I was taken aback when I learned that a favorite pastime of the Deaf community in Moyobamba is going to the movies. There are no subtitles, which wouldn’t make any difference considering none of the deaf people I know can read Spanish fluently. Instead, they rely on the images on the screen to tell the story.
Being the only hearing person accompanying a person who’s deaf to the movies can be an intimidating thing. Here are a few tips I would’ve given myself in hindsight, or what I’ll have to remember the next time I find myself in this situation.
- Know your audience.
In this case, you’re going to the movies with 15-year-old Abigail. On Tuesdays and Fridays she’s your student, and on Mondays and Thursdays you’re hers. She’s a hopeless romantic. She’s intelligent, thoughtful, kind, and beautiful, much like the main character of the film you’re about to see. She’s also one of the best dancers you’ve met in Peru, proving you don’t need to hear the music to be an incredible dancer. Though her parents are overprotective, she loves them dearly.
On the day we were planning to see the movie, she came into the office crying and gasping for breath. As she’d been walking to work she was attacked and bitten several times by the neighbor’s dog. Her arm and side were punctured several times. Her parents were with her; we pleaded with them to take her to the doctor, but she also happens to have a heart condition. They were convinced new medicine for dog bites would only further damage her heart. She didn’t go to school the next day or work the following day, and your concern for her grows exponentially. You visit her home two nights after the original incident to check in and speak with her parents. She smiles when she sees you, runs to you and gives you a huge hug. She’s in a tank and sweatpants with her hair in a tight bun on top of her head. The swelling has gone down and she looks visibly better. You ask if she’d feel up for seeing the movie, and a huge grin spreads across her face. She asks what time it starts: 13 minutes, and it’s across town. Naturally, she sprints into her room and starts changing. She lets her hair down, puts in the bow she wears everyday, and changes into a fancy black dress. We hop in a mototaxi and head across town to the theater – we get there in the knick of time.
2. Know the movie.
Especially since Spanish is your second language and Peruvian Sign Language your third, it would be helpful to see this movie in advance. When you watch it the first time around, if you’re able to follow the Spanish, it might be helpful to go ahead and start thinking about how you would sign certain scenes. Since your sign language is still basic, you need to boil down each scene with dialogue to its essence. You have a significant advantage here because you already happen to know 80% of the lines of this film and 100% of the songs.
I’d say I’m already pretty familiar.
3. Be open to learning new signs on the go.
You don’t know all the signs, and so you sometimes try to make things up as you go along. Every once in a while this means you’ll get signs totally wrong. For example, you spent the first several scenes translating beast as cow. This explains why Abigail looked confused anytime you tried explaining what the Beast had said; there are approximately zero cows in this film (although to be honest I’m super curious about Beauty and the Cow).
4. You might be quizzed.
Abigail is your student some days, co-worker other days, and friend every day, but she’s also your teacher. When animals (not cows) show up in the film, you may be given an impromptu test. For example, an owl appears a third of the way through the film, and she’ll make sure you know how to sign it before she lets you get back to translating the actual plot.
5. Learn the names for the characters.
Some of the signs are obvious, and she’ll sign many of the names for you first:
Belle – use the sign for “beautiful.”
Gaston – “bad” and “man.”
Lumière – “light.”
Cogsworth (Tingtong in the Spanish version) – “time”.
Lefou – “fat.” (I had some qualms about using this, but Peruvians calling someone gordo is exceptionally common. Especially if you’re deaf, descriptions of what you can see are all the more important.)
Beast – “beast” (take your index fingers and thumbs and trace where the beast’s horns would be on your head. Definitely don’t make the sign for cow)
6. Watch for reactions.
This is where the “know your audience” piece becomes important. You were nervous about how she might respond to the scene where Belle is attacked by wolves, especially considering what had just happened to her two days ago. This ends up not being a problem; in fact, it’s one of the most surprising moments of the movie. When the Beast roars at the wolves the final time, look over and you’ll see her eyes wide, mouth hanging open. She could feel her seat shaking from the vibration of the roar.
7. Songs are hardest to translate, but you don’t need to translate word for word.
Here’s how to translate “Belle”: The beautiful girl says: “I like to read! This town is boring.” The town says: “The beautiful girl likes to read? She’s pretty, but weird.”
You can sum up the song “Gaston” by signing: “Everyone in the whole community likes the bad man.”
“Be Our Guest” is tough since you don’t know the sign for guest. Instead you can just sign – “everyone says welcome.” What’s happening on screen is even more fun than the specific words, anyway.
The Mob Song – “Kill the beast” (pretty straightforward).
8. Some scenes need no translation – and be wary of over-translating.
You don’t need to sign anything for “Beauty and the Beast.” She’s a total hopeless romantic, so when you look over at her during the ballroom dance, you see her clutching her chest, eyes welling up with tears. The power of this scene is beyond language for her.
Sometimes you don’t need to translate, even though she’s asking you to. For example, during the film’s climax, she asked what Belle, the Beast, and Gaston are all saying to each other. While you were translating, *26-year-old spoiler alert* Gaston shoots the Beast, and she missed it because she’d been watching you translate instead of the screen. Since you knew what was coming, that would’ve been a good time to re-direct her back to the screen instead of trying to translate everything you could.
9. Allow for interruptions.
She’ll interrupt your translations to tell you about where she sees herself in the film. She feels a lot like Belle – an outcast, loves to learn, and very intelligent. As a true teenager, she’s also tells you about how she views the boy she has a crush on as the beast. She signs the name of her crush during the ballroom dance, and you know this has to be part of the reason she’s crying. Oh to be 15 again…
10. She’ll talk about it for weeks.
After the movie ends, you take a picture in the front of the theater. When she looks at the picture, she zooms in on herself and signs, “I’m beautiful!” Later she’ll ask if you put the picture on Facebook. You say no, only Instagram. But her crush is on Facebook, and she wants him to see how beautiful she looks. So I share the picture on Facebook and he not only sees it – he likes it.
For the next several weeks she’ll tell you over and over, whether you’re in the office together or at school, how much she loved going to the movies with you. Sometimes you’ll catch her pretending to ballroom dance, reaching out into an invisible partner, grinning from ear to ear.
A few days ago, she asked me if I’d seen the movie about a girl with long hair. I needed a little more clarification, so she kept describing the movie – she has a pig and a chicken, and loves to sail boats on the ocean. I pull up a picture of Moana on my phone and she nods excitedly. This is what she wants to watch next – hopefully I’ll be able to remember a few of these tips, though I probably need to learn how to sign “island,” “explore,” and “you’re welcome” first.