I went to a cultural event today. There was poetry, there was music and even a short play. But the reason I went there was because someone pointed out to me that there was going to be sign language poetry. I have seen some signed poems in videos at Slope and ASL Quest, and even in a book (Gebarentaal, 1993, Koenen has an illustrated version of ‘Amsterdam’ by Wim Emmerik) but this was a nice opportunity to get some hands-on perceptual experience.
What culture looks like? (source)
The event was part of Utrecht’s Culturele Zondag, Nieuwjaarsduik (I live near Utrecht), which is a start of the cultural life of the new year I believe. Stichting Nadorst (a group of semi-professional poets and friends) organized poetry theatre, featuring the group Draadloos with sign language poetry.
Draadloos consists of Suzanne Pach, Cora Mulder, Lotte Bijloo, Tina van Dijk, Hanrike Berkhof, Judith Vogels, and Elke Wildenborg. The group is attached to the Sign Language education program at the Hogeschool Utrecht, where Mulder (who is interpreter as well) teaches drama parttime. The members are mostly students in the program for NGT interpreter or teacher.
What is sign language poetry? Let me skip a truly fundamental discussion and just give you some thoughts. First, poetry employs many means to be poetic. One of them is through associations with imagery. We can say some poets paint with words. As mentioned on HandSpeak, it may then be an advantage to use a visual/manual language like ASL. This sort of reasoning is rather abstract and not unlike saying that all roses are red and therefore everything red is well suited to being a rose. I did find that the signing poets were able to create very rich poetry by using imagery. Especially the dormant iconicity of signs can be awakened and put to full poetic use. A butterfly can be made to fly. Rain can keep dripping down on the butterflyâ€™s wings.
A sign can be iconic or, as Els van der Kooij says, motivated when its form is (partly) caused by its meaning. The term transparent is also used in these cases.
Also, signs can be shaped to resemble eachother without hurting their original meaning. A heart can beat (with two hands) like a butterfly, and still be a heart. That is a power that I find difficult to imagine with spoken words. Can I say a word in a different manner without hurting its original meaning? The closest I can think of is using a compound or new word, like butterfly-heart, which is not nearly as nice. Can a signed poem be translated into another (spoken) language? Handspeak suggests it is not possible. I disagree. It just takes another skilled poet, like in the Flying Words duo Peter Cook and Kenny Lerner. But that is true for all poetry translations, a purely literal translation is not enough.
Flying Words: Two poets for the price of one?
The poems from Draadloos all existed first in Dutch (written or spoken). They were all ‘translated’ into NGT. In general you can say that the meaning was enriched during the process, especially ‘Liedje van de vlinder’ and ‘Tuin’. The literal meanings of the words were practically all included and then things were added, modulated, or combined (as far as I can tell with my limited sign language knowledge). Was all of the imagery associated with the original words still there in the translation? Probably not, but you always loose something. There is no reason to assume that any original Sign Language poem cannot be translated into written form in the same manner. I see no objection whatsoever, as long as it is clear that a translated poem is another poem on its own. Rather than being clones the two versions are more like brother and (Deaf) sister.