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Hum Me A Song

March 2, 2020

Some things don’t translate. No matter how well a person knows two languages, there are some concepts that do not translate between languages.

I used to teach American Sign Language. And despite the idea that it’s somehow “different” it’s still a language. I was good at ASL. I was better than good. I was very, very good. In fact, I was good enough that deaf people couldn’t tell from watching me sign, if I was deaf or not.

I did lots of interpretting while I was a fulltime missionary for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. By the time I completed my two year mission, I was as good as I figured I could ever become.

When I was teaching classes, I would use an example to illustrate how interpretting isn’t only a matter of skill. For example, I assume you’ve heard a piano in your lifetime. Or better yet, a violin. In fact, you could probably recognize one playing. You could proably recognize the difference between a violin and a cello. If you were really good, you might even be able to recognize the difference between a violin and a viola. The great performer Victor Borge described the difference,

The difference between a violin and a viola is that a viola takes slightly longer to burn.
– Victor Borge

Now, think about what the violin sounds like. And in the comments below, explain to me what it sounds like. After all, you know what it sounds like, right? You can tell a violin from a cello. Assume I’ve never heard either and explain to me, taking as many words as you want, to explain it to me so that can recognize a violin when I hear it.

You can’t can you? There are some things that simply don’t translate. And while it’s easier to think about the difference between a spoken language and a visual one, there are differences in spoken languages just as stark.

I don’t sign as well as I used to. I can still communicate. But, I’m still better than I was when I started signing back at the beginning of my mission. A new missionary spends two months learning a language at the Missionary Training Center in Provo, Utah. We have a ruled called “SYL” Speak Your Language. ASL missionaries changed it to mean Sign Your Language.

The idea was that the best way to learn the language was to immerse yourself in it. Speak it, or sign it as much as possible, daily, constantly. There were a group of us all going through the MTC together. The advantage we had in the ASL program was that many of the missionaries were deaf. Obviously, they didn’t need to learn the language and they were a great help to those of us who were learning.

The deaf missionaries would also keep us on our toes about always using sign language. I think at times they enjoyed the fact that we couldn’t keep up with the conversations they had amongst themselves.

It didn’t mean we wouldn’t occasionally play tricks on them as well. In fact, one stands out still after nearly 40 years. We were in a classroom with everyone sitting in a circle. One of the deaf sister missionaries was standing in the middle of the circle explaining a concept.

Someone, I don’t remember who, started humming. How would you describe humming to a person who had never heard anything? Not that we tried to explain it. In fact, we joined in. Pretty soon, every hearing person in the room was humming. It wasn’t a song, it was just monotone humming. It wouldn’t even be called a song.

The Sister missionary noticed the sound. Her hearing aid let her know that there was noise somewhere. She quickly kept glancing around the circle to try to find someone’s lips moving. We all just smiled and shrugged our shoulders.

After all, some things don’t translate.

Rodney M Bliss is an author, columnist and IT Consultant. His blog updates every weekday. He lives in Pleasant Grove, UT with his lovely wife, thirteen children and grandchildren.

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