6. Your signers


The signer is the 'face' of your video. In most productions, the signer is much more than the presenter. Signers will also be involved in writing or translating the texts, and sometimes in scriptwriting. 

Not every Deaf person is a good signer, not every good signer can sign fluently in front of a camera, and not every person who can do this is appropriate for every subject and/or for every target group. 

In most countries, there are very few people with experience in this field - almost all of them are self-taught: they've learned on the job. It is very important that more people receive training in this field.

The Signer

The term 'signer' is used to indicate the signing presenter, narrator, actor, interpreter, etc. : all persons who will be using sign language in front of the camera.
The selection of the right signer (or several signers) for your production is very important. The signer will be the 'face' of your production - many viewers will remember and evaluate a production on the basis of who the signer is, and how well s/he signs. 

The Author, Translator

In mainstream video and film-productions, actors and presenters are usually selected after a script is written. For signing books, however, signers are best involved from a much earlier stage. The signer(s) will usually contribute to the writing of the scenario and the translation of texts into sign language. 

Selection criteria 

Issues you should take into account when selecting a signer, are:
  • Native signers 

All signers should be 'native' signers - that is: people who learned to sign at a very young age. For some productions, a hearing sign language interpreter may be appropriate; for most productions however, Deaf signers are the preferred option.
  • Sign language fluency

A fast signer is not necessarily a fluent signer. US research indicates that Deaf and hearing sign language users use different criteria to decide whether or not someone is a fluent signer (Lupton, 1998). Criteria used by Deaf viewers were: eye contact, signs sign language (instead of Sign Supported Speech), creates a picture, good posture, smooth signing, good facial expression, appropriate body movement. All of these were considered more important, than actual signing speed. 
  • Sign language fluency in front of a camera  

Not every fluent signer is able to sign fluently in front of a video-camera. For many productions, the signer will have to stand or sit directly in front of the camera, sign and maintain eye-contact with the 'dead' one-eyed camera, as if it were a live and responsive member of the target audience. Not every fluent signer is able to do this. 
  • Ability to memorise and reproduce texts

Signers don't usually read their lines from an auto-cuer. They will have to learn their texts by heart and present these without hesitation, without stumbling, without forgetting or adding signs, sentences or paragraphs (also see Chapter 8 and Chapter 12). 
  • Local or regional dialect use 

Some signers use a local or regional sign language dialect. Whether this will be a problem for your production will depend on the objective and the target group of your production. 
If a video is to be watched by Deaf children at home (e.g. in the company of relatives, friends, etc. who are just learning to sign), nationally known signs are preferred. Partly this will also depend on the content and texts in your video: a small number of local or regional signs may not be a problem if the meaning of these signs can be understood on the basis of the context in which these signs are used. 
If a large number of local or regional signs cannot be avoided, it may be necessary to add an explanation at the beginning of the video, or a sign language dictionary in the case of a production on CD-ROM, to clarify the signs that are not nationally known (also see Chapter 7). 
  • Knowledge of the subject of the production  

A signer who is familiar with the content, or better yet, an expert in the content matter of the video will find it easier to memorise his/her lines and to present the subject confidently in front of the camera. 
A signer who is unfamiliar with the subject, or who doesn't completely understand the subject matter of a video or a text will not be able to sign it fluently and convincingly in front of the camera. Additional time will be needed for the signer to familiarise him/herself with the subject and to practice signing the texts. 
  • Expertise with the target group  

There are many ways to sign a sentence, and even more ways to sign a story, or any other text. 
How a text should be signed will depend partly on the content and the objective of the production (see Chapter 8), but also on the target group of a video: children or adults, fluent signers or beginning signers, signers of one region versus another. 
A signer who has experience with the target group will know how to sign so the viewers will best understand. A signer who has limited or no experience with the target group should practice his/her signing with (representatives of) the target group, to make sure that his/her signing is suitable for them.
  • Command of the written language  

If a printed text is used for a production (a printed book or brochure, or a printed script), it saves time if the signer is bilingual and can read the source text him/herself. If not, someone will have to be available to translate printed texts into sign language and/or a gloss-script for the signer(s).
  • Register 

The signer will have to be able to use a presentation and signing style (register) that matches the subject of the video (serious or funny, fast or slow, personal or objective, emotional or distanced, etc.), and the various characters in a story.
  • Gender, age, looks

For some videos, a female signer may be more appropriate than a male signer. For other productions it may be important that signers match the target group in age. 
When a signer is interpreting for a speaking person on the screen, it is not required that the signer resembles the speaker in gender, age, or appearance; one signer can interpret for all speakers. However, the signer does have to be dressed appropriately, and does have to adjust his/her 'signing register' (signing style, speed, and expressiveness) to match the speaker (also see Chapter 12).



Children's preferences 

For the user tests in the Netherlands, Deaf children rated 6 short video-clips of different signers for attractiveness. Almost all children liked the most expressive signer best, because, they said, he was very funny and very easy to understand. 
One video-clip showed a signer of about 10 years of age; opinions varied, but most children thought this signer was appropriate only for productions for very young children. 
The most important criteria for the selection of a signer were - according to the children - that the signer signs very clearly, and that the signer signs directly to the camera. Deafness, the age of the signer, and whether a signer is good looking were rated as far less important.

Unfriendly, or uncomfortable? 

For the user tests with students, a video and CD-ROM were made and these were tested with Deaf students in Hamburg. Some of the students commented that one of the signers used more Signed German than GSL (German Sign Language) in one part of the presentation. This may have been caused by the fact that the script was written in German and not in glosses and that the presenters sometimes found translation of the script difficult. 
There were also comments that one of the presenters looked rather unfriendly. The signer herself explained that she did not feel very comfortable at times signing in front of the camera. 
Some participants remarked that they had difficulty lip-reading the presenters. They would have liked the mouthing to be clearer.

Deaf, or hearing?  

For the user tests in the UK, 14 adult Deaf viewers watched video-clips of two professional signers (one hearing, one Deaf) signing a short script.
Most subjects preferred the Deaf signer; they felt that the signer was fluent and natural and that they could understand her without too much concentration. The concepts were presented very visually, and she was clear in her BSL concepts and used a lot of facial expression. 
The subjects thought that the hearing signer could do the job, but they felt that 'something was missing'. One subject said she preferred the Deaf signer because she could identify with her as another Deaf person.