8. The text


There is no generally accepted written form for sign languages. 'Glosses' can be used to write down an outline of a signed text, but this is by no means a one-to-one representation of what the signer will sign. 

'Writing' in sign language is a highly personal process, and the output is difficult to transfer. The best results are achieved when the 'writer' and the 'signer' are the same person or a team of two who work together closely during the writing as well as during the filming stages.

Translation of a mainstream text into sign language is best undertaken by a team of bilingual translators, in a two-step process: a native speaker translates the text into sign language, a native signer then converts the translation into 'natural', 'Deaf' sign language.
For translations from sign language into spoken language (e.g. for a voice-over, subtitles, or a printed book) the reverse process is best followed.

For most productions, the text should be divided into paragraphs of a length that the signer can memorise and sign confidently in front of the camera. 

Sign languages are complete, but in some countries, repressed, minority languages. Because of this, many countries are only now beginning to develop sign language dictionaries and grammars. In disputes or quandaries about the correct sign or the correct expression in sign language, you may rarely be able to find the answer in a dictionary or other generally accepted official resource.

Lines on paper

There is no conventional writing system for sign languages (yet). It is therefore very difficult to write down a signer's lines. Different production teams use different methods: sometimes glosses are used, sometimes descriptions, sometimes a personal notation system. 

On video 

The best - and probably only - way to store a sign language text for distribution, for study, and for future reference, is by recording it on video.


For translations of printed texts into sign language, mixed Deaf-hearing translation teams are the preferred option, consisting of a bilingual Deaf person and a bilingual hearing person. The hearing person translates the text into sign language, the native signer then rewrites (more accurately: 're-signs') the translation to make it natural sign language instead of translated print. 
For translations of sign language into spoken or printed language, the opposite order can be used: the Deaf person translates sign language into written language, the hearing person fine-tunes the translation to make it sound like natural spoken language.
A translation of a source text can be literal, staying very close to the original text, or liberal, with the signer re-telling the story in his/her own words. This is sometimes compared to photography versus painting: a translator or interpreter can reproduce a text as if s/he were a photographer, capturing every detail as it is in the original; or s/he can choose a specific painting style for the reproduction to highlight certain aspects of the (meaning of the) original. 
A translator has the same options when translating a text. Most translations will be somewhere on the continuum between the two extremes. What is most appropriate for a production will depend on the objective and the target group. It may also depend on the copyright agreement that you have with the publisher and/or author of the source text. This may include a requirement that a translation stays as close to the original text as possible.

Sign Supported Speech 

In the EU, Sign Supported Speech (e.g. Signed English) is no longer used for signing books.

New signs 

In some cases, new signs may have to be 'invented' because no sign is available for a certain concept. Before you do this, consult your national sign language centre to make sure that this is indeed so, and if possible, ask them to suggest signs for you. For many productions, you may have to invent 'name' signs.
When a new sign is used for the first time in a production, the sign has to be explained. Sometimes, the corresponding word will be finger-spelled, or the printed word will be made visible on screen. The second time the new sign is used (or if the sign is used very infrequently in a video, the third and fourth time as well) the signer should briefly refer to the earlier explanation. 
After that, the sign can be used as it is. When a lot of new signs are used in a video, these new signs can be introduced in a prologue at the beginning of the video. 
If the production is published on CD-ROM or on DVD, a dictionary can be included, and/or hyperlinks can link new signs to their explanations.
Whether extra background information or an explanation of the concept that a new sign refers to is provided will partly depend on the objective of the production: do you want to give the viewers access to information, or do you want to educate and instruct them? (See Chapter 2)

Figurative language, metaphors, rhyme  

Figurative language, abstract language, rhyme, metaphors, and figures of speech are difficult to translate, because of the differences between the two languages and cultures. Many mainstream fairy tales begin with: "once upon a time…" Should this be translated into: "Some time, in the past", with "Look, I will tell you a story…" or with "A long, long time ago, in a country very far from here…" ? 
In the same way, sign languages have language and culture specific rhymes, metaphors and figures of 'speech' that are difficult to translate into spoken language (for voice-overs, see [[sound|Chapter 16]]) or written text (for subtitles, see Chapter 17).
Different translation teams use different solutions for sentences and examples that are difficult to translate:
  • translate literally and add an explanation; 
  • translate the meaning, at a conceptual level; 
  • describe;
  • leave out all together. 
Which solution is best will again depend on your objectives, your target group, and possibly your copyright contract.


Very few - if any - sign languages have been completely researched and described; in most countries, sign language dictionaries are still being developed. 
Most questions about what vocabulary to use, how to translate certain expressions, metaphors, or figures of speech, and whether or not a sign or a phrase is regionally or nationally known can therefore not be answered on the basis of sign language books or dictionaries. 
In all of these cases, your best option is to check with your national sign language centre, and/or with well-informed representatives of your target group.


Learning from Deaf Adults  

In real life, Deaf adults read storybooks to Deaf children on a continuum from storytelling to story reading; the first time they read a storybook with a child, they improvise and elaborate liberally on the text. On each successive reading, the translation begins to come closer and closer to the actual text: a direct representation of the English in the book (Schleper, 1998). 
On video, a story is usually only presented once. The production team will have to decide where on this continuum the signer should read the story.
Other strategies Deaf readers use when reading picture books in sign language to young children (Reading to Deaf Children: Learning From Deaf Adults, David R. Schleper, Gallaudet University, 1998) and that can or cannot be used when a story is narrated in front of the camera:
  • they keep both languages (ASL and English) visible; 
  • they elaborate on the text;
  • they follow the child's lead; 
  • they make what is implied explicit; 
  • they adjust sign placement to fit the story;
  • they adjust signing style to fit the character; 
  • they connect concepts in the story to the real world;
  • they use attention maintenance strategies; 
  • they use eye gaze to elicit participation;
  • they engage in role play to extend concepts; 
  • they use ASL variations to sign repetitive English phrases.
The producer and/or the translation team will have to decide, which of these strategies they do or do not want to include on a video. For a production on video, it may for instance be preferable not to make everything that is implicit in a story explicit, when the objectives of the production are - among other things - to stimulate the imagination of Deaf children and to teach them to 'read' between the signed lines, to look beyond the information given.

Translation of the Grammar of the Flemish-Belgian Sign Language  

In 1999, a printed book on the grammar of Flemish-Belgian Sign Language was translated into sign language and published as two 180 minute videos (Grammaticale Aspecten van de Vlaams-Belgische Gebarentaal, BE). 
The translation was undertaken by the (bilingual) author of the original printed book and an experienced Deaf signer and took almost one year. First, the book was divided into 18 short chapters. The Deaf signer read each chapter as often as was necessary to understand the text. 
The book was an advanced linguistics text and used a lot of linguistics vocabulary. As a result, some chapters were very difficult to understand. The hearing author rewrote some of these texts, translated them into sign language, and explained them to the signer. 
However, the meaning of some chapters still remained unclear, and without a good understanding of the source text, the signer was not able to translate the text into sign language. An experienced sign language interpreter was then called in to translate the problematic passages into sign language, in front of a video camera. This video was used by the signer to discuss the meaning of the passages with the author and the interpreter.
For many linguistics concepts, there were no signs in Flemish-Belgian Sign Language. New signs had to be created by the translation team. 
When the signer had a good understanding of a chapter, she would sign the chapter in front of a video-camera. She would watch the video a number of times to check her signing and to compare the signed text with the text in the printed book. If she was not content with the chapter, the process would be repeated. 
The signer practised the texts on the basis of the video. Finally, the entire book was recorded on video, over the course of 2 (long) weeks in the studio. 
On the video, new signs are introduced in a number of ways: the concept is explained, the sign is made twice, and the corresponding word isfingerspelled and shown in bright green print on the screen.
   Grammaticale Aspecten van de Vlaams-Belgische Gebarentaal, BE


Name signs 

In the Netherlands, a videotape was produced with name-signs for biblical names used in the Netherlands (Die Naam, 1997). These signs were not 'invented' ad hoc, but developed through a number of processes that can be followed for the creation of other new signs as well:
  • A new name-sign was created on the basis of the character's physical or personal characteristics, profession, or function, or simply as an abstract symbol for the character's name. 
  • The 'signability' of the sign was evaluated: did it fit within the Sign Language of the Netherlands, was it easy to use in combination with other signs?
  • Was the sign easily distinguishable from other signs? Was it an already existing sign, or very similar to an existing sign?
  • Did the sign look good, from a viewer's point of view? 
  • What was the first reaction people had to the sign? What concept and what context did they associate it with?
Each new sign was recorded on video, tested in various sentence contexts, and verified with a number of different target groups. Signs that passed all the above tests were then recorded on videotape and published as a reference video for signers and interpreters.