2 min

On sign language

When she didn't know the sign for blowjob, I knew it was going to be a long night

As a child, my connection with the deaf community was limited to men who would walk around public events requesting donations in exchange for business cards that depicted small hands doing the sign language alphabet. There was also Linda, a character on Sesame Street who amazed me by her ability to dance to the vibrations when she put her hand onto the speakers of the stereo Big Bird bought her for her birthday without thinking how she probably couldn’t use it.

These were the years prior to closed captioning. I remember how many newscasts would superimpose interpreters for the hearing impaired onto a bottom corner of television screens and how I’d somehow made a connection between the interpreters and hieroglyphics so, even today, whenever I see interpreters I think of Egypt and whenever I see hieroglyphics I think of interpreters. Sometimes I would stare transfixed at their fast moving hands and the incomprehensibility of their gestures, but most times I ignored them as they represented an otherness I couldn’t quite grasp.

It wasn’t until I read an interview with the woman who did the interpretation for parliament’s question period that I appreciated how difficult interpreting could be. In the article she explained how their was no quick gesture for “tainted tuna” so during the infamous tainted tuna scandal she had to spell T-A-I-N-T-E-D T-U-N-A out, letter for letter, thousands of times. For whatever reason this nightmare stuck with me.

The first time I performed a reading with sign language interpreters I felt badly as A) I kept thinking of Egypt again B) I kept thinking of tainted tuna and C) I had a lot of swearing and sexual content in my work. I didn’t have an issue with the content as much as the realization that the volunteer interpreters probably didn’t know some of the terms. I realized this when showing them the written words and a woman had to ask a colleague the sign for blowjob — it was going to be a long night.

If I recall correctly, my reading consisted of stories about a friend who suspected her house sitter of masturbating with her carrots, having my first orgasm with a foot massager and a poem about how I’ve remarked that certain people around my age start to giggle whenever they hear the words retarded and midget.

The interpreters told me to ignore them and pretend like they weren’t there, but I was dying to see how they dealt with some of the words and found myself making quick sideways glances at them throughout the reading. What struck me most is how so much of the interpretation — the translation of the experience from spoken word to symbol — involves quick identifications of the emotional tones of the work. It made me think of silent film actresses, silent film actresses emoting my words. I can always tell what an audience feels from their faces, but this was the first time I could sense emotions through a pair of hands.

Billeh Nickerson will be appearing at the Kingston Writers Festival on Sep 25 and 26, and at the Pride Stage at Toronto Word on the Street on Sep 27.