ASL Deconstruction: ‘No Day Like Today’ from the musical RENT

14 May 2015, by Auslan Stage Left in Articles

This article was first published by Kaitlyn on The Creative Pensieve.

Rent New World Stages Stage 1 Annaleigh Ashford Margot Bingham Adam Chanler-Berat Nicholas Christopher Arianda Fernandez Marcus Paul James Tamika Sonuja Lawrence Corbin Reid Michael Rodriguez Matt Shingledecker Ephraim Sykes Ben Thompson Michael Wartella Morgan Weed Sean Michael Murray Xavier Cano Genny Padilla Production Credits: Michael Greif (Director) Larry Keigwin (Choreographer) Mark Wendland (Scenic Designer) Angela Wendt (Costume Designer) Kevin Adams (Lighting Designer) Other Credits: Lyrics by: Jonathan Larson Music by: Jonathan Larson Book by: Jonathan Larson

New World Stages Stage 1
Lyrics, Music and Book by: Jonathan Larson

Recently, I was asked about the well-known phrase “No day but today” from the 1996 Broadway musical Rent and how to translate it into ASL and still retain the concept of the original lyrics. Here is a prime example of how captioning and interpreting can both affect the meaning of a line of lyric and twist the intent of the words being sung onstage (or onscreen, as in the 2005 Hollywood adaptation of the musical).

Not only that, this discussion also serves a purpose of giving another reason why I prefer sign language interpreters over captioning for musicals.

The difference between captioning and interpreting a show, especially a musical, is that the captions cannot convey the aural impact that music showcases through both word and instruments, and sign language interpreters have the ability to convey the essence of the music through body language and delivery of the lyrics by the hands using timing and rhythm.

First, let’s discuss “Season of Love” and the influence of captioning (and/or subtitles) on the Deaf/HOH viewer.

With the 2005 film adaptation of Rent, the television set- supplied captions showed the opening to the song “Seasons of Love” as “525,600 minutes” instead of the original lyrics of “Five hundred, twenty-five thousand, six hundred minutes”, and thus some of the impact of the song is lost. The Deaf/HOH audience that aren’t knowledgeable with the music of Rent are thus led to believe the English lyrics were along the lines of “525,600 minutes” and appear confused when told that the lyrics were otherwise. I have seen select individuals sign the phrase as “5-2-5-6-0-0 MINUTES” and immediately know where they got their source of information from.

To preserve this impact, the captioning should have taken a lead from the English subtitles (available through the DVD menu) and use “Five hundred (break; new line) twenty-five thousand (break; new line) six hundred minutes”.

Fortunately, sign language interpreters in the performing arts field use the second format with a similar approach with “5-HUNDRED,” (pause) “25-THOUSAND,” (pause) “6-HUNDRED MINUTES.”

With that in mind, let’s look at another example. Do consider the catchphrase from the same musical: “No day but today”. This particular phrase occurs in multiple songs (“Another Day”, “Life Support”, “Finale B”, among others) during the musical as a refrain of the message of the entire show. Loosely interpreted, it means that we should live every day as if it was our last. Live life to the fullest potential it can offer. While singing the phrase, there is an emphasis on specific words and/or syllables that implies the urgency of the message being shared between the actors on stage and the audience.

For those not familiar with the musical, the partial lyrics for “Finale B”, one of the songs in the musical that includes the phrase, follows:

There’s only us
There’s only this
Forget regret, 
Or life is yours to miss
No other road, no other way
No day but today

Add an interpreter or two, and the message could potentially be interpreted according to the interpretation each interpreter uniquely comes up with after analyzing the libretto. So, does the interpreter sign the message word for word for the Deaf/HOH audience member that insists on authenticity? Or does the interpreter translate the phrase to match the concept it carries, rather than the actual words being sung?

This is a conundrum because when one literally translates “No day but today” from English to sign language, it oftentimes comes across as “NO DAY BUT DAY”. Of course this translation doesn’t convey the message intended. Also, it does not inflict the same emotional impact as the original lyrics do. Not to mention, the Englishness of the word order throws people off.

If the sign language interpreter(s) were to consider the message as a whole concept rather than a word-for-word literal translation, they should imagine what the take-home message the actors want audiences to leave with.

Using this line of thought, one could possibly come up with “JUST ONE-DAY carpe diem NOW-NOW.”

Note to the Reader: ASL is a manual language without a written counterpart, and one uses what is known academically as “glossing” when transcribing ASL signs on paper. While this discussion covers the translation issues that might surface when working with English and ASL, one should keep in mind that it also applies for other languages that face a similar barrier in translating literature. This is especially true for poetry and songs where the translation often fails to retain the meaning and impact of the original text.

Now, back to our discussion:

The particular sign for the concept of seizing the opportunity does not have a worthy English equivalent, but the Latin phrase carpe diem comes close. The sign is shown by grabbing an invisible opportunity presented on an upturned palm.  Carpe diem, when translated in English, comes across as ‘seize the day’.

Expanding upon the ASL gloss, the message of “no day but today” is presented as “JUST ONE-DAY carpe diem NOW-NOW” and rendered as “you have just one day; seize the day and make the most of it now as in today.”

Let’s take it a step further. How do we match the signs to the music to convey the mood and the urgency of the message being shared? In the musical, during “Another Day” and “Finale B”, the phrase is repeated several times with increasing fervor and urgency. The interpreter could start out with a more placid “just one-day carpe diemnow-now” and working up to “JUST ONE-DAY CARPE DIEM NOW-NOW” with added emphasis on CARPE DIEM and the second NOW to match the music.

This comes closer to the original lyrics than “NO DAY BUT DAY.”

Now, calling all performing arts interpreters and Deaf Sign Masters (and fellow Rentheads) that have worked (or seen the show for the tenth time) on the musical Rent – how did you sign this phrase?

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