Implicit & Explicit Meaning: Implications for Sign Language Interpreters

Patrick Graybill presented Implicit & Explicit Meaning: Implications for Sign Language Interpreters at StreetLeverage – Live 2015 | Boston. His talk examines how authentic meanings can be implicit or explicit and explores some of the guiding principles for uncovering meaning.

You can find the PPT deck for his presentation here.

[Note from StreetLeverage: What follows is an English translation of Patrick’s talk from StreetLeverage – Live 2015 | Boston.  We would encourage each of you to watch the video and access Patrick’s talk directly.]

National Treasure

Good morning, everyone! It’s difficult for me to start after having watched that tribute. I’m truly stunned. To call me a national treasure, however, could be a dubious honor. I have to ask myself whether this means that I’m now a fossil or if I’m still going strong. But, after watching the video [Aaron Brace video tribute to Patrick Graybill], I must say that every time I saw Aaron Brace, I was inspired. I simply planted the seed. That’s all! What happened from then on was not my doing alone.

Freedom to be Authentic

This weekend I’ve come to the StreetLeverage conference, but I’m not an interpreter. I’m just a Deaf person, so at first I didn’t know why I would come to such an event. However, yesterday and this morning helped me understand that I can cry. I don’t tend to cry, but I did, because here at StreetLeverage, ASL is allowed to come first. It’s placed above English, and that makes me feel free, inspired, like I can simply be! I feel like I did years and years ago when I was at the National Symposium on Sign Language Research and Teaching (NSSLRT) here in Boston. Prior to that I had been performing a one-man show for the National Theatre of the Deaf (NTD), and on tour a voice actor would stand behind me and interpret my lines. While I was on stage, I would worry the whole time that I might jump a line. What would the voice actor do? Would he follow me? I was utterly thrown off by this worry during my performances. I couldn’t concentrate at all. Now, Dennis Cokely was at the NSSLRT. Like me, Dennis also planted a seed that grew. He had a Lexus; he had a condo. I didn’t have these things, so I watched him and learned. At the NSSLRT I was slated to do my one-man show, and I asked Dennis who would voice interpret for me. He said, “No one. It’s not necessary.” I said, “Wait a minute! It’s important that interpreters in the audience understand me! There has to be a voice actor behind me on stage!” He said, “No, there doesn’t.” That evening, after the day’s events, I performed my show, and I felt unbelievably free. I was emotionally free. I had no worries about the interpreter behind me. That experience had an enormous impact on me, and it convinced me of something that I’ll share with you now.

As I said, that evening on stage I had no worries, no internal distractions or discomforts to impede my performance. I want interpreters to have that same experience. I want you to feel honest inside, to feel free, to feel that if you make a mistake, you can carry on. I want you to feel in your work that you’re not merely donning a mask and pretending to be something, but that you are being authentic as a person.

Implicit and Explicit Meaning

Language has multiple meanings. Sometimes it carries explicit meaning, which is easily grasped and easily understood. Sometimes language conveys implicit meaning, which is murky, abstract, and difficult to encode. Perhaps a good word for this type of meaning is “invisible”. This hidden meaning wants to be made clear to the world. “Here I am! Under here! Bring me out!” Interpreters study these meanings, and they often spend more time looking at explicit meaning than implicit meaning. However, when they understand the implicit meanings, their interpretations are far more honest, clear, and confident. If they stay at the surface without plumbing the depths of meaning, the message is not made clear, and we as consumers have to work very hard to uncover the meaning ourselves. That’s what I want to address with you today.

Yesterday, Marvin Miller presented on Deafhood and the importance of having an internal sense of identity. Interpreters must have their own internal sense of identity, too – their “interpreterhood”, if you will. My journey as a teacher, as an actor, and as a member of the church began with this internal sense of identity. It must start from an authentic place within.

Gulliver’s Travels

I grew up in a residential school, which taught me one particular way of thinking. I had to adopt my teachers’ perspectives and follow their lead. Then at Gallaudet, when I was about 20 or 21 years old, I began to grapple with my identity. I knew I wanted to be an actor, but Gallaudet didn’t offer a major in theater. Acting was considered extracurricular there, which was fine, but I had to choose a major. I thought perhaps I could pursue teaching, but Gallaudet didn’t offer a major in education either. I had to wait until graduate school to study education. So, as I was weighing my options, I spoke with Dr. Robert F. Panara who was a late-deafened professor. He said, “You love acting. You love reading. You should major in English. You can read and study plays.” And being the good boy that I was, I followed his advice. I took classes in English, and in one, we read Gulliver’s Travels. I understood it superficially, thinking that the story of the giants and the miniature people was merely cute. But as we discussed the book in class, and different perspectives were raised, I became confused. These characters were symbols representing the struggle between the British and the Irish. This concept really threw me. From then on, I grew to understood that a text contains multiple perspectives.

Much later, I learned how to translate the Bible, and fortunately, I didn’t have to struggle alone in that task. I counted on MJ Bienvenu, Marie Phillip, Freda Norman, linguist Charlotte Baker-Shenk, consultant Kevin Kreutzer, as well as a hearing biblical scholar who had expertise in Hebrew and Greek. We all worked together, examining and uncovering the layers of meaning in the Bible and bringing them to the surface. I was at once intellectually and emotionally stimulated. I loved the Bible! Not because of its piety, but because people from biblical times experienced the same struggles, the same emotions, and the same depth of thinking that we do today. Literature contains these same themes. Gulliver’s Travels contains these same themes. From that point on, this work has been fun! Uncovering implicit meaning is fun, and I want you interpreters to experience that, too. It’s fun! Life is good. Why waste it arguing? Dig into the deeper meanings, and do it together, not alone.

The Semantics of Boston Strong

Let’s look at this symbol in terms of its explicit and implicit meanings. On Friday, Patrick Costello exclaimed, “Boston Strong!” Firstly, that statement had a certain prosody. We know some of its explicit meaning, but we can explore it more deeply. What does Boston mean? What does Strong mean?

I don’t have a PhD in semantics. I am not a linguist. But I have consulted on the interpretations of plays with Aaron Brace among others, and we focus on examining meaning at the implicit level. We work to uncover deeper meanings, and people have often said to me, “You should teach a course in semantics!” I’ve always demurred, but over the years, despite the fact that I have no degree, I have gained a lot of experience with interpretation and translation. I’ve come to realize that teaching is not what’s important. Gaining experience is. The work of deep analysis, digging for and unearthing implicit meaning, is perhaps where the new national treasure lies. Making explicit those implicit meanings allows us to present a clearer message. From there, we can doff our masks, dispense with ambiguity, and be free to render an authentic message. Whether you’re an interpreter, an actor, or a teacher, the key is communication, and clearer is better. Don’t you agree?

Levels of Meaning

There are fours levels of meaning, and I imagine you’ve studied them and know what they are. I find them fascinating. Take Street Leverage, for example. We have the word, street. Taken alone, what does this word mean? I’m here at this conference and I see no street. What about the word, leverage? Maybe this is a common word for hearing people, but as a Deaf person, I see the words “street” and “leverage”, and I don’t get it. Now, at the phrasal level, what is Street Leverage? What does this phrase mean? I still don’t know. At the sentential level, I can look at the words that make up the mission of StreetLeverage and begin to see that it has to do with interpreters improving their skills, developing a sense of identity, and advancing the profession. But it’s not until I look at the level of the text as a whole that I can understand what StreetLeverage is all about, both intellectually and emotionally.

We can do the same exercise with the expression, Boston Strong. What is Boston? What is Strong?

Mayor Menino’s Speech: Semantic Levels

This is an excerpt from the mayor’s speech made on the day after the marathon bombings in Boston. We see the word Boston in the text. What was in the mayor’s mind when he said that word? What did he mean by Boston? Let’s look further.

Patrick Graybill

Patrick Graybill

We may think of a city when we see the word, Boston. But can a city be strong? “We are one Boston.” Interesting. We are a city? Are we buildings? No, we are people. Okay, so Boston cannot exist without us as people. Boston needs us. “One”. Hmmm. The paragraph begins, “Good morning. And it is a good morning…” Do these two iterations of “good morning” mean the same thing? No, they don’t. We know this intuitively. Obviously, the mayor meant the first as a greeting. The second is a statement on the greatness of the morning due to the fact that we are together, united. Boston is us. We are one. And the people of this city are not breaking down. We are resilient. Intrusions will not budge us. Challenges cannot disrupt us. We are strong. This is what is meant by Boston Strong. To simply interpret this concept into ASL with the signs for “Boston” and “strong” is not enough. It’s also not about how to do it correctly or who decides what the appropriate signs are. As we take time to engage in discussions about its meaning, the right signs will emerge. It’s not as though one person can come up with the correct expression of this in ASL. That would be impossible. It requires that people work together to construct its translation.

Responsibilities for Translators

I’ve been a translator for about 25 years. It is imperative for us to look for and uncover implicit meaning. It is our responsibility! We must sift through ambiguities and render a whole, truthful, completely clear picture of what is there in the source text. Then when I deliver the translated text to a group of Deaf people, its message must be understood as equal to, not lesser than, that of the source text. Equivalence is our ultimate responsibility.

Genuine Confidence

Interpreters have the very same responsibility that translators do. As you acquire more skills in translation work, your confidence will grow. Your interpretations will become strong, and you’ll astound people with the clarity of your work. You won’t leave us looking at each other trying to discern what you mean. No more of that! Here at StreetLeverage, as I experienced yesterday and today, it’s happening. It’s possible. There’s no need for voice interpreters. I’m standing here today, and I’m not wondering what the interpreter is doing. I don’t have to look down to check on an interpreter. All of us, Deaf and hearing alike, are using ASL here. We’re all on equal footing. It’s a strange world for me, but it’s the best. It’s simply the best.


Lastly, interpreters do not have to do this work alone! Together, we can do the analyses, make mistakes, and learn. Together, we can take on this task. Moreover, it isn’t only for the “on” interpreter and the “off” interpreter to tackle a translation. Deaf people and hearing people must work together on this. In my workshop this afternoon, Deaf and hearing people will work together to translate a text. This translation work serves as a tool, since interpreters on the job must do it simultaneously in real time. You can practice using this tool from time to time, in the evenings over a glass of wine or a cup of coffee, in front of a nice dessert. You can sit in a circle, look at a text, and work on uncovering its implicit meanings. Discussing it together, the hearing interpreters can analyze the English text while the Deaf interpreters determine how best to express those concepts in ASL. Working together, our world will surely grow brighter! Good luck to you all!

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