As someone who is hopeless at learning languages, I have a deep admiration for those pick up new ones with seeming ease. I am even more impressed by those who provide simultaneous translations, able to achieve the incredible feat of listening to a stream of words entering their heads in one language, translating it in their brains, and then sending the message out in a different language, all the while having a fresh stream of words entering.
But the apex of my admiration is reserved for those who simultaneously translate into sign language, because that involves having the brain also shift modes from verbal to hand gestures, surely adding a significant new layer of complexity.
During Hurricane Sandy, one such translator Lydia Callis captured people’s attention with her highly animated and expressive facial expressions as she translated the words of the New York City mayor and his officials during a press conference.
I have observed simultaneous verbal-to-verbal translators in action and noted that their faces often do seem to convey the emotions evoked by the original speaker, suggesting that theirs was not a merely mechanical technique. But what I had not known until now was that the facial expressions of verbal-to-sign translators are an essential component of the translation process and not merely an idiosyncratic add-on. Cord Jefferson points to a paper on American Sign Language (ASL) that explains the process:
Mouth shape, eye-brow height, and other face/head movements are a required part of ASL, and identical hand movements may have different meanings depending on the face/head. Facial expressions change the meaning of adjectives (e.g., color intensity or distance magnitude) or convey adverbial information (e.g., carelessly or with relaxed enjoyment). The head/face indicates important grammar information about phrases … A sequence of signs may have different meanings, depending on the head/face; e.g., the ASL sentence “JOHN LOVE MARY” without facial expression means: “John loves Mary.” With a yes/no facial expression, it indicates “Does John love Mary?” With a negative expression and headshake added during “LOVE MARY,” then the same sequence of signs indicates “John doesn’t love Mary.” (Facial expressions are timed to co-occur with hand movements for signs during specific parts of a sentence.) Further, ASL signers also use facial expressions to convey emotional subtext. Thus, facial expressions are essential to the meaning of ASL sentences.
Wow. My admiration has increased even more.