How will we sign revised missal?

By Michelle Martin | Staff writer
Sunday, November 6, 2011

English-speaking Catholics will not be the only ones who have to become accustomed to changes in the Mass when the new translation of the Roman Missal is rolled out on the first Sunday of Advent.

Members of the Catholic deaf community will also have to learn new ways to sign prayers. American Sign Language interpreters who sign at Masses have been busy for months both coming up with ways to convey the new translation in sign language and learning how to do it smoothly, said Father Joseph Mulcrone, director of the archdiocese’s Catholic Office for the Deaf.

“There are really two issues,” Mulcrone said. “First, because there’s a change in certain words and expressions we use, we would have to come up with different signs to convey that. Second, because the structure of the English is going to change, the sign language is going to change.”

At a meeting of people who minister to the deaf in January, a group of about 20 people began thinking about ways to provide help, Mulcrone said.

“We said, ‘Can we come up with some sort of suggested way to sign the common prayers of the Mass?” he said.

The National Catholic Office for the Deaf took the lead on it, bringing together people from around the country who minister to deaf Catholics to figure out ways to translate the new English prayers into ASL. The group then videotaped those translations so interpreters around the country could become familiar with them.

The group met in Washington for three days in March, with the Archdiocese of Washington providing taping facilities and staff, and hosting the videos on its website.

The translation task was not simple, Mulcrone said. Just as the Latin edition of the Roman Missal could be translated in various ways into English, there is not necessarily one clear way to render the new English version into ASL.

What many people may not realize is that American Sign Language does not provide word-forword sign substitutions for English expressions. It is its own language, with its own syntax, and it is communicated in a visual medium.

The new translation of the missal, on the other hand, offers a more literal interpretation of the Latin version, complete with longer, more abstract and more complex sentences.

“Trying to sign ‘I am not worthy to enter under your roof’ isn’t so hard,” he said, “but ‘consubstantial with the Father’ (from the Nicene Creed) is harder. It’s very abstract. We’re obviously not trying to create a new translation of the missal. It’s been done, and we want to honor that and be as close to it as we can be.”

The deaf community in Chicago will likely have an easier time than deaf Catholics in less populated dioceses, Mulcrone said, because there are several ASL interpreters who do liturgical interpretation regularly.

“In a lot of dioceses, interpreters are pretty much out there on their own,” he said.

The Archdiocese of Chicago has held workshops on the translation at the St. Francis Borgia Deaf Center, as did the Archdiocese of Milwaukee.

While the National Catholic Office for the Deaf has offered ASL translations for the common prayers of the Mass, Mulcrone said interpreters will have a harder time with the Mass propers and prefaces — prayers that change based on when the Mass falls in the liturgical year.

Not only are there more of them, they come up less frequently, so the interpreters will not become accustomed to them as quickly. They also seem to include more complex sentence structures and grammar, Mulcrone said.

“The subjunctive voice really doesn’t work well in sign language,” he said. “Whoever said ‘what you see is what you get’ must have known the deaf community.”