Wednesday, 28 November 2007

I see what you mean...

Which sense would you be most reluctant to lose? For me, it would be sight, I think, though I have heard it said that losing your hearing makes you more socially isolated.

One of the three narrators of the book I'm working on at the moment, Deb, is deaf. Don’t ask me why. Also, don’t ask me why I’m choosing to have three narrators. There they were – thirteen-year-old triplets - just waiting when I started to plan the book. I may have thought it was their father’s story but, they implied, he’d be hopeless at telling it properly. They’d do it so much better.

They are the voices of my story: the boy, the bossy one and the deaf one. Here we are, they seemed to say, this is us.One of us just happens to be deaf.
I’ll let her explain that bit.

‘I am not just ‘hearing impaired’, I do not wear a hearing aid or have implants, I am profoundly deaf. I do not hear anything. I have no concept of what it would be like to hear, have no more concept of the condition than a person who has been blind from birth has of colour. People ask me if it is silent inside my head but that is a question that has no meaning. What is silence? What is noise? Obviously, I am aware that there is a physical sensation that I do not register and others do and that its absence represents silence but that is the beginning and end of my understanding.’

But there’s a problem with one of your characters deciding to be deaf. You have to learn about what it’s like to be deaf. I don’t have any friends or relations who can’t hear (beyond those who are getting on a bit but don’t want to admit that the reason they have the telly on at 100 decibels is not so that they can hear it in any room of the house…). I am a speech and language therapist (if you’re remotely interested in this you can find out more at my website in the
Profile and Questions sections) so I do know some stuff but I’m still running to catch up with Deb. Books have started to arrive from Amazon with titles like ‘The Linguistics of British Sign Language’ and there are new forums on my webpage favourites list where I can lurk and learn or, if I’m feeling brave, ask newbie questions.

And, writing through the words of a deaf person makes you realise how much even our written language is based on speech. When I’m reporting things Deb has conveyed to others in British Sign Language (BSL) do I say ‘she said’ or ‘she signed’? It feels a bit pedantic always to go for ‘signed’ but the whole point is that Deb can’t say things. That’s one of the things which defines her life. And you don’t listen while somebody’s communicating in BSL, you watch. It’s fascinating how it changes the way you describe things. People can’t catch your attention by clearing their throat, they have to step into your line of sight, you don’t overhear conversations, you have to be told everything. And so on.

There’s also the whole issue of how Deb tells the reader what people are saying to her in BSL. It’s a language entirely unlike English – it has a totally different word order, uses the area in space where you make the sign to denote tense, and is sometimes able to convey concepts which in English would be whole phrases in just one portmanteau sign. So, should I attempt to convey any of that difference when Deb is reporting BSL conversations, or is it easier to just cop out and get her to ‘translate’ into English for the benefit of her readers? At the moment I’m translating but maybe I’m wrong to do that. Maybe that misrepresents the experience of using BSL too much.

Any thoughts?

4 comments:

Akasha Savage said...

You've certainly set yourself a challenge on this one!

I don't think it would be too pedantic to write she 'signed' instead of she 'said'. It would always remind the reader that Deb (good name that!) is deaf.

I think I would prefer to be blind than deaf. At least then I would still be able to listen to my music!!

Alis said...

True, but how would you get around? I'd hate to think i'd never see a bluebell wood again, or be able to cycle into town without somebody in front of me on a tandem...

Leigh Russell said...

Hi there Alis.

In my opinion (for what it's worth) I think you probably have to write 'she signed' and not she said. I can see you have to be careful not to overuse it as there aren't the range of synonyms available as there are for 'said.'
This is such an interesting idea!

I do think you have to 'translate' into English, with perhaps some (necessarily contrived?) reminders that she is signing.

In my novel, I write in different 'voices' of different characters. One of the things my editor pulled me up on was that I was being too zealous in my determination to remain true to my characters' voices. You have to remember, you are writing for a reader who wants to understand, and not just for yourself.

Can't comment on the cycling for a reason I'm too embarrassed to admit... !

Alis said...

Leigh, thanks so much for your comments. I'll bear your editor's advice in mind. Too easy to become self- (or character-) indulgent...