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Online Edition - Adoremus Bulletin -Vol. III, No. 4: June 1997

Translation Without Words:

Should American Sign Language Become an Official Liturgical Language?

by Helen Hull Hitchcock and Susan Benofy

Recent controversy over language in the liturgy has focused on the retranslation of English-language texts used for Mass, both Scripture and prayers for Mass. But at their meeting in November 1996, the American bishops, by blanket acceptance of the "Priorities and Plans" of their various conference committees, tacitly approved a plan of the Bishops' Committee on the Liturgy to make American Sign language an official liturgical language.

The BCL's report said that at their June 17-18, 1996 meeting,

The Liturgy Committee also approved requests that American Sign Language and the Native American language of Laguna be designated as liturgical languages for the United States. These requests are being presented to the Administrative Committee and require confirmation by the Apostolic See prior to the preparation of liturgical texts.

The bishops also approved the BCL's plan "to approve, adapt, and authorize liturgical rites, texts and books". Included on the list is "Eucharistic prayer for Masses with hearing-impaired persons".

According to the usual practice, the "Priorities and Plans" of the NCCB committees were approved as a block without debate. Thus, although the bishops did not discuss this liturgical proposal, and most bishops are probably unaware of the plan, the composition of a new Eucharistic Prayer in American Sign Language has also been authorized by the U.S. bishops.

New Translation Problems?

Translation of liturgical texts into English have caused considerable concern. Could making American Sign Language an official liturgical language create a new set of problems? Obviously, translating a written text intended to be spoken into a non-verbal "language" like signing will present unique difficulties for translation. Could the principles of translation for other vernacular texts be affected?

How would signing as an "official liturgical language" differ from simply interpreting the spoken Mass in sign language? This has already been done for almost as long as English has been used in the Mass. Why is making sign language an official liturgical language thought necessary now?

What might be gained by declaring sign language an official lanugage for the liturgy? What new translation problems might surface?

Non-written, non-verbal

English is not the only language presently approved for liturgical use in the United States. After English, Spanish is the most frequently used in the U.S. Other languages given episcopal approval for liturgial use in the U.S. include several Native American languages. Many other European and Asian languages are approved by the bishops of the countries where they are spoken. Prsumably these liturgical languages go through standard procedures for approval by the national conferences the Holy See.

But all these liturgical languages are written languages. The proposal that American Sign language be designated a liturgical language is apparently the first time an official designation has been sought for a non-written, non-verbal language.

As early as 1965, the American bishops' conference requested permission for the use of sign language in masses with deaf congregations. The request to the Consilium, a group of experts responsible for implementing liturgical reforms folowing the Second Vatican Council, was written on July 8, 1965, and received a favorable reply on December 10. The Consilium's letter said,

With great willingness and kindness, the Holy Father has given his full approval to these suggestions, and moreover that sign language could be used with and by deaf people throughout the liturgy, wherever it was judged to be pastorally desirable.

Sign language interpretations, of course, make it possible for those who have difficulty understanding or hearing the language in which the Mass is said to follow it more easily. In this respect, signed interpretations are similar to the unofficial English translations that appeared in Latin Missals before the Council. But simple interpretation for the hearing-impaired is not what is being sought in the BCL's recent action.

According to current rules, the words of the official texts for Mass must be spoken as well as signed. Declaring American Sign language a liturgical language would seem to mean that a Mass said solely in sign language ­ without spoken words ­ would be a valid Mass. Perhaps an entirely separate rite in sign language is envisioned.

It seems clear that the BCL's objective is not limited simply to authorizing a separate Eucharistic Prayer "translated" into sign language. In June 1993 the BCL actually rejected a proposal to use the Eucharistic Prayer for Masses with the Deaf used in England and Wales, and "decided instead to pursue the recognition of American Sign Language as an approved liturgical language in the United States with subsequent development of liturgical texts in that language to follow" (emphasis added).

Difficulties and Limitations

Before such a step is taken, the difficulies and limitations of a sign language should be considered carefully. At the time the sign language interpretation was first approved, the Internation Catholic Deaf Association worked with the bishops in suggesting adaptations in the manner of saying Mass to accommodate interpretation in sign language. One recommendation was this:

Because of the difficulty in rendering into signs the language of the Nicene Creed and of giving exact meaning to many of its concepts, the leader signs the Apostles Creed with the congregation while the priest recites the Nicene Creed aloud.

The American bishops later asked for and received permission to substitute the Apostle's Creed for the Nicene Creed in masses for the deaf.

What might be the implications of such substitutions?

At a recent bishops' meeting, Bishop Donald Trautman, then chairman of the Liturgy Committee, stated that any vernacular version of the mass approved by the bishops and the Holy See is considered an editio typica; that is, an authoritative version by which other translations are measured. If this is true, and if sign language is an approved liturgical language, this could create a host of unforeseen problems.

One of the most effective means of making changes in the liturgy has been first to seek limited approval for the desired innovations (in order to meet special pastoral needs), and then, once limited permission has been received, to push for a universal application of the change. Once an exception is permitted, it is easy to make the exception the rule.

For example, acclamations were inserted into the Eucharistic Prayer for Masses with Children as a special concession to the presumed level of understanding of young children. But now it is often argued that acclamations by "the assembly" should be included in all Eucharistic Prayers. In fact, several musical settings of Eucharistic Prayers now add acclamaations to be sung by the congregation.

Even if this was not the intention of the bishops who authorized American Sign Language as an official liturgical language, it is not too far-fetched to believe that some liturgists may use this to achieve their own objectives. This concern is sharpened in light of the controversy over so-called "inclusive language". Consider, for example, E. L. Theobald's description of how one passage would be rendered:

[T]he emphasis of sign language upon conveying concepts rather than words actually makes some of the prayers clearer in sign language than in English. For example, 'Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord' become "blessed is Jesus (or Christ) who comes in the name of the Lord'.

Another aspect of this emphasis on concepts is that not all the words are represented by signs (it is unnecessary and often impractical because of the speed required, particularly when these acclamations are said rather than sung). So the above phrase is signed as 'Blessed Christ come name Lord'".

This absence of pronouns extends to the readings, according to Theobald:

The signer also requires good spatial representation and facial characterization. When an individual person is mentioned ... in a story or conversation, they are [sic] given a location within the signing space. Later references to that person are then achieved by eye movement, looking or pointing to the placement. Therefore it is not necessary to keep referring to the person by name. 

Automatic Neutering

What happens when the pronouns are eliminated? Since a sign-language version of the Sacramentary of the Lectionary would never refer either to persons or to God as "he", it would thus automatically incorporate both "horizontal" and "vertical" inclusive language.

This neutering effect of eliminating pronouns might extend to nouns as well. A book by Elaine Costello, Religious Signing, presents a collection of almost 600 signs. Although there is a sign for person, there is no sign for either "man" or "woman".

If, as Bishop Trautman has said, any approved vernacular translation becomes an editio typica against which other translations are measured, could the official approval of sign language be a means of resolving the controversy over neutered English in favor of "inclusivity" in future written texts?

Theological Problems

An equal concern is whether it is possible for sign language to transmit key theological concepts clearly, as the signed version of the Creed revealed. Even advocates of signing admit it is difficult to convey theological nuances in this language. Costello cautions that a string of signs may be needed to convey the message, and that even then, "The doctrines must often be understood before the concepts can be transliterated into sign language". Moreover, the use of such strings of signs in liturgical prayers may be considered "impractical", as Theobald does in the article quoted above.

This caution also seems to be ignored in practice. Costello tells us that signers who are unfamiliar with the doctrines often cannot formulate adequate signs and devise impromptu ones. In time, these hastily invented signs may become adopted as standard. Use of signs devised by those who do not understand the doctrines and concepts seems an unlikely means of developing a theologically adequate liturgical language.

Liturgical Signs

A few examples illustrate the deficiency of current signed equivalents for key terms.

Priest/Pharisee ­ The sign for "priest" is the same as that for "Pharisee", and "follows the form of the breastplate worn by the members of the ancient Jewish sect that emphasized strict interpretation and observance of the Mosaic law".

Altar/Table ­ the signs for "altar" is the same as the sign for "table", except that the hands are formed into the manual alphabet "A" while signing "altar".

Baptism ­ there are four different signs given for baptism. One suggests immersion (and also indicates the denomination Baptist), another means pouring water, still another denotes sprinkling, and the last combines the sign for "baby" with that for sprinking.

Pentecost/Pontius Pilate ­ curiously, the sign for "Pentecost" is exactly the same as that for "Pontius Pilate". One is suposed to infer the correct meaning from context, but why the signs are identical is never explained.

More confusion: "Rubrical Nitwits"

In addition to the inadequacy of signs to convey concepts with accuracy, some disturbing practices are apparently developing in signed Masses, and the doctrinal as well as liturgical implications of some of these are stunning. Consider, for example, the revealing comments in Father George W. Wilson, SJ's account of a Mass which was interpreted in sign language:

[A] small contingent of the hearing impaired were seated in the front row and each was repeating the mesage being signed.... Here was a part of the lay congregation joining fully in reciting the Eucharistic Prayer.

[This communal signing continued during the entire Mass, including the Eucharistic Prayer.]

They can pray our common eucharistic prayer together with the presiders while the rest of us who are 'fully abled' in one oral language or another must listen in silence.

I just hope that some rubrical nitwit in a church office somewhere doesn't read this and decree that your arms must be tied behind your backs or that a veil must drop down over your signer just before the institution narrative.

A final irony: the presider was a bishop. And the signer was one of those persons who, according to recent Vatican decrees, [had] the impairment of not being able fully to set forth an image of Jesus.

Father Wilson's comments strongly suggest that there has been insufficient supervision by the bishops of the interpretation of the liturgy by sign language ­ a situation that seems likely to be complicated further if signing becomes an official language of the Church.

What is to be gained?

A basic question is, what real benefit to hearing-impaired Catholics would be gained from declaring American Sign language an authorized liturgical language?

Sign-language interpretation of the Mass has been in use for almost thirty years, and is being made more widely available, as it doubtless should be. But making signing a "liturgical language" would not be likely to create more signed Masses, nor add to the participation possibilities already available.

Even more fundamental questions arise if sign language is to become more than a means of interpreting written texts:

Will Masses "said" exclusively in sign language be permitted? Surely it would seem so. But if so, the physical requirements of signing would surely interefere with some of the prescribed gestures of the liturgy. Would these gestures thus become optional?

If Masses solely in sign language were permitted, only a priest could sign the prayers to be said by the celebrant. This would almost certainly lead to fewer, not more, signed Masses. Could someone other than a priest be given authority to sign the Eucharistic Prayer at a spoken Mass if this is an official language, not merely an interpretation? If someone else were authorized to "say" the priest's part of the Mass, the theological implications would be very far-reaching, and cannot be ignored.

Clearly the bishops should be concerned about these matters. But the procedure for making sign language an official liturgical language has left most bishops out of the discussion. It is being handled by only two committees of the bishops' conference (liturgy and pastoral practices), and the only information on the matter is contained in a few lines in Agenda documents that are not discussed in detail at bishops' meetings.

Genuine pastoral concern for Catholics who cannot hear ­ and who should be able to understand the Mass ­ is necessary, and no one could object to this. In fact, the bishops might best serve deaf people by making sure that the signed Masses convey the full meaning of the texts, and by correcting present abuses in sign-interpreted liturgies. Perhaps bishops should also become more aware of the particular challenges of sign language interpretation, and see that more adequate signs to convey theological concepts are developed for use in liturgies for deaf congregations.

Real improvements such as these, however, cannot be given to deaf Catholics by declaring American Sign Language an official language of the Church. Furthermore, unless the doctrinal and liturgical problems involved are resolved, and unless clear and decisive instructions for the use of sign language at Mass are assured, the intended benefit to hearing-impaired Catholics will be lost in confusion.

***

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