The Mrs Malaprop of British Sign Language.

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Translation of photo: Jean St Clair calls ‘time’ on Kaite O’Reilly’s ‘weird’ signing. 

I first met Jean St Clair ten years ago, when she was working as the BSL (British Sign Language) advisor on a production of one of my plays in London. I was immediately drawn to her skills, knowledge, and ingenuity as a linguist, expert in Sign performance, and superb performer in her own right.

In the 1980’s Jean toured internationally and appeared in the West End in Mark Medoff”s Children of a Lesser God. Together with Jeni Draper, we formed The Fingersmiths Ltd in 2006, exploring bilingual performance, aspiring for equality of BSL and English, Deaf culture and hearing culture, on stage.

Jean and I are a fabulous conundrum – she a profoundly Deaf signing practitioner who doesn’t use voice, me a speaking, hearing viz imp writer who signs enthusiastically but eccentrically. I’m the Mrs Malaprop of the bilingual world. Some signs have similar elements, but differ according to a particular hand shape, placement, or movement, and so our conversations are littered with my errors over many years, which have become part of our shared vocabulary. Instead of ‘let’s video that section as a memory aid’, we’ll say/sign ‘let’s Liverpool lesbian that’. I confused ‘politics’ with ‘milk’ six years ago, so now Jean signs ‘do I want milky politics?’ when she makes me a cup of tea. It’s a wonderfully humorous engagement, generous and good natured, embracing the potential creativity and comedy of linguistic mistakes.

Jean came into rehearsals this week for National Theatre Wales’s In Water I’m Weightless, my Unlimited commission for the Cultural Olympiad. We worked with performer Sophie Stone and super ‘terps Julie Hornsby and Jo Ross (Sign Language Interpreters extraordinaire), reworking excerpts of my English language text into BSL and sign performance. I try not to use the term ‘translation’, as I agree with playwright/linguist Colin Teevan’s assertion that there’s no direct correlation between languages – and especially between spoken and  signed languages, which are experientially different, even using different language centres in the brain.

It’s an exciting and complicated process. Put briefly, Jean and I discuss the text, ensuring we have a shared understanding of the content, and also my intentions. Depending then on the context, Jean will either work a theatricalised BSL version of the English, or create a more visual version, using what she calls the Visual Vernacular – a mingling of movement, gesture, and mime, informed by BSL. This is just the preliminary work, done before going into the rehearsal space and working alongside Sophie, Jo, and Julie.

I will be writing further about these elements at play in the production as the rehearsals continue – ‘access tools’ used creatively – integrated into the wider performance.

One response to “The Mrs Malaprop of British Sign Language.

  1. Pingback: Frida Kahlo, Taiwan, Translation and me… | kaiteoreilly

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