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Best Sign Language Song Interpretations... And How to Make Your Own! (ASL)

Updated on October 27, 2014

A Quick Explanation of ASL Intepretation

There are a lot of common misconceptions about American Sign Language, or ASL, but probably the most popular assumption is that it's just a signed version of English. You know the English word, you learn the sign for that word, and you do the sign. And then the next word, and the next word.

But, just like all foreign languages, ASL has its own grammatical structure and idioms. For example, a common phrase in ASL translates literally in English to "train go sorry." What it means is that you stalled too long and missed an opportunity. It's the ASL equivalent of "missed the boat."

Train Go Sorry--a common ASL idiom.
Train Go Sorry--a common ASL idiom. | Source

Did You Know?

American Sign Language and British Sign Language are completely different! A hearing British person and hearing American person would have no problem communicating, but not their Deaf counterparts. Don't feel bad for them, though; they can quite easily understand French Sign Language. Wouldn't it be awesome to intuitively know French?

That's just one small example of the difficulty of translating English to ASL. That's why, in fact, signing something that was originally English isn't called translating, it's called interpreting. Because you're not only changing the language, but the physical way the language is expressed, you have to sign an interpretation of it. There is no one correct way to sign something that was originally English. That includes songs.

So why are ASL song interpretations so popular? Well, among the Deaf community, they're a way to experience music. (Most Deaf people do have some residual hearing, so signing a song can help them make out lyrics to a melody or beat they might recognize, as well as share that experience with someone who is profoundly Deaf.)

For ASL students, creating interpretations of songs is an excellent way to practice ASL dexterity and facial expression, and they make great assignments for ASL classes, especially if the student gets to pick their own song.

The ASL sign for "Dance."
The ASL sign for "Dance." | Source

Pick the Right Song

The best ASL performances are of songs that are emotionally-charged. The ASL equivalent of English adverbs is modifying signs with facial expressions; the difference between saying that an object is far away or VERY far away is by indicating with eye-squint and mouth shape. This can be a tough adjustment for hearing students, who might feel self-conscious at first, so a song with a lot of acting potential is a good way to ease into that kind of expression.

This image, creepy though it may be, shows how much space around you you need for signing.
This image, creepy though it may be, shows how much space around you you need for signing. | Source

Be Presentable

Take off any distracting jewelry, pull your hair off your face, and angle the camera in a way that your body from the top of your head to your waist, at least, is visible. If you're going to be signing different perspectives (see my "Champagne" video at the bottom of the article for an example) make sure you have room to change your body angle to signify the change in point of view.

Know When to Look Up Words...and When Not To

There are fantastic ASL video dictionaries out there--ASLpro is probably the most comprehensive--and absolutely look up important words in the song if you don't know them. But remember that capturing each like conceptually is much more important than finding an exact translation for each word. And if your aim is to practice your signing fluency, not your vocabulary, forcing yourself to use a lot of new words might be counterproductive. Instead of doing word-for-word translations, concentrate on what message you're trying to get across, and how you can do that in signs that you already know.

Here are some examples of sign language song videos that I love...and one from me.

"Party in the USA" intepreted by Stephen Torrence

My ASL class actually used this one as an example for a performance. We changed some of it to make the grammar structure more ASL-like and less Englishy.

"F*ck You" as done by Anna (WARNING: Explicit!)

The way the acting in this performance escalates as the song progresses (notice the one-handed signs become two-handed as the song gets more intense) is seriously awesome.

"I Will Follow You Until the Dark" as done by Guy Potter

Simply beautiful. I picture this video every time I hear the song.

"Champagne" as done by ME!

I really wanted to do a duet and a song that has an angry part. This was fantastically fun to do. Notice I shifted positions to portray the different characters. I wish I'd taken my own advice here and changed more of the grammar of the song to fit ASL structure, but there are some lines where I did a good job with that ("Vanessa, I don't know why you're mad at me" is one--I ended the sentence on "why," the way you would a standard ASL question).


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