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Fun in translation!!!

Written By: Marie Joelle Yveline Thuillier on November 20, 2008 3 Comments

One night that I was toiling as a server in Burger joint, these four guys came in and started to sign with one another while checking out the menu. Because I had previously taken a year of ASL, I decided to try it out on them but they looked at me funny. I was pretty sure that I was signing “Burger” but I was not getting any clue that they understood me. So one of them made me redo the sign and finally he got it. Phew!

Then, he asked me for a piece of paper. I must admit that my confidence in my sign abilities had been seriously challenged but it turned out that they were from Denmark so they were using a different Sign language. I did not sign “Burger” but “Ping Pong.” However, two of them had learned some ASL so besides writing we had some options although limited.

These guys were very happy and kind people.. and also kinda cute. Anyway, they had their food but before they left they asked me if My co-worker and I would go for a drink the next night before they left…. so we did…and I had one of the most natural and interesting conversation I had ever had.

To recapitulate: My co-worker knew no Sign language. English is not my first language and my ASL is very poor. 2 of them also had a poor ASL (although better than mine) and only one of them could write in English….and the 2 others only knew Danish Sign language and I think written Danish, which was of no use . But somehow our desire to communicate and understand each other transformed a seemingly challenging exchange into a beautiful and creative interaction.

My co-worker would tell me something in English, which I would poorly translate in ASL, or and eventually mime, draw it, or write in English (which she decided she could do too. )Then the ASL guy would translate in DSL to his friends. Eventually, we all cut the middle men and coped as best as we could.

Actually,because our interaction was not rule by any linguistics conventions, it was kinda pure. We communicated with our facial expressions, and our thoughts and feelings were not disguised by systematic phrases…and a miracle happened. This mexican man Angel, came in and began signing. He was a ASL interpreter and was able to communicate with the 2 guys who knew ASL. This was beautiful.  We used everything we could and when the bar closed, we kept hanging out, thirsty for more experimental communication.

The funniest part was when they all came back to my place. ….The driver (who had not drunk alcohol) did not know ASL and I was the only one to know where I lived. Note that they were not very familiar with SF. So I had to sit next to the driver and make sure that I was point at the direction with my finger in his range of vision so that he could still look at the road.

We made it to my house and my neighbor George, who has a thick  stutter and no knowledge of ASL, was delighted to hang out with them and let them sleep in his living room. They left the next day for Denmark.


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3 Responses to “Fun in translation!!!”

  1. Sonja Lind on: 23 November 2008 at 5:32 pm

    I love reading anecdotes like this. I am beginning, slowly, in ASL. Coming from an applied linguistics background, I noticed the absence of ASL at conferences like the American Association of Applied Linguistics and Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages. It, too, is a language, although its operation (movement) is not one we’re used to recognizing.

    Thanks again, Marie!

  2. Hannah Husain on: 1 October 2009 at 9:11 pm

    I really enjoyed reading this anecdote, Marie. I am hoping to start learning ASL and, though I’m a little dissapointed that it’s not offered at Cal, i’m thinking of taking classes at Berkeley City College down the street. Any suggestions/recommendations of other local institutions (maybe even accredited at the university level) that I should check out? Where did you learn ASL?

    Any and all advice is appreciated =]


    Marie Thuillier Reply:

    Hi Hannah,
    I just re-read the anecdote and noticed so many typos.Anyway, thanks for your response. I have not been able to continue ASL but it’s never too late to start again; it’s so wonderful. With ASL, I discovered a whole Deaf culture which I had no idea existed.
    I heard that Berkeley city college has the best program in the Bay Area and you could have it counted towards UCB units.
    Good luck

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