Interpreting Signed Poetry Performances: the needs of non-signing audiences

Rachel Sutton-Spence – Ronice Műller de Quadros

Federal University of Santa Catarina, Florianópolis, Brazil,



Sign language poems are highly visual performances that combine gestures and bodily expressions of emotion with linguistic elements. In our research reported here, we conducted a series of short experiments with hearing non-signers to investigate what they can and cannot understand of a range of visual sign language poems, how much information they need in order to understand the language in the poem, and when they should get it. We argue that the amount of linguistic and semiotic information available in signed poems interacts with ’non-signers’ language and encyclopaedic experience to determine how much they understand and their needs for extra help in understanding the poem. We find that, although preferences vary, the audiences are broadly agreed that a full simultaneous translation of poetry performances is less preferable to providing prior explanations and hints or tips to identify specific signs in the poems.

Translation and Interpretation of sign language arts

Our focus here is on the needs of hearing non-signers for rendering the source language of a signed poem into a target language in spoken form. Thus, we are interested in the needs of consumers of the interpretation product between signed and spoken languages. The needs of consumers have been considered from several perspectives in research on practical elements of sign language interpretation (Janzen 2005, Nilsson 2010) but very little has been conducted on this for creative sign language (but see Spooner et al, 2018).

Existing research conducted into sign language translation and interpretation in relation to the language arts can inform our study. We may use what we know of the process, product and producers to consider the consumers’ different experiences of the poetry that is interpreted. With respect to interpretation, Nathan Lerner and Feigel (2009) describe the role of interpreters in the ‘golden age’ of American Sign Language (ASL) poetry in Rochester, New York in the 1980s, describing some ways in which they approached the translations of the work. Spooner et al (2018) focus principally on the experiences of the interpreters as they attempt to provide for their source-language and target-language consumers, in which they emphasise the significance of the visibility of the interpreter during the interpretation of a visible, incorporated language artform. Eddy’s (2002) research on translating two ASL poems (Elle Mae Lentz’s To a Hearing Mother and Clayton Valli’s The Bridge) into English considers translations of signed poems that could be spoken aloud during a performance.  Felício’s (2017) study of interpretation of Brazilian Sign Language poetry into spoken Portuguese addresses the experiences and wishes of the interpreters and the deaf poets, finding that the need to retain the poetry within the poet’s body is considered a priority.                                                                               Research on rendering poetry from a spoken language into sign language (that is, in the opposite direction from that considered here), often begins with the idea that the aim is to provide deaf people with access to the poem (for example, Klima and Bellugi 1979, Padden and Humphries 1988, Novak 2000, Weir 2001, Barros 2015). This lack of access is not necessarily a language issue, however, but a modality issue. Although translation may be needed because the signers do not understand enough of the written language, at least to be able to read it comfortably (Hoffmeister and Caldwell-Harris 2014), sometimes sign language interpretation for deaf people is not because they do not know the spoken language but because they cannot hear it to access it.  Most deaf signers are bilingual to some extent, although it is usually much easier for them to access spoken language via interpretation into their own visual language, and interpretation is crucial because they cannot hear it.  On the other hand, the key point to be born in mind when considering the interpretation of sign language poetry into the spoken word is that although the non-signers may not be able to understand the language in which the poetic message is being presented, they are able to see it.    Research on translations of signed poetry into various written forms of the target language (eg Eddy 2002, Souza 2009, Sutton-Spence 2010, Wilson 2012) are particularly concerned with how to translate aspects that are present in sign language but absent in written language, such as use of space, symmetry and speed of movement, or performance elements such as non-manual features that portray rich information about manner and emotion. Other visual elements may include repetition of a handshape or a pattern of changing handshapes, which, again, are visible to the non-signing audience, even if they do not appreciate the importance or meaning of what they are seeing. For example, as Eddy (2002) observes, no English translation can readily show that Clayton Valli’s ASL poem The Bridge is constructed around ASL handshapes that carry patterns of the numbers 1-6, but viewers of the poem can see these handshapes while they listen to an interpretation.     Thus, when considering interpretation of signed performances for hearing people, it must be in the context that there is another, simultaneous visual input so that hearing people can listen to one message on one channel and see another on the other.



Sign Language Poetry and interpretation

Sign language poetry is the highest art form of any Deaf Community (Sutton-Spence and Kaneko 2016, Bauman, Nelson and Rose 2006). It is strongly visual and carefully constructed for maximum impact on the senses. As an expression of Deaf Identity, it is an art form with its own rules and patterns and, importantly, it must be performed to exist. Traditionally, signed art forms have been performed live (and they still frequently are) so audiences have only one opportunity to see and enjoy the poem in real time, and they need to ‘get it’ on the first viewing.                                                 This ‘one-shot’ context has influenced the structure, content and style of poems.  Increasingly, however, signed poems are recorded so that audiences can view a performance of a given work repeatedly. Following Rose (1992, 2006) and Krentz (2006), it is clear that recording signed poems can make them more like more literary texts in written languages.  These rather more enigmatic poems are often less readily accessible on a single viewing and require repeated study for full appreciation and enjoyment.        Increased interest in sign language by hearing non-signing people and a higher profile of signed poetry have led to requests for spoken interpretation at signed poetry events to enable access for non-signers.  Attwater (2011) has observed that translating works of poetry from a minority language allows it to move from the periphery of a culture’s literary awareness to the centre where it can be better understood, appreciated and valued. She sums it up, saying:

‘the translation of literary texts into English in a world frequently dominated linguistically by the English language continues to be important, as it may paradoxically help to destabilize the predominating monolingual complacency. Translated texts from other cultures can open minds and broaden horizons; and in an environment so frequently full of strife and petty-mindedness the opportunity to see other cultures and hear others’ opinions may contribute to making people less subjective and more objective; and perhaps a little more tolerant of a shared humanity.’ (2011, 23)

Thus, we might be surprised to learn that some signing deaf poets reject opportunities to render their signed poetry into spoken language.  Many deaf poets want to aim their poetry at Deaf audiences and, while they may cautiously welcome hearing non-signers in the audience, they prefer not to have it interpreted, in order to preserve the cultural balance in favour of the signed poetry (Sutton-Spence and Quadros, 2014). They are aware of the danger of interpreting the culturally precious minority language (their sign language) into the language of the dominant (hearing) society because it can allow the dominant society to dominate this, too.  As part of our attempt to resolve this tension, our research asks how much these hearing non-signers can understand in a non-interpreted, highly visual environment.            Where signing deaf poets do accept interpretation of their work so that hearing non-signers can have access to it, research is needed to understand how this poetry can be ethically translated in order to preserve the rights of the minority community while allowing the dominant society access to the art-form (see, for example, Stone 2009 for a discussion of Deaf translation norms). Thus, we need to ask what should be interpreted, why, and when.

What should the interpreter render?

As signed poetry is strongly visual, and many signed poems have no relationship with spoken language, there could be an argument that non-signers should be able to use their common sense to understand the signs, and not rely on interpreters. After all, the technique of ‘characterisation’ is shared by signed poetry, mime and gesture (Eastman 1989, Perniss, Thompson, & Vigliocco 2010, Sutton-Spence and Boyes Braem 2013), so we might expect signers and non-signers alike to understand visual presentations of behaviour and emotion.  Strongly visually motivated productive signs that ‘show’ rather than ‘tell’ (Cuxac and Sallandre 2008) are readily understood by deaf signers even though these signs are not part of their vocabulary, so perhaps non-signers can understand these too.  However, some guiding interpretation for non-signers will still be needed because signing audiences have important skills that non-signing ones do not.  For example, shifts between more than one character are common in signers’ experiences but not for non-signers. Signers are familiar with the under-specification of meaning in classifier signs and know how to use linguistic and pragmatic knowledge to understand if a hand represents a hand, an object or a lexical sign but non-signers do not have ready access to these distinctions.                    Arguably, it is not the interpreter’s job to enable the audience to understand the poem; that is a task jointly achieved by the poet and the audience. It is the interpreter’s job to enable the audience to understand the language enough that they can use their imagination and resources to generate their own understanding of the poem as it is performed by the poet.  Indeed, a danger of offering any translation of a poem is that it naturally closes down many of the possibilities of choice and meaning that are open in the original language. Interpreters may wish to keep open as many options of ‘multiplicity and multivalence’ (Eddy 2002) as possible.                              At the very least, audiences need to understand the context of the poem in order identify elements within the discourse.  Nilsson (2010) provides us with a useful way of thinking about the role of interpretation in signed poetry when she refers to the way Fillmore’s concept of cognitive framing allows people to construct understanding in signed discourses where certain aspects are underspecified. Signing poets often (although not always) give the title of their poem before signing it and the title of the poem often (although not always) provides a frame for audiences to access possible interpretations for the visual performance.  Thus, we may argue that interpretation of the title can provide this, at least.                                                                   As signed poetry is always performed, we might expect that even where there is no interpretation, the emotions expressed in a signed poem can come through clearly to audiences who do not understand the linguistic message carried by hands and other more linguistic articulators.  Where there is interpretation, the simultaneous presence of the performing poet using the source language allows audiences to receive the emotional information directly from the performer’s bodily expression, while a translation in the target language provides the linguistic message.                          However, Rose (2006) has argued strongly that the body, self and text in signed literature are inseparable.  She claims that:

‘literacy in sign language means preserving the image of the author signing… A person viewing (reading) an ASL poem experiences the poem through the poet-performer’s body.’ (Italics in original) (2006, 130-131)

Rose suggests that a signing poet presenting a poem says ‘“These are my signs in this body”’ (2006, 131).  For audiences to experience the essence of the signed poetry they must experience the visual performance of the poet’s body.  With this awareness, we can see that an interpreter cannot reproduce the whole poem in translated words because so much of the poem exists in the body of the performer.  The audience must focus on the message conveyed by the body in performance as well as the signs used.  The relative contributions that the ‘body, self and text’ make to any poem will dictate what is spoken by the interpreter.Thus, different signed poems call for different interpretations. There is a balance between semiotic and linguistic information in the poems and what is needed to understand them.  Poems with greater linguistic information will require more linguistic interpretation; poems with less linguistic and more semiotic information will require less linguistic interpretation. If the poem uses predominantly signed vocabulary, it will almost certainly be unintelligible to non-signers.  Interpretation is then essential for understanding the poem. Creating that interpretation may be relatively straight-forward if the signed vocabulary finds reasonably ready equivalents in spoken languages.To interpret a whole poem, however, we would need a rendition that can give its entire meaning, including its poetry.  Such a feat would be impractical and probably undesirable (Nilsson 2010, for example, has shown that attempts to include all the information from a signed source when interpreting into a spoken target language is not possible due to the restrictions of available time). However, depending on how and when the information is delivered, there is much that interpreters could render, even in the time available during the performance of the poem. We give more detail of several methods below, but one example was provided by Eddy (2002) who suggested that interpreters could take a haiku-like approach to represent the predominantly agentless form of many signed poems.  She suggests translating the opening section of Clayton Valli’s ASL poem The Bridge as, “A boat. / Open sea. / Horizon: a bridge” so that it directly captures  “visual events as they emerge and act themselves out before us, releasing them from the restrictive concept of time and space, letting them leap out directly from the undifferentiated mode of existence”’ (2002, 201).These agentless constructions have been effectively used by Kenny Lerner using English with the ASL signing of Peter Cook in the poetry of The Flying Words Project. However, these methods have focussed on the process and product of interpretations but not on the consumers (Janzen 2005, Nilsson 2010). We have not researched if any of these methods outlined provides what non-signing audiences want or need.  We do not know how useful the visual nature of the poems can be to those who do not know sign language. Our research is a first attempt to understand this.



The participants in this study were hearing people who knew no sign language at all. All were fluent speakers of Portuguese. They were all undergraduate students of literature and translation at the Federal University of Santa Catarina (UFSC) in Florianópolis, Brazil. They were familiar with poetry appreciation and translation but had no previous exposure to sign language poetry. Each of these participants will be referred to by a number 1-10.


We selected filmed performances of four poems by three British Sign Language poets. Although the poems were in British Sign Language (BSL), this made no difference to the participants, who did not know any sign language. The poems were drawn from an existing corpus of materials that allowed us to select different poems with different degrees of visual imagery and the equivalent material was not available in Libras (Brazilian Sign Language) at the time we did this experiment. We have no reason to believe that the results of our study would be any different if we showed poems to non-signers in any national sign language. The poems with greater visual imagery used classifier signs or incorporation devices that would be similar in BSL or Libras.                                                                                    Prince Looking for Love (1 minute 24 seconds long) and Cochlear Implant (2 minutes 31 seconds long) were composed and performed by Richard Carter.  These two highly imagistic poems rely on aesthetic representation of characters for their poetic effect.  Roz – Teach a Dog a New Trick (1 minute 34 seconds long) was composed and performed by Paul Scott and while it is superficially highly visual and imagistic, its true poetic message lies in its metaphor for deaf education, using specific signs with meaningful handshapes. Who am I? (2 minutes 28 seconds long) was composed and performed by Donna Williams.  The least visually motivated of the four, this poem uses semantics, linguistic space and metaphor to create its poetic message about deaf identity. All of these poems are available on YouTube, with an English gloss and commentary.                                                Prince Looking for Love is a highly visual poem that uses almost no sign language vocabulary. In this poem, a human kisses two frogs in the search for love.  The first remains a frog; the second transforms into the human’s lover. The poet takes on the characters of the two frogs (one handsome and proud, and one ugly but assertive) and the character of the human who comes to kiss the frogs.  Additionally, there is reference to a fly that the ugly frog eats, but the poet does not take on the character of the fly. We selected this poem because it was visually highly accessible and because the title might help the participants’ understanding if they drew on their encyclopaedic folkloric knowledge that young royals can find love by kissing frogs.  There is, however, additional complexity to this poem, as audiences need to understand that there are two frogs and a human.                                             Cochlear Implant is also highly visual but uses more sign language vocabulary.  In this poem, a deaf person dreams that he can hear but wakes to find that he is as deaf as he always was. Tempted to hear the sounds from his dream he puts on a cochlear implant, but the noise is terrible and he tears the implant off in fury. The poem primarily shows the perspective of the poet-protagonist, so there is a lot of scope for non-signers to see performance of a range of emotions, often portrayed intensely. It also uses very visual signs that could be accessible to non-signers as gestures, relating to sleeping and hearing sounds. The poem’s title gives a clear indication of the content (less obliquely than Prince Looking for Love) which can help non-signers to identify the visual signs, but it contains specifically deaf cultural references, as it refers to an object and attitude to that object that are not familiar to most hearing people.

Roz – Teach a Dog a New Trick tells of a dog wanting to chase a ball. In turn, three people throw their ball that the dog is unable to catch.  The fourth person throws a ball that the dog runs after and it never comes back. The clear characterisation of the dog and humans might allow non-signers who know the title (including the words ‘teach’ and ‘dog’) to recognise the characters, and encyclopaedic knowledge coupled with gestures showing the visible activities of bouncing and throwing a ball can help further. However, it is less obvious to a non-signer that four different people throw the balls, or that there is something very unusual about the way the first three handle their ball. The title gives no clue to the poem’s true meaning, which requires audiences to understand that the dog can only catch the ball that uses the correctly articulated sign ‘ball’.  The unusual handshapes of the first three balls use handshapes for signs referring to three methods of deaf education that have failed deaf children – oralism, cued speech and the artificial system of Paget-Gorman signed speech.  The correct handshape of the final ball is the one used to sign ‘sign language’, the method of education preferred by deaf community members.                                                                         Who am I? shows the poet-protagonist exploring her sense of identity as a deaf person who grew up within hearing culture. She investigates many different aspects of her personality, concluding that each one is a part of her – including those parts that make her feel more – or less – ‘deaf’ or ‘hearing’. This poem uses many signs whose meanings are not immediately understood through their iconic basis (although signers who know the sign are able to see some visual motivation behind them).  Thus, non-signers might be expected to understand very little, apart from any emotions on the face or that certain signs are placed in certain areas of space.


We showed the four signed poems to the participants in the order they have been described above.  Each poem was presented twice. The first time we told the participants the title of the poem (to provide them with some sort of contextual frame) but they watched it without any further explanation or interpretation. We then asked them to write down what they understood of the poem. Although we did not specify any length of time for them to write it, they usually spent about five minutes on this task. Then they watched the poem for a second time, with some sort of voiced interpretation or explanation. Then we asked them to write down any further understanding of the poem and their feelings about the experience of that type of translation. This also took approximately five minutes.  Finally, we asked the participants to note down their preferences or feelings towards any particular method of interpretation.  The entire task took about an hour. All participants wrote their thoughts in Portuguese and we have translated them into English to report them here. In order to explore methods of interpretation, we provided four different types of voiced information in Portuguese, drawing on methods suggested by Kenny Lerner at a symposium at Swarthmore College in March 2012.

The first poem, Prince Looking for Love, was accompanied by a full translation of the signs’ meaning, read aloud with a standard lag time such as one might expect where an interpreter processes the message before producing its interpretation.  Hence, the participants saw the signs slightly before they heard the interpretation.  The translation was a Portuguese translation of the English translation that had been approved by the poet. The second poem, Cochlear Implant, had a full translation (also a Portuguese translation of the English translation that had been approved by the poet) with almost no lag time so that the participants saw the poem as they heard the translation.  Full translations of poetry accompanying the signed work have been used by ASL poets such as Debbie Rennie, Ella Mae Lentz and Patrick Graybill. For Roz – Teach a Dog a New Trick, we first told the hearing participants that they would see the sign for ‘dog’ and ‘ball’ and explained the significance behind the differing handshapes. During the poem we then provided ‘hints’ or ‘tips’, giving the meaning of the words for the key signs. This use of hints is similar to the technique that Kenny Lerner uses in the ASL performance duo The Flying Words Project.                                        For Who am I? we gave the title and then read aloud the whole text of the translation so that they knew the context and then asked them to watch the poem with only occasional voice over interpretation of key words. This method of providing the text in advance of seeing the poem was used by the ASL poet Clayton Valli.                                                    We used thematic analysis (Braun and Clark 2006) to identify the key themes in the participants’ responses to the tasks. We present here our findings in three different main sections – what the participants were able to understand, what errors they made in their understanding of the poems, and what their views were on the different types of interpretation they were offered.

Things the participants did understand

When considering the correct identifications and errors in understanding that the participants reported after viewing the poems without any additional interpretation or explanation, it is important to acknowledge that we only see what they reported. We do not know if they missed things out in their writing because they didn’t understand them, forgot them or just didn’t think to write them down. In a more detailed and in-depth study we would need to probe more carefully to see if they remember anything else. Simply looking at their responses after the first viewing of the poems, we find that the non-signers understood very little without interpretations. They tended to write single words as they struggled to identify anything, even if they could not create a coherent narrative out of it.  For example, Participant #8 wrote after seeing Cochlear Implant: “Happy, sad, fierce, indignant, see, don’t hear, put on hearing aid, improve, converse, watch television, listen, interact” and Participant #11 wrote of Prince Looking for Love, “Kiss, impossibility/refusal”.  There is no doubt that the participants were able to recognise emotions and states shown on the face and body during characterisation, such as happy, sad, fierce, indignant or impressive and persistence, dejection, majesty, love and arrogance.  They may not have been able to say who was feeling these emotions or why, but they could identify them.  Participant #8 reported of watching Cochlear Implant that the only things they understood were putting on the implant (an action) and the emotions. We will see later, however, that sometimes participants did not identify even these correctly. The participants were also able to identify actions such as kiss, reject, look, run and jump. Again, these were not signed using conventional signs in the poems but were acted out in character roles or through gestures, in accordance with deaf poetry norms.  Again, too, some participants misidentified some actions, so that speaking and watching television were offered for activities that are not mentioned in Cochlear Implant. They also were able to identify objects based on their behaviour, size and shape or the way they were handled. Objects such as a frog, ball and dog were correctly identified. Roles such as ‘master’ in Roz – Teach a Dog a New Trick could also be determined from the context and encyclopaedic knowledge.                   Thus, we can conclude that highly visual poetry does permit some level of understanding even among non-signers, especially if they know the context of the title but that this understanding is extremely limited. In the absence of interpretation, the participants had no linguistic support available to them. They relied entirely upon their general knowledge of poetry, the poet’s non-manual expressions of emotion, the visual-mimetic elements of the performances and anything they could draw on from knowledge of the title.


Errors and Incorrect information

In some cases, the participant perceived their lack of understanding to be complete. Even knowing the title, Participant #8 reported of the first viewing of the strongly visual Prince Looking for Love, “Goodness! I was 100% off understanding anything”. This participant had struggled to identify even the emotions portrayed by the poet’s facial expressions and body movements, suggesting “sadness, difficulty, hope”, when none of these states was portrayed. For such a participant, inexperienced in any signing, the visual nature of signed poetry does not make it accessible at any level. Participant #4 was at least able to say “I didn’t understand it, but I imagine that there is a relation between two or more people or perhaps animals”. Their inexperience led them in some cases to be wildly wrong in an overall understanding of the whole poem. Participant #3, after first viewing Prince Looking for Love, suggested: “Walking together in the houses of love. Love needs care, like a flower. It needs water to survive.  A flower without water withers and dies.  The same happens with love.” It was usually possible for the non-signers to draw on enough visual and encyclopaedic knowledge to understand something in the poems, but there were still many errors. Perhaps they understood the end of the poem but not what had led up to it and frequently did not understand why things happened, for example why the protagonist in Cochlear Implant first appeared to hear and then did not.  Participant #3, for example, knowing the title, understood that the character had put the implant on, hated the noise and forcibly removed it but had not understood what led the character to put it on. Alternatively, they understood parts and tried to make sense of the rest of what they saw, again understood by attempting to fit what they saw to the cognitive frames they had evoked from the title.  Despite admirable – and plausible – attempts to make sense of what they saw, failure to understand other parts of the poems led to general misunderstanding of the events.  In Roz – Teach a Dog a New Trick, for example, participants might have been expected to understand the events even if they did not understand the metaphor behind the handshapes. However, this was not the case. Participant #3, knowing a dog kept leaving and returning to a person and there was some dissatisfaction, suggested that a dog had bonded with a human, despite being driven away several times, until the human finally adopted it. Participant #5 understood that the dog failed to chase the ball the first three times but didn’t realize that the fourth attempt was a success; Participant #4 thought one person was choosing the ideal dog, rejecting all the ones that didn’t chase the ball and the one who did chase it left him without a dog; Participant #10 thought that the dog was in a habit of running off with the ball so the master gave up trying to train it. The non-signers were able to appreciate that characterization showed more than one character but found it hard to identify when there were different characters that were too similar. For example, many of them failed to realize that four different people threw a ball for the dog in Roz, or that there two frogs in Prince Looking for Love. Participant #7, not realizing there were two frogs, attributed the characteristics of one frog to the human. Participant #5 said, “The problem was distinguishing the characters.  The interpretation helped me to understand who is who in the poem”. Encyclopaedic knowledge clearly helped the non-signers in their understanding, but it could also hinder it if they allowed their knowledge to override what was presented.  Participant #10 wrote on the first viewing of Prince Looking for Love, “A man is very much in love with woman but the problem is that he doesn’t know how to tell her and this leaves him feeling desperate”.

Comments on their experience

The types and timing of extra linguistic information in the spoken language have all been tried previously by other signing poets who have permitted interpretation of their signed work.  In none of these cases, as far as we understand, have there been any published comments on feedback from audiences on how useful they found it. From our findings, it would be true to say that there is no pleasing everyone, as the participants held a range of views – sometimes contradictory – about the types of interpretation that were offered but the general preference emerged for having “tips” rather than full interpretation. One unintended outcome of our research design was that participants had the opportunity to see each poem twice.  We have already noted that performances are usually given once but the responses we got from participants suggest that repeating the work a second time increases understanding and enjoyment considerably.  Perhaps this should be considered in planning of poetry performances, especially where there is some poetic enigma for audiences to focus upon, whether or not there is any additional explanation the second time. The participants understood the necessity of being able to see the poem to understand what was provided in the performance. Participant #2 worried that focusing on the spoken language could lead to audiences “going so far as to only focus on the identification of the language and not on the rest”.  Visual information notwithstanding, there was no doubt that most of the participants appreciated having some sort of voiced information about the signs.  Participant #5 said simply “Without this interpretation it was almost impossible to understand the meaning.” Simultaneous translation was valued by some in order to understand the content of the poems.  Participant #9 stated: “I prefer the simultaneous translation… The poem I understood most of was number 4 but I liked 1 and 2 best (because of the experience of the interpretation) – it gave more of a sense of receiving a ‘poem’”. Participant #4 valued it especially in conjunction with a first reading of the translation before the poem saying that it “gave the sense that the poet was speaking as himself” and Participant #3 found it helped comprehension of the poetry. On the whole, however, simultaneous translation was not best liked.  Participant #5 felt that while it helped to understand the content, it restricted the chance to use their own imagination to interpret the poem in their own way. Participant #6 also felt this: “when you give the interpretation beforehand, we almost don’t need to think”, although this person did acknowledge that it was helpful to gain an immediate understanding of the content. Explication and translation in advance (in Roz- Teach a Dog a New Trick and Who am I?) were valued to understand both the language and its employment in the poem.  We used the device of explanation and explication in the case of Roz- Teach a Dog a New Trick because the surface meaning of the poem was more readily accessible, but the metaphorical meaning needed extensive linguistic knowledge of BSL specifically and of Deaf culture. Participant #8 outlined the advantages of it: “Having the explanation first made it much easier to understand and follow the poem.  I found myself improving with this.  I was more attentive”.  Participant #10 said with respect to Who am I? “In my opinion, the explanation of the poem was better than the simultaneous translation.  With the explanation I could understand a little of the meaning which was very complex”. For Participant #2 there was the chance to recognise some signs: “As we had heard the poem beforehand, we managed to identify some signs and, watching it, it was as though we were ‘hearing’ the poem for a second time”.

However, again, some participants felt that this reduced their chances of using their own imagination to create their own understanding. Participant #7 asked, rhetorically, “If I already know the translation, why should I watch the video?” It was also a problem that for some longer poems the participants simply failed to remember all that had been given in the earlier explanation or translation. Participants greatly preferred having ‘hints’ to identify the meaning of individual key signs during the poem, helping them understand the content while leaving them free to enjoy the visual aspects of the performance.  Participant #5 said: “I think that help with the interpretation of some signs gives us more room for our interpretation [i.e. understanding of the poem]” and Participant #7 said “Giving tips is nicest”.


Although this is only a small-scale study, to our knowledge it is the first to consider the consumers of interpretation of signed poetry, in their hearing, non-signing audiences, and thus shows some important directions for further work. While some interpreters may expect, wish, or feel responsible to provide a perfect poetic target language output, this does not appear to be what is most appreciated by the audiences, as it distracts from the visual art of the signed poetry. It is clear that the non-signers in our study, with no experience of signed poetry before our experiment, quickly came to understand the importance of words reinforcing and complementing the visual performance of the poetry.  Despite their natural need to have an essential linguistic understanding of the poem, most participants did not find the full translation the most satisfying way of appreciating the poetry.  Deaf poets, too, have expressed strong reservations to us about this method. It is also possible, and not unusual, for audiences of poetry events include hearing signers as well as non-signers. Fluent signers who cannot avoid hearing the interpretation may find the voice-over interpretation distracting. From this research, then, using explanations and hints or ‘tips’ emerges as the way to most satisfy the needs of audiences and poets at a performance.  The tips give enough information to allow non-signers to identify the meaning of the lexical items but do not dominate the visual experience of the poetry. The poets, frequently thinking about both hearing and deaf audiences, prefer these hints to come before the poem rather than during. When there is satisfactory interpretation, the poets can feel content that they are achieving their aims for both deaf and hearing audiences, and the hearing non-signers can understand enough to be able to focus on the visual aspects of the performance.  The poets are able to put across their messages and show their poetry to hearing audiences with least compromise to their artistic and cultural beliefs, and the non-signers, such as one in our study, can say: “I believe that the experience was an excellent way to prepare us for contact with sign language that is not usual for hearing people”.



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