Here’s an historical post. The key part is the video below which was created in 1972.
The video has been promised to accompany my chapter in the Festschrift for Ursula Bellugi and Ed Klima published in 2000. In that chapter I analyzed Lou Fant’s live interpretation of a spoken reminiscence. I was the (English) speaker; Lou used American Sign Language (ASL). My story told about trying to ride a Flexiflyer down a steep U-shaped driveway and back up.
Spoiler alert: I crashed.
Key Findings: Fant managed to get the description of the relationship of the house, the driveway and the sled’s riders correct, if mirror-image of the actual space, without having seen the place, without any gestures from me (the speaker), and with the English input message being pretty sketchy. And the cool part? He continues still interpreting for at least a full minute, before he commits himself to those spatial relationships.
It takes a village…
Support from the National Institutes of Health and National Science Foundation over the past 40 years fueled the research of Klima and Bellugi, and many of their students and colleagues. I was privileged to be a member of the laboratory research staff from Fall 1970 through Spring 1973, and an irregular visitor thereafter. This video was created in 1972 at the Salk Institute. It was preserved during the early 1980s (on VHS cassette). It was digitized in 2000 with help from Stanford’s Academic Technology Laboratory (a support facility for faculty), and from Treehouse Video. I’m thrilled to report that the .mov (Quicktime format) video still plays, and has now been uploaded to YouTube, and is presented for your viewing pleasure, with gratitude to all those who helped along the way.
Pack rat unveiled
I saved that bit of video from Fant’s first (or perhaps second) visit to Salk Institute on one of my irregular visits back to La Jolla. When copying from helical scan 1/2″ videotape to VHS cassette, I remembered that I had consciously chosen to tell about an event that no one in the room had heard before, one from my childhood, so that it would be a genuine listening and viewing experience for both the hearing and deaf people present (not a retelling of a familiar story). Of course the interpreter hadn’t heard this story before, and he didn’t have much context about me either. I thought I had been quite clear about the physical space – I could picture it even many years after the event – how the house was situated, where the driveway started, turned, and ended at the street again, and what it was like to ride the wheeled sled. On listening again, I realize that the physical space is difficult to imagine if you were depending on the spoken message only.
Interpreter stays vague for a full minute
Our visitor, the exemplary interpreter and sign language educator, Lou Fant agreed to contrast “transliteration” and “interpreting.” I’ll offer a brief definition of these terms, knowing full well that other experts out there can elaborate in greater depth. Transliteration is a more English-influenced rendering into signs; interpreting is provides simultaneous translation into ASL, a different language, with English influence kept to a minimum. The excerpt shown here was the first part of the illustration of “interpreting.” The key surprise for me in reviewing the video was that Fant managed to keep the message vague as he worked out how all the different parts of the space described fit together. The ability to be vague had never been catalogued as a characteristic of the competent interpreter before. When I told him I was planning to look at this bit of video at long last and asked whether he’d like to see what I was finding and writing about him, he gave his blessing to my work without his review. I’m delighted to be able to present his spontaneous interpretation now almost 40 years after it was first produced.
And thanks to an interpreting instructor who uses the chapter from the Festschrift for asking where that video is. Rachel, it’s here now.
“Bob’s House” marked a milestone for PepsiCo, for sign language and Deaf folks, and for the SuperBowl. This commercial aired as part of the pre-game activities in 2008. If you haven’t seen it, check it out by clicking on the image above.
Summary of the key points of the narrative
Two men are driving through a residential neighborhood at night, blaming one another for not knowing which house is Bob’s. The driver leans on the car’s horn, arousing the occupants of the darkened houses who turn on the interior lights, peek outside and even step onto a now lighted porch. The one house that remains dark must be the one belonging to their deaf friend. They park, ring the doorbell, and enter as their host Bob signs and mouths “sorry” to his neighbors. The passenger’s “We’ll miss the kick-off” cues the viewer that it’s Superbowl time; the driver drinking from a Pepsi bottle suffices to identify the sponsor.
This commercial captures a traditional bit of Deaf folklore, in which creating noise annoys hearing people and simultaneously allows identification of the Deaf target of interest. Deaf (written with a capital D) carries the implication of cultural identification with the community that shares values, behaviors, and sign language. The usage follows the civil rights movement’s embrace of term “Black” from an ethnic slur to an identity of pride. (Little “d” deaf refers to the audiological condition of hearing impairment, where a deaf person cannot perceive the unaided auditory signal to understand speech. The term “hard of hearing” may refer to a person whose hearing impairment is less severe, as measured by a hearing test, but also has a sociological meaning, referring to the person with an audiological impairment who functions within a speech environment more easily, through hearing aids and speechreading.)
Beyond the narrative structure of the commercial, which reproduces a familiar sign language joke in a film treatment, there are additional messages in the commercial that indicate its genuine portrayal of Deaf culture.
Deaf (and deaf) people can drive
The National Fraternal Society of the Deaf (founded 1901, closed in 2004) provided life insurance to deaf people who couldn’t qualify with other companies. The Frat functioned as a social service and advocacy group as well. It meets for the last time in early March 2010 to close the books. As with many charitable institutions which hope their mission will be accomplished, the Frat is closing in part because deaf people no longer suffer discrimination in insurance coverage, but also because there are other mechanisms and organizations which handle the advocacy portions of its mission.
Turning on the dome light helps visual communication in the dark
The driver turns on the light in the car to have the argument with the passenger about who was supposed to bring the street address.
Doorbells become flashing lights
Perhaps you caught the fact that the guests’ doorbell press triggered flashing lights inside Bob’s house, a visual signal of a typically auditory message. Harris Communications is one of several companies that supplies specialty products, including vibrating alarm clocks and flashing lights hooked to audio signals, for the specialized audience, “Deaf and Hard of Hearing people, people interested in sign language, Deaf Culture, hearing loss and more.” Hmmm, sounds like everyone, doesn’t it?
The companion video presents the employees who perform in the commercial, capturing their genuine surprise and delight about sharing the Deaf world with the Superbowl audience.
Congratulations to PepsiCo for responding to a Deaf employee’s suggestion, and for involving the National Association of the Deaf in turning the suggestion into reality. The performers in this video are not necessarily trained as actors, but the authenticity of their signing is obvious to Deaf and signing audiences.
Here’s the big question: What products shall we make so that we don’t have to retrofit the environment?
Carol Padden & Tom Humphries, “Deaf in America: Voices from a culture” explicates of the foundations of Deaf culture through stories, jokes, poetry and the perspective of a Deaf-centered world.