PCS Blog

The Language of Comedy

Posted by KatieO | 18 January 2013

Interpreting comedy through sign language presents many challenges. In English, much of our humor includes a play on words, such as a misunderstanding or the multiple meanings of words and how the same word in a different context means something entirely different.

There is not a one word to one sign equivalence, just as there is not a one-to-one word correspondence between English and most languages such as Spanish or French or German. So if the humor depends on multiple meanings of a word and we are interpreting the concept, we have to be creative in how we produce a similar message if the signs don't come out as funny.
 
Here is one simple example:
 
In English, the word "run" has several meanings. It may mean physical exercise, or to facilitate a meeting, or a rip which spreads in socks, or mucus from the nose when a person has a cold. The word is spelled the same and sounds the same in English. But those are very different concepts and they are not signed the same in American Sign Language.
 
When we interpret, we have to come up with something that is similar in ASL. We might decide to do something which includes playing with handshapes or movement, two sign parameters which give ASL the ability to make a similar pun or "play on words."
 
But there is another element of comedy which goes beyond the signs or the words. And that is timing. The current play on the Main Stage, I Love to Eat, offers excellent opportunities to work with timing. Timing includes the pace of line delivery by the actor, the appearance of visual elements (notes from Elsie and even Elsie herself, the bovine sponsor of James Beard's television show), and even managing interpreting the words being spoken with what is happening on stage so the signing audience doesn't miss those fantastic, funny moments direct from the actor himself.
 
Besides the Elsie moments in the play, there is the sandwich-making scene in which the actor actually makes fresh mayonnaise on stage and shows the audience how to make delicious little canapes. There are the character's lapses into remembered scenes in other places and times, reading the mail of both good and bad news, and comedic action with telephones.
 
With all the laughter and the delightful visual moments, comedy is a joy to watch - and gives interpreters additional challenges. In I Love to Eat there are pauses in the script and visual moments, and the interpreter's job is to facilitate all of the concepts and the sights and sounds so that the audience has a comparable experience.
 
Comedy. Not as easy as it seems.
 
- Dot Hearn, ASL Coordinator at PCS
 
For more information about access programming at PCS or to find out how to purchase tickets in the sign-interpreted section, please click here!
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