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It’s Not Really Punny in ASL

We had the ASL Missionaries over (LDS) for dinner the other night and my husband had just been studying gorilla’s in Anthropology.  He went on and on about Koko the Gorilla who had been taught ASL.  He kept wondering if the gorilla really did learn ASL or if she was just responding the way that she knew her handlers wanted her to.   He discussed this with the deaf missionary and ended with ” If I was deaf, I would wonder if Koko could really understand ASL.”  And that’s when I had to tell my husband the horrible truth:  “You ARE deaf.”

The deaf call that ‘hearing in your head’ and it can be really useful in a hearing world that is full of puns and jokes that only translate if you understand the similarities in the words and the phrases.  My husband can understand the joke because he was verbal before he went deaf and was never discouraged from using his voice.  He also has a CI (Cochlear Implant) that allows him to ‘technically’ hear.  I say “technically” because it’s not the same as normal hearing and there are many problems that make it impractical for many social situations.  But he can understand jokes like: “What does a duck do when he flies upside down?– He quacks up,” because he can hear the similarities in the words.  Interpreting this joke into any other language (including ASL) makes it absolutely no sense.  Think about it in Spanish for a moment.

This is what I had to do last night for Cub Scouts.  I am the interpreter for the deaf parents at Cub Scouts for our pack and at this particular pack meeting, they thought they would recreate Prairie Home Companion by singing and telling jokes in between.  Here are two things, side by side, that the deaf parents can’t really get into.  The song I could at least interpret, though it was my own interpretation.  “Keep on the sunny side of life…” I was at first translating literally, but it came out more like “Stay in the part with the sun in your life” than what was originally intended (Stay positive, be positive always in your life), and then it was followed by a dozen jokes that made absolutely no sense when translated into ASL.  “How does a witch tell time?  A WITCH WATCH!”

It makes no sense in Spanish either, by the way.

I’m not a professional interpreter and if no one is looking at me, I don’t bother continuing to sign.  This night was particularly challenging because there was no way to make the jokes funny or understandable to the deaf.  After the third joke I told the person I was interpreting for that none of these jokes made any sense in ASL and we started talking about other things, occasionally distracted by the wild movements of 8-10 year old boys telling joke after pun after joke.

It’s not easy to make the deaf feel a part of a hearing crowd, but if you know they are going to be a part of the crowd, you could at least try to make them feel included.  Number one rule of including the deaf is pun’s make no sense in ASL.  If you can’t translate the joke into Spanish or your point can’t be illustrated without words, try something else.

It doesn’t have to be punny to be funny as Shaun the Sheep proves every day. When the deaf are involved, you may have to make adjustments, but it doesn’t mean you can’t still have fun, be funny and include music.  I promise you that it will make more sense to a 8-10 year-old (who often miss the nuance of a witch watch, since everyone now uses their phone to tell time) too.

About Noelle Campbell

This blog is about my life and how I see things. I write, I think, I dream, I do. I used to write a lot of fantasy until I realized I was living one. I was married to a deaf-blind Hobbit in a realm we created together. He passed away in 2014, but our life was interesting enough I think you might like it too.

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