Mixed up Signs


This week I am in Abilene Texas enjoying the ACU Summit . It is a lecture series hosted by Abilene Christian University which has focused this year on the book of Exodus. The theme is “On the Mountain with God: An Exodus Expedition.” Each of the keynote addresses is held in the Moody Coliseum which seats over 6 000 people and on the floor of the Coliseum, to the right of the stage there is a volunteer who is translating the conversation into sign language. This week I had opportunity to observe this volunteer as he expertly rendered the words that were spoken into sign language for the benefit of the hearing impaired, who sit in the front few rows on that side. He was tremendously expressive; using vivid emotion in his face and emphatic gestures. He was captivating, almost distracting to watch. During one of the lectures we were studying the Ten Commandments and Exodus 20: 4 – 6 was read.

I used to work with the mentally handicapped and had, at one time in my life, a rudimentary understanding of sign language. I am unable to translate proficiently but I still remember a few words. I was struck by how this text was rendered. “I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God…” The reading up on stage was authoritative and dramatic (read by a student in the Drama Department of the school) and the signer was equally dramatic. With a stern face he signed: I (the letter) THE LORD (the letter L drawn from left shoulder to right hip) YOUR (open hand pushed out) GOD (finger pointed up shifting to a flat hand drawn to the side of the face) AM (slightly open fist drawn away from the mouth) A JEALOUS (hooked finger turned on the chin) GOD.

The word jealous is the one that stuck out. In order to heighten the drama in sign language you can amplify your facial expression and the signer chose to do this but how do you emphasize jealous while remaining true to the text? By making your face even more bitter and sour. The sign for jealous is intended to mimic a scowl forming on the face. The hooked finger can be dragged off the face to illustrate drool running from the mouth. Without intending it I am sure, the signer was reinforcing an idea from the English translation that was not accurate.

Here in Exodus 20: 5 the word ‘jealous’ means literally “having a zeal for truth”. In the English language we often consider jealousy equivalent with envy: a yearning for something that is not ours. In this verse God has a righteous jealousy; He yearns for what is rightly His. This is precisely the jealousy the apostle Paul described in 2 Corinthians 11:2, “I am jealous for you with a godly jealousy.”

I am not sure how to advise a person signing this text. While an ASL translator is not being asked to provide commentary on the text, the facial expression of a whiny bitter person could be considered misleading. In this text God speaks authoritatively of what is rightly His. Somehow the facial expression of the translator should be chosen to match, while still accurately reflecting the meaning of the text.

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