those who know ASL or should it somehow be made accessible to a larger community?
PH: I havenít seen that anthology but it sounds very ambitious. And providing for as large an audience as possible is certainly an admirable thing and a good thing. John Lee Clarkís comment about "othering the abled" (what a great phrase!) is such an interesting notion. "The public is not my audience, though it is welcome to eavesdrop." I love it. It reminds me of what Toni Morrison has said about "the white gaze", refusing to consider it or allow it to affect or interfere with her writing in any way. In some of her books there is no overt mention of race–we know the characters are black, or white, as the case may be, without having to be told. And in some of John Lee Clarkís poetry he does something similar: the speaker in the poems is Deaf or DeafBlind, but those words do not appear in the poem; it is not said outright. Nevertheless, it can often be gleaned from a close reading of the poem. But the thing is, Johnís poems are not in ASL. He writes in English, which is so terrific . Heís the DeafBlind Nabokov, growing up in a Deaf family, acquiring ASL first, then learning English as a second language. And he has mastered it so completely that heís gone on to become a gifted poet writing exquisite poems in English.
My father, the Czech novelist Egon Hostovsky, wrote in Czech and struggled with problems of translation all his life. As a young writer in Prague, before WWII, he was quite famous and much-loved among Czech readers. But the war, and then the Communist takeover of Czechoslovakia after the war, forced him to live the rest of his life as an exile in America. He went on writing in Czech and his books were all translated into English (and many other languages) but he never earned the readership or recognition he deserved here in the States. And that, I suspect, was because of the problem of translation. Czech is a difficult language. And while there are many Czechs who know English, there arenít as many native speakers of English who are fluent in Czech and who also happen to be talented writers. It seems, at least, that my father wasnít able to locate any. Whenever I read his books in English (I do not know Czech) I am painfully reminded that the translators are not native speakers of English, or if they are, they are not very talented writers. There is much that is, as they say, lost in translation. Czech people have told me that my fatherís writing is elegant and poetic. But when I read his books in English, I have a hard time feeling that elegance, and I canít hear the poetry. What I hear is the translatorís voice; a well-meaning yet awkward and ultimately failed attempt at emulating the original. It's as though the translator had asked my father: "Do you not be happy with me as the translator of the books of you?"
The best translations come from the best poets and writers, sometimes poets and writers who donít even know the source language but have collaborated with bilingual translators who do. A team of translators/writers, working together, will probably yield a better result; just like a team of ASL interpreters and DI (Deaf interpreters) working together has a much better chance of getting it right. So maybe there needs to be more collaboration. Maybe Deaf and hearing poets and writers working together on translating ASL poetry–or somehow representing it in a yet-to-be-invented way or format–would have more success than just the lone hearing translator laboring in his craft or sullen art (apologies to Dylan Thomas) exercised in the still of night when only the moon rages and the Deaf lovers lie abed signing their hearts out.
KLN: I applaud the wording of John Lee Clark's phrase–"othering the abled." The words are concise and clear. I feel that way when I read John Lee Clark's poetry too–concise, clear, and honest. I gave a presentation to some graduate students about ASL poetry–poems either written in English or created in Sign–and John Lee Clark's work played a big part in what I offered. However, if he, and other marginalized poets, decide to keep their work segregated from the wide population of the abled, then the hearing, walking, talking, otherwise able-bodied readers, will be missing out on a goldmine of alternative ways to think and feel and respond to the experiences of life.
I don't understand what harm is done by making ASL poetry accessible to a larger community. I do understand and agree that the Deaf have been left out and largely ignored by most literary publications, and that's the reason I applaud the idea of publishers including DVDs or providing links to videos.
The National Theater of the Deaf, when it first appeared on stages on college campuses and big city venues across the United States in the early 70s, was a tremendous success with audiences, hearing and Deaf alike. In fact, its original mission was to expose the unrealized scope of the creative parameters of communication to all audiences, who otherwise were used to the same old talk-talk-talk. The group consisted of Deaf actors, a couple of hearing interpreters/actors, and hearing and Deaf directors, and designers. The performances were done in ASL, doing plays that were originally English-written. Often rehearsals came to a halt because a Deaf actor disagreed with the translation, and after discussion with the group, a translated passage might be changed right there on the spot. There existed a common goal, that the ASL translation be as accurate as possible.
It was a thrilling time for language, Sign language in particular, but also the concept of language in general. I was there, and I remember how the Deaf actors seemed charged with a sense of possibility that their language and culture could finally be taken seriously. It felt like something was unloosed, untied. Some of these actors were also poets–Patrick Graybill for one. Graybill being the one responsible for breaking the "hydrogen jukebox" of what could be done with Sign: which was anything and everything.
PH: I don't think it's a question of harm, but I do think it's questionable whether or not the work is being made accessible. And who is benefiting. The National Theater of the Deaf (NTD), with all due respect to the talent of Deaf actors, is thought of by many in the Deaf community as a sellout, i.e., their performances are really geared toward hearing audiences, not Deaf audiences. The NTD productions I have seen were translations of plays written i n English, and while hearing people in the audience found the sign language on stage beautiful and creative, the Deaf people whom I was with felt very differently. They felt the performance was not Deaf-friendly, not understandable, did not reflect the way Deaf people normally express themselves and did not follow the turn-taking behaviors which naturally occur in signed conversations. These are all problems of translation. That's not to say it can't be done. But it's extremely difficult to pull off. And many Deaf people criticize NTD for these reasons, saying it's not really Deaf Theater because the plays are not about Deaf people or Deaf lives or Deaf themes, and do not reflect the way Deaf people actually interact and talk to each other. The shape of ASL discourse is very different from discourse in English, and many of the NTD productions, for a variety of reasons, have been inaccessible to Deaf audiences. There are other Deaf theater companies (Deaf West, Show of Hands, etc.) that are more Deaf-friendly because they are doing plays written by Deaf people about Deaf people. This is not to say that Deaf people are only interested in seeing themselves and their own experience on stage (in poetry, in art in general), but a sense of recognition in the reader, viewer, audience, is essential to the success of any work of art.
Paul Fussell says in one of his books on poetic meter and poetic form that the sestina (a complicated form borrowed from Italian) tends to "give more pleasure to the contriver of the form than to its apprehender." In other words, writing a sestina is usually a lot more fun than reading one. Unless it's a really good sestina. I think the same can be said of translation. It's often the translator, the one doing all the work, who seems to be getting more out of the exercise than the reader/viewer/audience. Again, who is really benefiting here? It makes me think of those interpreters who love interpreting music, or theater, or musical theater, because they love music and theater and want to share it with Deaf audiences. They love doing it, they enjoy it–often much more than the Deaf people who are watching. Certainly, some Deaf people do enjoy this type of access, but I guarantee they are in the minority. Most of the Deaf people I have talked to over the years have no patience for it, are not interested in it, and would much rather watch a play with Deaf actors than an interpreted production with hearing actors; would rather go dancing in a night club than sit in a chair and watch a hearing interpreter sign the words to the songs.
I'm sort of playing devil's advocate here, I know. I don't mean to be so negative. Of course we need translation. The world would be a far poorer and more ignorant place without it. We benefit from exposure to creative works in other languages and from other cultures and we are immeasurable enlarged by it. Shakespeare has been made accessible to non-speakers of English, Cervantes to non-speakers of Spanish, Homer, Proust, Thomas Mann, Dante, the Bible; the list goes on and on. The question isn't: to translate or not to translate; the question is always how best to translate. And there are as many answers to that question as there are people out there wanting to give it a shot.
KLN: The remarks about NTD being considered a "sell-out" is disappointing. In my mind, the NTD opened up the minds and ambitions of the Deaf way back in the nascent years of Deaf Empowerment. Companies like Deaf Words and Show of Hands are terrific, and their success and progressive attitudes and ideas are probably here because of the first steps taken in 1970 by people in the National Theater of the Deaf. Before the NTD, no Deaf actors got jobs in Hollywood. Those first steps shined a light where there wasn't any, much like Stokoe legitimizing the language in the world of linguistics.
I guess I'm sorry to hear about so much negative feelings the Deaf have toward any identity or recognition from the Hearing. On one hand, I think that's good! That's pride and dignity and an honesty about who we are and how we live and breathe and communicate and try to survive in this world that shuns or ignores the Other. Yeah! Bring it on! Tell it like it is. But then on the other hand, some of what Paul says, suggest a wall-building situation. Maybe a wall that was there all along. OK. I get that. But I'm uncomfortable thinking of such a wall being fortified when there are ways to bring it down. Certainly communication is a gallant effort to do that. Unless as Paul says "there's no patience for it."
When I was growing up (and this was before Stokoe), my parents were pleased when anyone from the hearing world bothered to try to learn Sign, bothered to make the effort to communicate and involve my parents–making special arrangements when I was in school, so that my parents would attend meetings and understand what was discussed. Now, with your comments, I guess you would say my folks were Uncle Toms of the Deaf world.
PH: No, I would not say your parents were Uncle Toms of the Deaf world. I'm not sure why you're suggesting I would think that. What you say about them having been pleased whenever hearing people made the effort to communicate with them, or learned to sign, or tried to include them at school meetings and discussions, etc., I think all Deaf folks would be pleased by such things. The difference is, of course, that today Deaf folks expect it. In fact, they have a right to demand to be included. Communication access is no longer a favor or an indulgence; it's the law, at least when it comes to education, employment, healthcare, public services, etc. What I said about NTD being a sellout because their productions were more for hearing audiences than Deaf–I'm simply repeating what I heard Deaf folks say to me. I'm sure NTD did help to pave the way for Deaf actors in television and film, and I'm sure many Deaf folks were thrilled to see ASL being used up on stage at NTD performances, but that does not negate the fact that translating English drama into ASL does not always spell access for Deaf audiences; that Shakespeare or Chekhov or Edward Albee translated into ASL is not the same thing as Deaf Theater and ASL Drama.
I hesitate, really, to say anything about Deaf people, for fear of being accused of trying to speak for them. I have no right to speak for Deaf people and no desire to. But having spent my life–well, two-thirds of my life–living and working and playing with Deaf folks, I've seen a thing or two, and learned a thing or two, about what works and what doesn't work; about so-called inclusion, and the lack of it; about so-called access, and the lack of it. Mostly what I've learned is that there's always more to learn; that love is simply paying attention; that interpreting (and translating) is decision-making. That's what it is: making one decision after another, and another and another–linguistic, cultural, social–non-stop. Making choices. And trying to make the best choice every time.
KLN: Thank you, Paul. I truly respect and admire your deep connection with the Deaf community.
WG: I think that you are both raising important points – many of which I suspect will surprise readers who are not already intimately involved with the Deaf community. I'd like to switch gears just a bit and hear about what you have been doing in your own writing. We began this conversation by discussing Paulís "Caterpillar" and have mentioned Karynís "Christinaís World." Do either of you have new books or other writing coming out?
PH: My new book of poems, Is That What That Is, was published by FutureCycle Press in July. Three poems from that book were recently featured on The Writer's Almanac: "The Calculus", "The New Criticism", "One Ambition".
I've also been working on a bunch of prose pieces about my life among Deaf, blind, and DeafBlind folks, hoping one day in the not-too-distant future to put them together into a book of stories. I was thinking of them as creative nonfiction because they're sort of ninety percent true and ten percent invented. But Steve Almond disabused me of that notion this summer when I took a CNF workshop with him at the Vermont College of Fine Arts. He explained to me that the "creative" part of creative nonfiction isn't "making some of it up." CNF can be a subjective take on events that objectively happened, but it all has to have happened, and pretty much the way you say it did. If ninety percent of it happened and ten percent you sort of imagined, better cover your ass and call it fiction. Anyway, right now I'm less worried about what to call it than how to write it in a way that's interesting and compelling, that captures the emotional truths, that rings true for Deaf, hearing, sighted, blind, and DeafBlind readers alike. Here's an example that appeared in an online mag not too long ago: "Deaf Date".
KLN: Congratulations to Paul on his new book! It seems he's become a "regular" on the Writer's Almanac, if there is such a thing. I'm delighted when I meet his poems on my computer screen.
I have ongoing writing projects in both poetry and prose that keep me busy. A new project for me is delving into short fiction, allowing myself to explore and expand character and scene development–something different that what I usually aim for in my poems.
I love taking poetry into schools, and that's been on my schedule lately. Classrooms come remarkably alive when I talk to the students about ASL poetry. I've taught groups of of children Clayton Valli's poem, "Dandelion," following his Sign as exactly as I can. And I use the English translation by Raymond Luczak. Even with elementary-aged children, the topic of translation is engaging. Perhaps it's the slight puzzle of it, seeing the words on the page, and then transferring that into movement, and realizing the movement is a whole other living language. The kids become more and more expressive the deeper we get into it, and not just because they are more relaxed, but because they get closer to understanding the importance of visual communication. I also explain the metaphor of the dandelions in connection with the suppression of Sign in the early years of Deaf education. Of course Sign in general sparks interest in hearing students, but then the idea of actually generating a poem using Sign really takes their thinking about language up a level. I guess it emphasizes the fact that ASL is not English, not just using common gestures (like "crazy"), but it's a legitimate and complex lexicon that a large group of people use to communicate. So naturally, people who use that language would want to make up their poems using Sign.
I thoroughly enjoy the experience of talking about and teaching Poetry, and also bringing ASL into the discussion, with a classroom full of fresh-faced children who respond so eagerly.
WG: Iím interested to hear, Karyn, that you are using Raymond Luczakís translation of "Dandelion" in your class. I think Raymond would appreciate knowing you are having success with it because apropos of this discussion (as I am sure you know), Clayton Valli was initially really resistant to allowing the translation for just those reasons that Paul and you have pointed out.
Paul, I want to join Karyn in congratulating you on your new book. I also have to say that it is really exciting to hear, Karyn, that you are beginning to work in short fiction. We really need much more fiction from writers who know Deaf culture. Iím going to put in a plug for the new anthology of short fiction, The Right Way to Be Crippled and Naked that might interest our readers. It contains the work of several Deaf writers including Chris Heuer, Raymond Luczak and Kristen Harmon. In terms of this discussion, Harmonís story is particularly relevant to those who may not know have much acquaintance with the Deaf community in the way that it portrays the frustrations of three deaf adolescents with varying approaches to communication.
We do have to bring this discussion to a close, but first I want to ask either of you have anything else you would like to add to what we have said here before we do.
KLN: When a poet considers translation, I like to think it's because the piece resonates with such intensity, that the poet feels compelled to share that expression with another group of readers/viewers who don't know the language of the original. That may not always be the case, but sometimes it is. I like to think that idea of necessity is why poems get translated. I'm glad they do, because in spite of the challenges that ASL poetry brings to the business of translation, it's worth the struggle and effort to bring it to an English speaking/reading audience. I'm grateful that Raymond Luzak thought that Clayton Valli's poem, "Dandelions" needed to be shared. From my experience, using the English translation along with the original Signed version, has opened a floodgate to people who didn't know ASL or ever had the opportunity to understand the Deaf, the Deaf culture and community.
The same goes for Paul's poem that appeared in Poetry. As I said earlier, I'm grateful that Poetry magazine included that link to the original ASL, so that a wide population of readers might have the wonder of experiencing Ian Sanborn's performance in connection with Paul's piece.
I also want to add that I think it is slightly less difficult to translate English to Sign than it is the other way around, simply because English is limited, whereas ASL, because it is physical, has a much broader capacity for expression. Nuances of movement like a raised eyebrow, a pouting lip, or the lift of a shoulder, can relate an attitude or feeling that might not be available as a "word" in English. Sign contains subtle and dramatic elements; whole sections of poetry might be mime, using the space in whatever creative way makes a visual picture that effectively relates the story. As a language, ASL has so much depth, that each time I talk about it, I am thrilled by the notion that there is no bottom.
I want to thank you Wordgathering for asking me to participate in this discussion.
PH: I'm going to continue playing devil's advocate here. Many interpreters claim they have an easier time going from English to ASL than ASL to English. But for most interpreters, English is their first and/or primary language, and therefore they will always be more successful working in English than in ASL. And the reason they say it's easier to go from English to ASL is because it feels less threatening to them. And the reason it feels less threatening is because they don't have to worry about understanding the Deaf people when it's the speakers of English who are doing all the talking; and because Deaf people are oppressed and will often not speak up when the interpreter is simply transliterating, signing some version of English on their hands that is not ASL and is not clear and understandable to Deaf people. Interpreting (or translating) English into ASL is best left to those who are truly fluent in ASL, i.e., Deaf people. Because most of us hearing people end up bungling the ASL; mangling it; calling it ASL when really it's something else. So I agree with Karyn when she praises the subtle and dramatic elements of ASL and all the complex nuances of the language, but I disagree that it's less difficult to translate English into ASL than vice versa.
Also, I'm not sure what to make of the claim that: "English is limited, whereas ASL, because it is physical, has a much broader capacity for expression." English has the largest lexicon of any language in the world, around a million words when you include all the lexical borrowings and derivatives and archaisms, and also all the slang that crops up every day (and has a poetry of its own) but hasn't made it into Webster's yet. Admittedly, most of us have fairly limited English vocabularies, but English itself is anything but limited; it's the most powerful language on Earth. Nevertheless, it's true that ASL–the oppressed language of an oppressed people–can still run circles around English. English is the tortoise plodding along in its single-file linear fashion, while ASL is the hare bounding ahead, practically flying, leaving English in the dust. But, like the tortoise, English often wins in the end. Not because ASL has taken a nap (here we diverge from Aesop), but because English is a bully. English is a tyrant, a colonist, a killer: it kills off other languages. Of the 7,000 languages spoken in the world today, nearly half are in danger of extinction. And English contributes to that sad statistic. English is, in many ways, the culprit. But English is also exquisitely beautiful and subtle in all its echoes and connotations, its abstractions and its exactitude, its flights and its brachiation. Brachiation? Yeah, look it up! It's the prize at the bottom of the box of ASL and English, which readers have earned if they've followed this conversation all the way to the end!