How to translate Shakespeare into American Sign Language

There are few lines in literature as memorable as “To be, or not to be—that is the question.” Uttered in the third act of “Hamlet”, the soliloquy offers a poignant examination of whether it is better to quietly bear the “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” or to die, and “end the heartache”. The line has been delivered innumerable times across the world, and each actor offers a unique interpretation through pauses, tone and gesture. When David Tennant performed the line with the Royal Shakespeare Company, he spoke softly, with one long pause in the middle of the line, as though talking to himself. But when Rory Kinnear took on the role at the National Theatre, he said the line with a quiet nervousness, breaking it up with three separate pauses.

The soliloquy has been rendered in a myriad number of ways in American Sign Language, too. ASL masters—who translate English into ASL for theatre—must consider the same questions of feeling and interpretation. ASL is a distinct language with its own vocabulary and grammar, not a signed version of English (which is why it also mutually incomprehensible with British Sign Language). For this line in “Hamlet”, the translator might choose to focus on the character’s struggle to make a decision about his fate. He might have the actor consider whether to grow up or give up, followed by the sign “problem”, to indicate that the difficulty lay in making a decision.

Read more: The Economist

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