Signing Shakespeare

Interpreters translate popular plays for deaf community

Thursday, June 22, 2006

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Jim Hamann⁄Special to The Gazette
American Sign Language interpreters Hank Young (left) and Mark Ennis translate the Maryland Shakespeare Festival’s performance of ‘‘Two Gentlemen of Verona” Sunday at Hood College in Frederick.

Five minutes before the final performance of William Shakespeare’s ‘‘Two Gentlemen of Verona” at Frederick’s Hood College Sunday, American Sign Language interpreters John Mark Ennis and Hank Young sat to the left of the stage under an unforgiving afternoon sun.

Dressed in black and holding a water bottle, Ennis wiped his face with a towel and found his parents and nephew in the audience.

For nearly seven years, Ennis has translated two performances of the Maryland Shakespeare Festival’s free and summer productions into American Sign Language for deaf audience members.

Ennis said he started translating for theater when his deaf brother involved him in a Shakespeare theater in Washington, D.C. His brother was the sign master for the theater — a deaf person who is bilingual in English and American Sign Language and proficient in theater. Larger theaters use sign masters to help coordinate interpreters’ translation of a play.

It is the creativity of Shakespeare’s stories and the format he has to tell the story that appeals to Ennis.

‘‘I think it’s such a cool way to present a story,” he said.

Ennis has been a sign language interpreter since 1969 when he started professionally at New York University. Currently a resident of Washington D.C., he works as an interpreter for a federal agency.

Young is an assistant at Gallaudet University and has been interpreting for theater for nearly 30 years. The job of interpreting theater only lasts as long as the show, he said, and allows him to experience theater in a different capacity.

‘‘It’s pretty much a job that allows me to be there and see good things regularly,” Young said.

Both Ennis and Young prepared for Two Gentlemen of Verona with an audio recording of the show and a script. The men translated the meaning of the play from Old English to Modern English and to sign language and coordinated their own translations.

‘‘There are always limitations from language to language that don’t translate well,” Ennis said. ‘‘So with that you just have to do the best you can.”

The challenge in translating Shakespeare is to include the lewd and funny jokes since the plays were originally written for the masses and are filled with them, Young said.

Interpreters have the liberty to choose signs that make the story clear to the audience. Those signs depend on who the audience is, he said. The same goes for the jokes — interpreters choose how graphic they want to get with the signs in order to convey their meaning.

Interpreting ‘‘Two Gentlemen of Verona” in sign language also required the men to develop physical characterizations of the story’s characters in their preparation, Ennis said. This way, the deaf audience would know which character they were translating since the dialogue is fast.

Traditionally, theater productions use at least two interpreters (or more if the story requires it) in a fixed location next to the stage. For this production, the character of Thurio, a rival to gentleman Valentine, was an easy character to develop facial expressions for because he was a ‘‘goofus,” Ennis said.

Out in the audience, the Ennis family watched Ennis’s and Young’s interpretation. For several years, attending the Maryland Shakespeare Festival event has been a Father’s Day tradition for the family and a chance for Ennis’s parents and nephew, Zachary, to visit with one another, they said.

Zachary Ennis is a student at the Maryland School for the Deaf and a Middletown resident.

According to this grandmother, Jo Ennis, Zachary, 16, is actively involved in theater at the Maryland School for the Deaf and starred in the school’s production of ‘‘Little Shop of Horrors.”

As a mother with two deaf sons, Jo Ennis said she decided to learn sign language 55 years ago despite the advice of doctors who recommended she audibly speak to her sons.

‘‘I wanted to totally communicate with my son and I decided to learn sign language,” she said.

This summer, the Shakespeare Festival is touring the state and offering outdoor performances of ‘‘Two Gentleman of Verona” for the public. Shows continue through July in different cities across the state. For more information, go online to