Friday, July 13, 2012

Sign (or Sign Language) in fiction

American Sign Language

Sign is entirely visual to those using it to communicate which means that in fiction it translates not only best to visual mediums but to those that allow for movement. Stage plays, musical performances and movies are the best for Sign usage. Unfortunately, the further into the field of inert and non-visual arts you go the further away from Sign usage you get. Visual arts are static so one word could be displayed per panel, just as with comics. By doing such a thing it is easier to write the word out as writing is visual. This means that books seem to be the perfect format for imparting stories to the hearing impaired as they include more than one word and are entirely visual.

But the use of Sign in books is almost lost for the use of the written language, meaning that much of the language that is Sign, including jargon, humour and other cultural nuances, is lost. It is obscured by the written language that doesn't contain the same set of nuances. It is like swapping English for French, not even British English for American English.

As with the remaking of foreign movies, not just the subtitling, there are different ways of interpreting events, representing events and reacting to them. These differences are what is lost between the use of Sign to communicate and the use of the written language.

This means that while books seem like the perfect answer to conveying stories from one hearing impaired person to another it isn't always the case. Like many other forms of story telling there are some stories that fit certain modes of telling better than others. So too are there stories best told in Sign rather than in the written language. In which case the best method of conveying these stories shifts back to being the visual formats such as movies and stage performances.

Again though, there is an issue. Many stories need to be shortened to be performed and in most cases when made into movies they are reduced to dialogue and action as the main methods of conveying the story. Much of what needs to be imagined is portrayed in full colour and life sized displays. This means that the imagination isn't worked nearly as hard as when a person is presented with black and white scribbles that need converting into a full world. 

The upshot of all this is that there is no truly perfect medium for Sign stories other than in the story around the campfire format. Such stories pull on the imagination, can be long or short and are intensely visual. But such stories (not necessarily told around a campfire, obviously) are often unrecorded and unrecognised by the general public. So even this method of story telling is flawed.

British Sign Language

What the solution is, I'm not sure but I believe there needs to be a bit of a revolution in one or the other of the story telling mediums for Sign to truly be used on its own to convey stories. Possibly a recording of such campfire or round table stories is the way to go. Maybe a recording of white hands on a black screen or vise verse for an imitation of the black on white scribbles that make up books. This would leave much room for the imagination to take off. But then I'm sure many of the hearing impaired would also just find it easier to turn on the subtitles of a movie or show.

Which leads me to a very small point on subtitles: They really, really are bad in some cases. White on white or yellow on yellow. Incorrect interpretations of the spoken words leading to gobbledegook written on the bottom of the screen (don't get me started with YouTube's subtitles...). Subtitles that scroll past too fast or too slow or even take up more than a third of the screen. There really need to be better standards all round. These problems were especially highlighted to me when I was sitting beside my hearing impaired Pop watching the TV shows of his choice. I could hear and read so I could pick out just how many mistakes there were, how delayed the feed was and how confusing it was to have feeds running at the bottom of the screen on football news while the subtitles were reading economic news. Only I knew which the reporter was actually speaking on, leading my Pop to wonder at the Chinese economists being so interested in football.

So the visual formats aren't perfect and Sign is left almost entirely as a language for communicating person to person, directly.

You'd also think there is a possibility of conveying Sign decently in writing by describing all the movements made but such conversations would take a fair while to write, needing more than one word to represent one word. So Sign is little used in writing without the interpreter acting like a narrator and spelling the movements out to the reader, again almost defeating the purpose of Sign except in the much needed representation of the hearing impaired in our stories. You simply cannot ignore a whole section of the population just because it is hard to write Sign.

Numbers in Sign Language

Another away to approach the writing of sign is to use the actual hand symbols, complete with a translation underneath. This would likely work best in fantasy stories where there are likely to be many types of languages clashing, not all of which are for those who can hear. They may read a little like hieroglyphs to those who are unfamiliar with Sign but would probably read well to those who do know Sign and its variations (Sign often changes per country just as other languages do). But this gives those unfamiliar with Sign a chance to learn the basics and learning any language never hurt anyone.

Sign is still making headway into the world of visual media so there is likely lots of time for us all to witness how successfully it adapts and what new formats may arise. Sign isn't for every person who's hearing impaired but the vast majority of those who can learn it do. This means that Sign is here to stay and for any language that means constant change and adaptation. It will be exciting to see what happens next.

Note: I apologise for any rambling, I've a Doctor's certificate to prove I have an allowance for it but no, you can't see it. You'll just have to trust me.

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