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“Bawdy Language” explores Shakespeare and sign language

USF’s Peter Novak lectures on Friday, February 17

Peter Novak, the chairman of the performing arts department at the University of San Francisco, learned American Sign Language as a child because his father was a doctor at the Michigan School for the Deaf. He has translated William Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night and parts of The Tempest into ASL and will speak about the process on Friday, February 17, at the University Professors Program’s Literary Translation Seminar.

Peter Novak  

Novak spoke with BU Today about the obstacles and advantages of translating Shakespeare for a deaf audience.

BU Today: What are the linguistic challenges of translating Shakespeare into ASL?

Novak: There’s verse in Shakespeare, there’s rhyme, there are puns, there are songs — there are so many ways that language is used, and you have to look at all of those and figure out how to replicate them in a language that doesn’t have the same sense of rhyme and rhythm. You really have to find an alternative viewpoint — and viewpoint is a good way of saying it because it is a visual language — so all of those elements are now translated by a visual medium into a visual language, and we’ve found corollaries for all of them.

Can you give an example of a visual pun?

In the very beginning of Twelfth Night, a servant says, “Will you go hunt, my lord?” and Orsino says, “What?” and the servant says, “The hart.” Orsino says, “Why so I do, the noblest that I have,” meaning heart.

The image we came up with was somebody going to hunt with a bow and arrow; we translated the hunting imagery into the crosshairs you find at the end of a scope, if you’re looking into a rifle. We took an image of that on the fingers and put the target onto the heart instead. We moved it from out in the world onto the body itself and made a pun, not on the words hart and heart but on the visual image of a hunting scope.

And rhymes, for example, can be done using a similar hand shape, or movement, with the body.

What are some of the limitations you’ve encountered in working in ASL?

I don’t think in terms of limitations; I think in terms of difficulties and trying to overcome those in other ways. It’s such a creative language that the fun is in coming up with something that works, that shows a creative visual way of overcoming an obstacle in translation. There are so many things that happen in Shakespeare, when you translate the language, that deaf audiences understand so much better than hearing audiences. They get status and class better, probably — they understand Shakespeare’s sexual puns and jokes much better, because they’re more visible in sign language.

I don’t think hearing audiences really comprehend 50 percent of what’s being said on the stage, but deaf people will understand a heck of a lot more.

Why focus on Shakespeare, which is difficult for even native English speakers?

Why not start with the most difficult? Imagine trying to read Shakespeare if you’re deaf, when English might not be your first language. To make Shakespeare accessible, in a creative way that respects the language and the culture, was the most important task of this project.

And why did you choose Twelfth Night?

Twelfth Night, I think, is Shakespeare’s best comedy. The characters are the most interesting and diverse, the story line is one of the most fun, it involves lots of music, great puns, and complicated language. But mostly, I think, the characters are the most fun for me.

Novak’s lecture, Bawdy Language: Shakespeare and American Sign Language, is at 1 p.m. in Room 250 at 750 Commonwealth Ave.