Epic Signs

by Alex Z. Salinas (B.A. ’11, M.A. ’19)

In Greece in the eighth century B.C., Homer began composing an epic poem, The Odyssey, which would become one of history’s most influential pieces of literature. More than two millennia later, the classic has been translated into American Sign Language (ASL) for the first time — by a St. Mary’s University graduate student.  

Leigh Ann Cowan, a student in the Master of Arts in English Literature and Language program at St. Mary’s, said her choice of base text came down to The Odyssey or the similarly aged epic poem Beowulf

“In Spring 2019, I had passingly mentioned to Dr. Mary Lynne Gasaway Hill (Graduate Program Director and Professor of English Literature and Language) that an ASL interpretation of a classical piece of literature was something I really wanted to do,” said Cowan, who was born deaf.

“She essentially voluntold me to get to work on it, so it’s thanks to Dr. Hill that this project kicked off,” Cowan added. 

The odyssey begins

Cowan acquired a recent translation of The Odyssey by Emily Wilson, Ph.D. — the first female scholar to translate Homer’s epic into English — which was ultimately, for Cowan, a “deciding factor.”

Leigh Ann Cowan, graduate English Literature and Language student, holds a copy of Emily Wilson’s 2017 English translation of Homer’s The Odyssey, which Cowan interpreted into American Sign Language.

She emailed Wilson, Professor of Classical Studies at the University of Pennsylvania, to ask permission to use her translation. 

“I was so nervous to email Dr. Wilson,” Cowan said. “I felt like poor little Oliver Twist approaching the master: ‘Please sir, I want some more.’

“But she and the publisher were kind in granting me permission, and I became awestruck at how she managed to use contemporary English and retain the meter alliteration, personification and other literary devices throughout to stay as true as possible to the spirit of the story.”

Wilson’s 2017 translation, in which she transformed ancient Greek into modern parlance, has been widely praised by critics. An article by The New York Times Magazine stated that Wilson’s new interpretation of the word polytropos as “complicated” to describe Odysseus’ character, for example, showcased her “brilliance” due to her “seeming straightforwardness.”

On constructing a new translation for The Odyssey, published by W. W. Norton & Company, Wilson told Gold & Blue that one of her “main goals was to use very regular meter — iambic pentameter — to encourage read-aloud-ability and tap into the poem’s oral heritage.”

An epic creation

With assistance from Kate Aultman, Ph.D., Director Special Projects, Academic Research and Compliance, Cowan received a $1,500 grant from Humanities Texas — the state affiliate of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Then, with support from Williamson Lehman (B.A. ’19) and English senior Josh Collins, she set on a quest to complete her ASL translation. 

“Josh and I took two days to film my interpretation when it became clear campus was going to shut down due to the coronavirus,” Cowan said. “With 500 miles between us, it took a lot of adaptation and coordination to edit everything into the finished project on YouTube.”

They sent the script and timestamps for each recorded segment to Lehman so he could record voice-overs. 

“Josh overlaid Williamson’s voice-over for the edited segment and reuploaded them to YouTube,” Cowan said. 

In 10 videos ranging from 26 minutes to 54 minutes, Cowan — clad in black — performed Homer’s translated words with the dramatic flair of a Shakespearean stage actor while Lehman’s gruff voice narrated the action. 

On YouTube, Cowan’s videos are housed under the channel, The Odyssey Filming Project

Upon watching Cowan’s work, Wilson was impressed. 

“Meter can’t happen in quite the same way in ASL, but I know Leigh Ann was very conscious of pacing and timing in her ASL version,” she said.

“It feels entirely appropriate that The Odyssey, a poem based on a centuries-long folk poetry oral tradition, designed to be experienced by audiences who had no knowledge of writing, let alone print, should be made accessible to as wide a range of people as possible,” Wilson said.

Hill called Cowan’s project “a manifestation of the St. Mary’s University snowball effect,” and said working with her was a professional milestone. 

“Prior to Leigh Ann, I had never taught a student who was deaf/hard of hearing (D/HH),” she said. “It’s been a profound learning experience not only for myself, but for everyone in her classes and across our campus.

“The significance is that it demonstrates how a responsive program and community like ours are flexible enough to help students, like Leigh Ann, identify their passions and how to pursue them,” Hill said.

While Cowan’s project sparked from her passion for literature, she hopes her videos gain traction and inspire more ASL translations of seminal works. 

“I want people to understand that the vast majority of D/HH students in special education do not belong there,” she said. “There is no correlation between hearing loss and learning/cognitive disabilities. It is a matter of language deprivation.”

As Cowan’s plans include reaching out to deaf schools and interpreter programs nationwide, her purpose remains all-inclusive. 

“I want to generate interest in future literature interpretation projects and raise awareness for the need for qualified, professional outputs for a wide audience, not just the deaf and hard of hearing,” she said.

Check out the video below to watch Part I of Cowan’s ASL interpretation of The Odyssey.

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