Sexual Language and Roasting a Translator

My student Laura recently sent me a link to this podcast from Radio Lab with 8 different stories related in some way to translation. I highly recommend it.

In the "Deaf Comedy Jam" segment, they tell the story of a sign language interpreter at a "roast" hosted by the king of insults, Jeffrey Ross. Ross noticed the ASL interpreter on the edge of the stage and began saying sexually explicit things so that she would have to "sign" them to the audience. I know, high-larious, right?

The reporter noticed that the interpreter left at intermission, so she located her in order to hear her side of the story. Was she offended or did she feel harassed or "used" by Ross?

The ensuing conversation is fascinating from a translation theory perspective. Go listen to the 10-minute segment, but be warned there is some course language. And, to quote the co-host, "I'm troubled by how funny this is."

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Which "register" should an ASL interpreter use in conveying an explicit source text? As in spoken language, the choices include a range of "formal," "casual," or "intimate" signs. The interpreter has to choose which register to use, and that choice is determined by her role in the event: to convey the meaning and tone of the source text to her audience.

However, skopostheorie (here's a paper explaining it from my friend Nathan Esala) raises the question of whether translators should shape the translation to match the expectations and assumptions of the audience. The temptation in this case is to "dial it down," but this interpreter says that she chose a casual and explicit register because her job was "to match the tone of the person." As the co-host says, using a polite tone to "protect" the audience "betrays" the audience because it does not communicate the full experience.

The (sole) deaf client felt uncomfortable with this experience and left at intermission, and so the interpreter was free to go. Was this a failure of the translation to match the skopos? No, I would say it is a failure of the deaf person to consider what a Jeff Ross roast was going to be like. It was a failure of expectations.

This relates directly to the challenge of biblical translators who must convey sexually or violently explicit scenes in biblical texts (see my forthcoming paper on Ezekiel). To what extent should a translator tone down this material to match the "polite" decorum of the scriptural audience? I argue that they should not do so in any way. To withhold information and shape the text so that it does not confuse, offend, or challenge is to "betray" the Bible's audience. However, the very real limits placed on translators by their religious audiences is a failure of expectations. Readers place artificial and unrealistic expectations on what the Bible is, and these expectations lead to a breakdown in the translation process itself.