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American Sign Language: "epigrammatic" phrase translation


A student writes:
How do you sign sayings? Like "two's company, three's a crowd" or "haste makes waste?" 
Dear Student,
Pithy (epigrammatic) sayings are endemic to specific languages and often do not have direct equivalents in other languages. The lack of equivalence to which I refer has to do with societal norms not with language inadequacies.  

Almost any language will have the ability to state "two's company, three's a crowd" in a pithy way. My point is that a particular saying such as "two's company, three's a crowd" may not have the same level of usage in a different society and thus if you said the equivalent phrase the audience would indeed understand you but the impact would be different. 

Each pithy saying carries at least two components:
1. The meaning
2. The societal comfort and familiarity with that saying. 

Thus in one language the saying is comfortable like an old shoe.  If you translate the saying to another language it is still "a shoe" but it is not a comfortable old shoe, instead it is a new shoe and thus has a different impact on the conversation partner or audience than an "old shoe."

In Guyana people sometimes say "make yourself skinny" as a way to ask a person to scoot over so you can sit down on a crowded bus seat.  It is a "pithy" saying.  In America if you translate "make yourself skinny" into English in a pithy way and say it to a person on a bus seat you might end up in a fistfight.  Instead to be safe you simply use the more familiar "could I squeeze in here?"  The two phrases mean the same thing but the pithiness is lost in the standard English translation.
 
 

 


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