Signing Worship Music

One of my favorite uses of sign language is that of signing as a form of worship. The flowing movements of the signs along with the music can be a beautiful way to enhance the worship experience, even if there is no Deaf person present. One doesn't have to understand sign language to appreciate the beauty of a signed worship song that is done well.

I enjoy signing as a part of my worship whenever I feel moved to do so. I feel that it adds to my expression of love for the Lord, in the same way that liturgical dance enhances worship.

Many people carefully plan, practice, and then perform signed worship songs either as individuals or as groups. This can be a great blessing to the members of the congregation. If there are no Deaf people present, the song can be done in ASL or English sign with the same basic result.

I often see people performing songs in English for their hearing congregation. It is simpler for new signers since it doesn't require learning a new language, it just requries learning the signs.

If you are already learning ASL, putting a song into ASL is a great way to practice finding the appropriate sentence structure. Since a song is almost always frozen text, you can take as much time as necessary to come up with the best possible ASL and practice it until it comes naturally.

Interestingly enough, when it comes to interpreting for worship, you will often find that the Deaf people you serve would prefer that you sign the songs in English. Other interpreters used to argue with me about this. ASL signers would never ask for a song to be done in signed English! I didn't have an explanation for it, I had just noticed that the Deaf people were asking me to follow the words that were on the screen, even though they generally prefered ASL for everything else.

I didn't understand it until recently. I was taking a workshop from the well known interpreter and interpreter trainer, Betty Colonomos, and she mentioned that when we sing or recite something together such as The Lord's Prayer, or the Pledge of Allegiance, we tend not to be paying somuch attention to the words themselves as the fact that we are doing it in unison. Our focus is on doing something together in unity. For this reason, Deaf people often want to feel that togetherness that comes from singing the same words at the same time, rather than focus on getting the meaning of the song through an ASL interpretation of it. Who knew? 

When Am I Ready

So how do you know when you are ready to start doing a little church interpreting? The answer is going to vary, depending on the Deaf people who attend your church and the other interpreters at the church. Some Deaf congregants are very flexible and patient, and even willing to miss a good part of the message in order to help new interpreters start. Others really want to understand the whole service, and may be less willing to have a new interpreter during the services.

When I started, I was the only person at the church who knew sign at all, and there was a Deaf couple that was determined to attend that church, so they were willing to be patient with me and teach me. If there had been skilled interpreters in the church, I probably wouldn't have started interpreting so soon.

There tend to be two extremes when it comes to stepping out and actually interpreting. Some people desperately want to get up there and start interpreting and have no idea how lacking their skills are. Often the Deaf members of the congregation will tolerate a lot in the name of love. We need to be careful to make sure the Deaf aren't suffering because of our ambition. At the same time, other interpreters are definitely ready to start interpreting, but they don't feel that they are.

In both cases, you really have to trust your mentor. If you have been working with a more seasoned interpreter and that interpreter says you are ready, trust him. Get out there and start interpreting. You will always have more to learn, but you do have to start somewhere. If your mentor tells you to wait, then diligently work on your skills until you are ready. Learning a new language takes some people longer than others. You can't judge your progress by the progress of others. Each person learns at a different pace. If God has called you to learn the language, He will give you the ability to do it, so stay with it!

The only real measure we need to be looking at is, have I achieved everything God has called me to achieve as an interpreter? Is my skill level where He wants it to be? If the answer is no, then keep learning...keep working...until you can answer yes to these questions.

For we dare not make ourselves of the number, or compare ourselves with some that commend themselves: but they measuring themselves by themselves, and comparing themselves among themselves, are not wise. 2 Co. 10:12

How Do I Sign Loathsome Pestilence?

There are many terms in the Bible and in hymns that require the interpreter to do mental gymnastics in order to quickly determine the actual meaning so that the message can be relayed effectively. It is important to remember that the interpreter's job is to convey the meaning, not the actual words. The only time you would be concerned about the actual words is if the material is something that might come up on a test later, so if you're not interpreting for Bible School, you probably will never need to fingerspell the words "loathsome pestilence".

In the case of "loathsome pestilence", the words mean "awful sickness" or "horrible sickness" so that is what you would sign.

If you are stumped on any particular words it's always a good idea to consult a dictionary or thesaurus later, in order to be prepared the next time that word comes up. One good resource for interpreters is this
dictionary for scriptures that was put together for ASL interpreters. It does not show signs, but does give the meanings of many words found in scripture, so it will benefit interpreters who already have a fairly good sign vocabulary.

Deaf Ministry

If you have Deaf people attending your church, the decisions about how to sign songs and whether to sign in ASL, PSE, or English are no longer yours to make. They should be determined as much as possible by the Deaf congregants. Of course, if you are a new interpreter who is still learning ASL, you may have a hard time interpreting everything into ASL, even if that is the preference of the Deaf attendees, but your goal should be to work toward interpreting in the language preferred by the Deaf.

Don't assume that the preference is ASL. There are many Deaf people who grew up in a hearing family and went to a mainstream school program where PSE or SEE was used. You could also have a Deaf person who became Deaf later in life, and therefore had English as a first language, and still prefers English. It's important to watch how your Deaf church member signs and interpret or transliterate in a manner that closely matches his or her style.

One thing I have noticed with some church interpreters is a lack of interest in improving their skills. They see what they do at church as a duty and, while they may love the Deaf people that attend the church, they just don't see a need to work on becoming a better interpreter. It is important to remember that the Bible says that whatever we do we should do as unto the Lord. We should always want to give the Lord our best, so we need to give any ministry we are involved in our best as well. That means taking workshops, reading books, and/or socializing with Deaf people in order to become the best interpreters we can be for Him.

Sharing the Load

Hopefully if you have a Deaf ministry, you have at least two interpreters in your church. It is difficult for one interpreter to interpret everything that happens in a service. If you have a minister for preaches for an hour or more, it can become physically exhausting to try to do the interpreting alone.

Exhaustion isn't the only problem. Research has shown that the quality of the interpreted message begins to decline after around 20 minutes of interpreting. Even the best interpreters will begin to make mistakes after 20 or 30 minutes. This means that the Deaf church members are no longer getting a clear message.

I have seen many churches split the interpreting by having one interpreter handle the worship part of the service, and another handle the sermon. That's fine if your minister preaches 30 minutes or less, but for those "long winded" preachers, it will really benefit your Deaf congregation if you use a team of interpreters for the sermon so that the message remains clear.

Christian Songs ASL Gloss

An ASL gloss is just an attempt to write a song using English words, but in a more ASL word order. If you understand the principles of ASL, and know how to incorporate the appropriate Non Manual Markers, the gloss can be used to quickly see a possible way of signing a song in ASL.

 It is important to realize that each gloss is just one person's suggestion of how the song be signed. There are many different possibilities for most songs. You may want to use part of the suggested gloss and part of your own ideas, but the gloss provides you with a good starting point.

There is a Yahoo group that has a repository of the gloss of many songs, including a lot of modern day worship music. You can access this group at Interpreting Spiritual Music
. If you decide to join the group, do me a favor and tell them that PJ sent you. 

Another great place to get the gloss for many traditional hymns is at The Interpreter's Friend website.

Thus will I bless thee while I live: I will lift up my hands in thy name.
  Psalm 63:4

I can't tell you how important it is that you socialize with Deaf people in order to improve your signing skills. Be sure to go to our Events page to see what is happening in your area.