Tips for Interpreting Hymns into ASL
There are generally three thoughts on interpreting music: 1) Yuck!! Never in a million years! 2) Piece of cake. 3) humble acceptance to the challenge.
It has been my experience with interpreters, most often, those who have the second attitude (Piece of cake!), don’t fully understand the importance of music in a worship service and therefore miss critical meanings found in the words and the music itself. This is not to say they can’t interpret the words they see, because most of the time they can. But music is more than words.
Interpreting music is like interpreting poetry. When I was in college learning how to be an interpreter, I had one class which briefly taught some keys for interpreting music. One that I remember the most is the importance of setting the stage, or telling a story, during instrumental portions of a song. For example, an instrumental song introduction could be utilized in painting a picture that will draw the audience into the coming words. Another important piece is to be true to the rhythm.
For this class I chose to interpret Michael McClean’s song: “From God’s Arms to My Arms to Yours”. This song begins with an instrumental piece which sets the tone for those of us who can hear it. The Deaf have a right to have the tone set for them as well. In order to do this, I had to study the history of this song. Why did he write it? What kind of information can I find that will help me “get inside his head”, what type of instruments do I hear?, what is the tempo? etc. Because I had seen him perform several times, I knew the story behind this song that he shares with his audiences. After gathering this information, I could paint a picture allowing the Deaf to have the tone set for them.
When interpreting hymns, consider the following:
1) The scripture(s) the song is based on
2) The history of the song (There is a great book called “Our Latter-Day Hymns The Stories and the Messages” which can help with this.)
3) Choose signs which are consistent with the meaning and concept of the original text (i.e. “give” can be interpreted as SACRIFICE if the song is talking about “give his life”)
4) Use an active voice when choosing signs
5) Be true to ASL grammar (i.e. Include signs such as FINISH, WHY? HOW?, use listing when appropriate, loan signs when appropriate)
6) Consider the goal. For example, in our ward, the priesthood brethren have been preparing “Come, Come Ye Saints” for Pioneer Day. The conductor’s goal is for this occasion is to be an invitation. I spoke with him about this and asked if we could sit down and he could share with me his vision. He agreed. He and I and one of the Deaf members of our ward are working on this interpretation together.
7) Pray and ask the Lord’s guidance. He knows all of His children. What may be appropriate in one ward or with certain members, may not be the best for someone else….and that’s ok.
8) Use space!
9) Follow the rhythm of the music. “The Spirit of God” is quicker than “Upon the Cross of Calvary”
10) Remember this is for worship, not performance. Choose signs that are meaningful and easy for the Deaf members to follow.
A note about primary:
It has been my experience that primary chorister’s love to do ASL with one song every year. Understanding that ASL is part of someone’s culture and not just something “cool” is not often understood. When choosing signs for primary kids to learn, I tend to steer toward as few signs as possible while trying to remain as true as I can to the message.