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Interpreting Hymns?  Chew on this:

 (Puns, Hymns, and the Pleasure of Interpretation: A few insights for ASL interpreters.)

By William G. Vicars, EdD
May 11, 2024

In an online ASL-related discussion group a comment was made along the lines of:

"Some of our Deaf members have told us they prefer interpretations, particularly songs, to be closer to the English."

Interpreters, ASL teachers, and Interpreter Education Program instructors might be curious about or ask themselves, "Why 'some Deaf' want church interpreting to more closely follow the original or source material and some Deaf do not?"

There are:

1.  Deaf who prefer skilled signing that flows, connects, follows ASL rules, expresses the actual concept intended, and is easy on the eyes.

2.  Deaf who prefer skilled ASL signing but who also want the original information kept intact enough to allow for reinterpretation back into the original and also retain much of the original nuance. 

I'll suggest that it comes down to:


Chewing is a pleasurable activity. 

People enjoy chewing.  Many chew gum just for the satisfaction they get from chewing.  Many enjoy chewing on a skillfully cooked steak. Many enjoy chewing on crunchy vegetables.  You get the point.  It is fun to chew.

Some people however prefer fruit smoothies and blended, creamy soup with no chewing required.  In other words the chef has used a blender to pre-chew the food.  There is no longer any need to chew because all the work has been done. 

Some people think of chewing as work.

Other people think of chewing as pleasure.

If you take a mouthful of a mixture of unchewed food, when you start to chew your tongue might bring to your attention an individual piece of food that is under-cooked, over-cooked, or not even food at all (such as a stray bit of packaging).  You can then spit out that bit of food or non-food and go ahead and chew and swallow the rest.

However, if you take a mouthful of blended food you have no control over the individual bits.  You don’t get to be sure of what you are consuming because the food has been totally changed into something unrecognizable from the original.  Control has been taken away from you and the person doing the blending got to decide what you swallow. 

Many Deaf prefer skillful signing of songs while also retaining enough of the original language to chew on.  Such Deaf do not want their worship time to consist of blended cream from which all of the fun of chewing has been handled by an interpreter.

To help you understand this a bit more I'd like you to consider puns. 

A pun is form of wordplay or signplay that makes use of the different possible meanings of a word or the fact that there are words that sound alike and signs that look alike but have different meanings.  The enjoyment and appreciation of puns goes beyond basic language skills and involves multiple cognitive processes.  Let's look at some of them:

1. Semantic flexibility: This involves recognizing that words and signs can have multiple meanings. When a pun uses a word or sign in an unusual or unexpected way, the brain needs to access different meanings of that word or sign quickly. Enjoying a pun often hinges on the ability to switch between these meanings effortlessly.

2.  Surprise and incongruity resolution: Puns often rely on the element of surprise. They create a form of incongruity by setting up an expectation (through the setup of the joke) and then violating it with a punchline that fits the form but not the anticipated content. The pleasure from a pun comes from resolving this incongruity—understanding how the unexpected meaning or sound is relevant or humorous in the context provided.

3.  Pattern recognition: Puns may also involve recognizing patterns, such as similar looking signs or similar syntactic constructions. The brain's ability to notice and interpret these patterns is crucial for getting the joke.

4.  Humor appreciation: This is a more complex and less understood aspect that involves emotional and social intelligence. What is funny can be highly subjective and depends on personal taste, cultural background, and even current mood.  What is funny to a Deaf person may be less so for someone who doesn't have a Deaf lens.  The enjoyment of puns might be linked to a broader appreciation for wit, signplay, and the clever manipulation of language.

5.  Reward processing: If the pun is enjoyed, the brain’s reward centers are activated. This release of neurotransmitters like dopamine can produce a sense of pleasure or amusement, reinforcing the enjoyment of similar types of humor in the future.

These cognitive processes work together rapidly and often subconsciously, allowing us to appreciate the humor in puns almost instantaneously.

Puns and hymns share an intriguing commonality: their clever use of language.

This linguistic artistry not only makes them engaging but also requires active participation from the viewer (or listener) to unravel the intended message. The process of decoding the meaning behind the signplay or metaphorical language helps make these forms of expression captivating.

In puns, the humor and enjoyment stem from the viewers ability to recognize and appreciate the multiple meanings of a word or phrase. The mental exercise of identifying and connecting the different interpretations is what elicits a sense of satisfaction and amusement. Similarly, hymns often employ metaphors, allegories, and symbolism to convey spiritual or moral messages. For maximum effect, the viewer or listener must actively engage with the lyrics, deciphering the hidden meanings and applying them to their own understanding of faith and life.

When puns and hymns are stripped of their creative language and presented in a straightforward manner, they lose their allure. The absence of wordplay in puns renders them bland and uninteresting, as the listener no longer needs to mentally bridge the gap between the different meanings.

Imagine if someone handed you a crosswords puzzle that has already been filled out?  It would be the equivalent of reading a list of dictionary entries.

Likewise, hymns that are devoid of figurative language and have been interpreted into basic concepts fail to evoke a depth of contemplation and emotional response from the viewer.

In essence, the requirement for (personal) interpretation and mental engagement is precisely what makes puns and hymns captivating. The clever use of language creates a puzzle for the audience to solve, and the process of unraveling the intended message becomes a rewarding experience in itself. Without this element of active participation, puns and hymns lose their charm and become forgettable -- even boring.




Notes and / or discussion: 

Bill:  Of course I do appreciate the fact that hymns can be made (temporarily)  interesting by Deaf song signers who use prosody to skillfully present conceptually accurate signs in eye-catching, eye-pleasing ways.  However "pretty signing" (without thought-provoking language use) is still a one-way street -- and it is only interesting the first time presented.  The mind of the Deaf viewer is still simply watching (not processing -- not intrigued, and not coming to its own interpretations).  Even if Deaf in the audience copy such signing as an exercise in group expression it about as thought provoking as doing Tai chi forms.

Instead of arguing against the importance of clever language use that catalyzes thought in the audience -- you might want to use your time and energy to focus on interpreting the cleverness (not the concepts) of English hymns into engaging, thought provoking ASL.  (The concepts will take care of themselves after the thoughts have been provoked).



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