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ASL is the Dynamic Equivalent


By Kim Livingston

Blog Intern

It is an oft sited fact that approximately 70% of all people are visual learners.

I happen to be in the minority as a verbal-linguistic learner.  I think in words, and when I read I hear words in my head; I don’t see pictures.  Once when asked, “What pops into your head when I say the word horse?” my immediate response was (the written word), “H-O-R-S-E.” Being a verbal-linguistic learner has served me well. I am by profession a speech-language pathologist and by hobby a fiction writer. I love the complexity of vocabulary words. I express myself well verbally. Languages fascinate me. However, making the switch from English to ASL did not come easily for me. When I first began to work with Deaf students and their interpreters I struggled with my own ethnocentric feeling of loss of rich vocabulary when translating English into ASL. I didn’t struggle so much learning the change in grammar from English to ASL but with the change in concepts and the words I felt I had to “leave out”

The idea of dynamic equivalence has been defined as, “maintaining the speaker’s intended interaction with an impact on the audience; when accomplished in an interpretation, the speaker’s goals and level of audience involvement is the same for both the audience who received the message in its original form and the audience who received the message through an interpreter” (Humphrey & Alcorn, 2007) In other words, how to provide equivalents in both languages: what the speaker/signers’ goals are, the formalness of language used, how clearly ideas are declared, if information is overtly conveyed, the speaker/signers’ grammar styles, and the overt relationships (power differentiation) between the participants. I learned that in order to be able to analyze this deep structure meaning, it is imperative not to think about signing word for word equivalents and not to rush the process. I didn’t get it.

Recently, I finally had my “aha” moment.  I was practicing my ASL by “interpreting” Christmas music, when suddenly it clicked. Where in English (or other spoken languages) the rich vocabulary is in the spoken word, in ASL the rich vocabulary is in the picture created in the mind. This is the deep meaning within the message and it is every bit as rich – but in a different way. This is what equivalent meaning is. Now that I have been using ASL for a while I realize that there are times that I cannot explain myself in spoken words and I get frustrated when others cannot “show” me something with their words. Because now that I understand the 3-Dimensional visual language that is ASL, I realize that it is able to put pictures in my mind in a way that words never could.

Humphrey, J., & Alcorn, B. (2007). So You Want to be An Interpreter? An introduction to Sign Language Interpreting. 4th edition. Renton: H&H Publishing Co, Inc.

Isham, W. (1985). The Role of Message Analysis in Interpretation (Interpretating: The Art of Cross Cultural Mediation). http://www.interpretereducation.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/10/Isham-William-Role-of-Message-Analysis-in-Interpretation1.pdf (pp. 111-122). San Diego: RID convention proceedings.




This blog post represents the opinion of the author and not necessarily the views supported by The Deaf Dream.

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