Major Breakthrough (for those who like to know the gory details)

Thanks for praying for Toyoshima. When I got back to Japan, he was on the hunt for other work, pretty much convinced that there was no way he could do Bible translation. Not only did he have trouble envisioning the Bible stories well enough to sign them, he didn’t seem to be able to re-sign his own story from a video cue. But let me back up and explain.

In order to get a baseline for his signing ability in front of a camera, we had recorded Toyoshima telling a story of his own choosing. He showed some creativity and told a good story. Then, to test whether he had the ability to sign from a video cue, we had him retell his own story exactly as before, watching his first version as a cue. Try as he might, it didn’t look natural. The hands were doing exactly the right thing, but the face was dead. I told him to forget the hands and focus on the face, and that helped a bit, but not much—not nearly enough. Then, I remembered someone talking about cropping video, and suggested that we crop in closer so we could see his face more clearly. As I was explaining to Ogata, our video editor, what I wanted, Toyoshima came in. “No,” he said, “crop it closer . . . closer” Ogata looked at us both like we were nuts, but laughed, shrugged and did it anyway. He cropped until all we saw was from the top of the head to an inch or so below the chin. I, asked Toyoshima “are you sure?”, and he insisted that was what he wanted. I figured we could always do another crop when this one failed, so didn’t bother to argue it further. And you know I wouldn’t be telling this story if he hadn’t gotten in front of the camera and done an incredibly natural, accurate copy of his original story, with the hands only in the cueing video a fraction of the time. He was pumped! We all were. It was clear he really wanted to do Bible translation; he just didn’t think he had the ability. 

With that hurdle cleared, we tackled Jonah with gusto, working first to build a strong mental picture of what happened in the story.  Then he got up in front of the camera and told the story totally from memory, with no thought taken as to whether or not all the information is included—just as if a friend were there and had asked him about it. After quite a few tries and re-tries, we had a draft of the whole story with all the major pieces in place.

Then I showed him how to check for accuracy. We photocopied Jonah from the Japanese Bible and started marking it up, crossing out what was included in our translation, circling what was missing, noting what was added in the margins. He finished out the day checking it on his own, and came up with an idea for day two.

Working alone, he recorded Jonah segment by segment, modifying an approach he had seen working as Pastor Minamida’s assistant. He would sign as far as he could before he forgot something or stumbled. Then he would stop, rewind the video to the last good portion, find the hand and body position, and start recording again from there, as far as he could to until the next mistake. By repeating this over and over, he built a series of short, but fairly well-connected phrases translating the whole book of Jonah. It took him another day to edit out the garbage and make it flow smoothly. When he tried to use the second version as a cue, though, it was hard to sign it naturally. The big chunks weren’t connected well.

Seeing this, he was ready for the next step. He took the “natural telling” draft (first version) as the base, edited in all the missing information from the verse-by-verse draft, and has succeeded in making the most accurate and natural first draft ViBi has done yet. Not only that, he was able to use this as a cue to sign a second draft of the whole book of Jonah. It’s clear that with some practice, he’ll look like he’s standing there signing from memory, just telling the story.

The leadership of ViBi has offered him a 4-day-a-week position. Pray that God will open doors for funding so that we can offer both Toyoshima and Ogata (our video editor) full-time positions. Pray also for Pastor Minamida, our part-time translator, that the pain in his arms and shoulders will  be healed, and he can finish up Genesis.

For the truly hardy—even more details:

We still haven’t fully unpacked the significance of the hyper-cropped cue phenomenon yet. Somehow, there was enough grammar/morphemes/whatever conveyed in the face while signing that the manuals (information the hands convey) were not necessary for him to remember the content accurately.  This is huge. Of course, its common knowledge that non-manuals are a key to how Deaf people make meaning, but this certainly lends some substance to the claim. It also points to where the difference lies between natural and less-than-natural signing. It may lead to a way to test and even to quantify naturalness. (How much signing space can be cropped before meaning starts being lost might be an indicator of how naturally the signing is flowing. For instance, Toyoshima did the hyper-crop on his verse-by-verse draft of Jonah, but wasn’t able to follow it at all—indication that the big-picture flow, transitional non-manuals, and natural timing was not on par with his naturally told story.) It will definitely change the way we do our cueing. And then there are the research projects it suggests. All because Toyoshima misunderstood what I was trying to tell him about the crop (or perhaps because he instinctively knew something better). This is sort of like having your milk and sugar and vanilla get thrown together in the back of the freezing horse drawn cart and when you unload find you’ve discovered ice cream!  Sure, it was his own story, and he knew it well from repeated tries at re-signing it, but remembering a story with just the face? There still has to be a lot of information there to cue the signer by.

About Mark and Mary Esther Penner

Mark works as an adviser and resource to a Japanese Sign Language Bible translation project that plays a key role in the worldwide sign language Bible translation movement. Mary Esther founded a non-profit organization that partners with local communities and organizations to collect, refurbish and send wheelchairs throughout Asia.
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