Examples why English is hard to Interpret into Sign Language

Do you think interpreting for the deaf is like a walk in the park? Think again. Duplicate words within the same sentence have different meanings. Some sounds differently, but are spelled the same. An interpreter must sign the correct meaning, not just the word. Now how do we sign the following?

1. The bandage was wound around the wound.

2. The farm was used to produce produce.

3. The dump was so full that it had to refuse more refuse.

4. I had to subject the subject to a series of tests.

5. He could lead if he would get the lead out and find the electrical lead.

6. The soldier decided to desert his dessert in the desert.

7. Since there is no time like the present, he thought it was time to present the present.

8. A bass was painted on the head of the bass drum.

9. I did not object to the object.

10. The insurance was invalid for the invalid.

Do you think you are having a hard time interpreting? You need to think only of English and ASL. But what about us Filipino sign language interpreters? Our job is more mind-boggling. We are more brain multitaskers than you. We must first understand what the speaker meant. Then we translate his spoken Tagalog to English. Then we convert it to Filipino sign language. Sometimes this process interchanges whenever it fits. Tagalog or Filipino language too has same words with double meanings.

The Tagalog word order is opposed to the English word order. We generally follow the VERB-SUBJECT structure. Now how do we sign these sentences?

1. Ang bata pa nung bata na bata nya.
[The child who belongs to him is still very young.] (Translation mine but can still have other meaning.)

The first bata means young, the second bata means child while the third bata means someone belonging to someone or his ward or sweetheart.

2. Paso na ang paso na nabili niya sa Pasong Tamo kaya siya napaso.
[The pot that he bought at Pasong Tamo is already expired that’s why he got burned.]

The first paso means expired, the second paso means pot, the third Paso is a street name while the last one means got burned.

3. Ang baba naman ng baba mo kaya ka pala bababa sa baba.
[Your chin is so low that is why you want to go down below.]

The first baba means low, the second baba means chin, the third bababa means going down while the last baba means down below or downstairs.

4. Ang tanda mo na para di mo matandaan kung saan mo nilagay yung tanda.
[You are already too old to not remember where you placed the marker.]

The first tanda means old, the second tanda means remember while the last tanda means marker.

5. Bababa? Bababa. (Elevator conversation.)
[Going down? Yes.]

English is a crazy language. Tagalog is even crazier. Sign Language interpreters have a mentally challenging job to make the meaning clear. Otherwise you won’t get the right information you need!

So to the deaf people out there, go easy on us. Our job is not easy.🙂

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  1. MM

    English is one of the hardest languages around really. It is a mistake to suggest that because sign grammar and signs are ‘different’ to English then, CONTEXT is different too, it isn’t. This is a classic mistake to make ! Context is common to EVERY language. Or you would be talking gibberish.

    If I were signing about ‘Wound’ e.g. it would be in context to say, I wound up my alarm clock, or I cut myself and here is the wound I got. There would be little signing confusion with that. There is another context via wound as well, via ‘he wounded me to the heart’, which entails nothing ‘physical’…

    I use a version of signed English, where by and large, I use signing as per ‘verbatim’ to the speech, this is because that is the way I heard, and spoke about things before I went deaf many years ago, thus neatly side-stepping the ‘grammar ‘ issue of BSL !

    I think personally as deaf read better and take in the basic English grammars then so will the deaf sign change to accommodate that, it has its critics… Sign has an ability to adapt to change with new words etc, or it would die out. 200 years ago TV would not have been a sign anyone would know or use. New ones get created.

  2. I quite agree that words with the same spellings but different meanings can be confusing to translate. However, the problem with the examples you give, is that we don’t use the same word that has different meanings. For example, “The farm was used to produce produce.” We would actually write “The farm was used to produce corn”

  3. @MM

    Thank you for your insights. I’m not that familiar with BSL. Does it have the same structure as ASL?
    I agree with you that as the deaf reads better, their vocabulary increases, ergo, they can understand more.

    @Tony Nicholas

    Thank you also for your insights. Although, it’s true that most people don’t use the same word that has different meanings within a sentence. However, as an interpreter, we are not in control of what the speaker might say. In our case, Filipino speakers code switch, or interchange Tagalog and English languages. That’s nightmare for us interpreters. But it’s part of the job.🙂

  4. MM

    Excuse lengthy response.

    I am not familiar with the nuances of BSL and ASL you would have to ask the users of it really. the issue of English is pretty familiar to me though ! The Italians stole all the vowels, the eastern Europeans stole all the consonants, the British utilized both a lot more effectively, by using words to mean a lot more things without wasting time inventing new ones, but it confuses some, could be worse we could be Chinese and have 2000 instead of 26/7 letters to contend with..

    As I understand it (I’m sure some knowledgeable BSL user will correct me anyway !), context is universal be it English, Filipino or BSL/ASL grammar displayed. I think the deaf call it ‘Conceptualization’ which is rather a mouthful, but makes us look good🙂

    Depending which direction you got to be deaf from, then basically the easier the better really…. everyone takes short cuts, the Australians are famed for it , always finishing a word half way through and adding an ‘s’ on the end just in case🙂 They won’t use a 6 letter word if 3 will do…

    This unfortunately, doesn’t raise the academic status for deaf much, and puts the intellectual out of kilter a bit. The British way of using one word for many different things is I think, a great economy, and gave us a third of the world at one point, mind you superior fire-power helped a bit…

    There is a knack to it, but once you gain it, it works fine… If you didn’t utilize a word to mean different things, then you would have to keep inventing new ones, which is a nuisance and time consuming effort. Less is more.

    I think personally the British version of BSL which had a new dictionary not all that long ago, tried inventing new signs to fill in gaps, and it failed rather spectacularly, it works with text and speech it didn’t really work with sign, just confused.

    You only need to address contexts of things.

    Slang and colloquial usage throws up new words now and then, not always welcome, but still……….. I think it is easier for an acquired deaf person to fight their way through the English language maze, than it is a born deaf person, who has had to rely on ‘concepts’ and visualizations, not words, a lot more than we did.

    It is why we have War and Peace, and the Bible, the Quoran, thoughts of Chairman Mao, and One flew over the Cuckoos Nest etc and the deaf have ………… ?

    They are writing their stuff now I suspect, but it isn’t IN sign language, but textural English or such so far….. Deafhood, and other books are not in sign language ! It is a conundrum in that deaf culture is being mooted academicaly, via a signed culture, but not via sign language itself.

    You just can’t keep a good grammar and language down, English really does work very well…. They say a third of the word uses it now. They also say sign uses less even than English and can convey information in an even short space, but I think, the devil as always, is in the detail…..

  5. I am deaf age is 31 year old I ant to fight war learning practice more make feel dream with there and you can done it? I love army soldier it. I will give you address is PO BOX 35 PALMER, P.R 00721-0035 I hope for you and me too.

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