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Meeting on a Bridge of Silence: A Talk With Géraldine Berger, Bilingual Performer in French and Sign Language

Dr. Pauline Picot //

Géraldine Berger has no hearing disability. And yet, she has been speaking sign language for almost twenty years. This French “bilingual performer” – she makes a statement of being identified as such – has worked on more than thirty artistic productions involving deaf artists. Her family has no history of deafness either. As a child, Géraldine was just obsessed with people’s hands; she would intently observe how they gestured to form the mechanics of everyday life. She used to tell her baffled mom that when she grew up she would like to “dance with her hands”. After an early career in the international marketing branch at L’Oréal (where the many women she crossed paths with unknowingly provided her with a whole notebook of manners and attitudes), she went back to studying performing arts. That is how she stumbled across Pina Bausch’s theatrical masterpiece Nelken (Wuppertal, 1982), in which a dancer sings George Gershwin’s The Man I Love (1924) in sign language. So you could dance with your hands. And that is when it all began.

Pauline Picot: When did you take the step to learn sign language?

Géraldine Berger: I was pregnant with my son, and I could barely move anymore – so I could hardly perform with my whole body as I was used to. So I thought this was a good time to turn to my hands. I took an intensive three-month sign language course, and got a degree. That is how I met Anthony Guyon, a teacher there, with whom I have been working ever since. His theatre company, ON OFF, is the only one in France to be directed by a deaf artist. Our first artistic project together was to take part in the big parade of the Biennale de la Danse in Lyon. We gathered a dozen deaf amateur dancers, and together we taught a hundred and fifty hearing ones how to sing “J’arrive à la ville”, by Lhasa de Sela, in sign language.

“This language is merely
a part of a broader culture,
including its own references
and its own sense of humor.”

P.P.: Were you still learning sign language at that time?

G.B.: From the moment I met Anthony, I never stopped speaking it – so I never stopped learning it. Not only did he teach me sign language, but he also helped me identify how this language is merely a part of a broader culture, including its own references and its own sense of humor. He showed me how this culture thrived through its complex and rich community, and how there were specific codes and ways among this community that you should observe and respect.

P.P.:Could you elaborate on that?

G.B.: For instance, you should be careful – as for any other culture – not to appropriate elements of it through an approach that would solely stem from a taste for the exotic. Another bias commonly found in the hearing people would be to consider sign language as a kind of prosthesis that enables deaf people to try and reach some kind of normality. On this note, a trendy term like “accessibility” seems symptomatic of this standardizing to me.

“The term handicap
generally closes a door
in people’s minds,
because it only evokes

an idea of constraint.”

P.P.: Right, because it implies that abnormal people would try to access a cultural and social norm, and not that both parties should meet halfway. However – and please forgive the clumsiness of this comment –, it would not seem outrageous to describe deafness as a handicap, insofar as it does involve a physiological impairment.

G.B.: It depends on which connotations you associate with this word. I find that the term handicap generally closes a door in people’s minds, because it only evokes an idea of constraint. But when you get to spend time among deaf people – to actually meet them and chat with them –, this idea becomes irrelevant.

P.P.: Help me apprehend deafness without prejudice, then. How would you describe it from your own perspective, as someone who has been around the deaf community for twenty years?

G.B.: Speaking with a deaf person involves you much more directly than with someone who can hear. You could talk to me from your kitchen, or I could talk to you without looking at you; I could just be staring at your carpet and muttering something. And yet, we would still hear and understand each other. It would work just fine. But when you speak with a deaf person, you have to face them and look at them in the eyes for them to be able to see your face’s expressions and hand gestures. And they do the same, for otherwise no communication can be established; nothing can go through. It entails a real physical commitment. There is the cacophonous noise of the world all around, and you stand with them on some sort of bridge, above it all.

P.P.: As a person who can hear the surrounding cacophony, how do you manage to hop on that bridge of silence?

G.B.: I have to decide it, and do my best to stay with the person I am talking with. If the ambient noise becomes too strong for me to focus, I will translate for them in sign language what it is I am hearing that confuses me.

“Translation has to be incorporated
into the whole artistic production,
rather than being limited
to an accessibility assignment.

P.P.: Let’s get back to your artistic work among the deaf community. What happened after that first parade experience? How did you carry on with your artistic explorations through the prism of deafness?

G.B.: I kept working on shows with Anthony, in which I would perform a live voice-over of what was said in sign language on stage. Of course, I had translated it beforehand. In my view, translation – from sign language to French, or the other way around – has to be incorporated into the whole artistic production, rather than being limited to an accessibility assignment. Sign language, as the introduction of any other language would, makes something shift in every aspect of an artwork: it puts the play, its writer and the artistic team in a new place. And this movement from the known to the unknown constitutes, in my opinion, a creative process.

P.P.: Right, you mean that the introduction of sign language in a stage production is not as much a matter of making it accessible to deaf people, as it does affects and enriches it more deeply on an artistic level.

G.B.: Exactly. Accessibility is a matter of the everyday life, and daily and literary translations serve completely different purposes. For example, a deaf person who has a doctor appointment will resort to an interpreter, who will serve as a mediator in their encounter and will indeed make it more accessible. But literary translation is more of a linguistic process; language unfolds in all its potential and you have to pay a different kind of attention to it.

P.P.: How do you introduce yourself professionally, then?

G.B.: I introduce myself as a “bilingual performer”. The word “performer” suits me well, because I have been dancing, acting, voicing and translating texts for over twenty years. I know my work, my body, and my emotions. But the word “bilingual” suggests that I am also a foreigner in this familiar world. I feel both at home and abroad. It is the same for every stage artist performing in another language than their mother tongue, really.

From the beginning,
I had decided that I would
familiarize the French public

with deaf culture,
and then leave the space for deaf artists
to come after me and own the stage.

P.P.: And how are you, as a “bilingual performer”, perceived by the deaf community?

G.B.: The difference between a deaf person and me is that, unlike them, I have no visceral necessity to speak their language. And that did exposed me to occasional criticism, as I would sometimes be asked what a hearing person like me was doing speaking sign language. It discouraged me quite badly, and on several occasions I almost dropped the whole thing on account of not feeling legitimate enough in my position. But I have found legitimacy in withdrawing from the stage one or two years ago. From the beginning, I had decided that I would familiarize the French public with deaf culture, and then leave the space for deaf artists to come after me and own the stage. And that is what’s currently happening. Now, my intermediate position allows me to facilitate communication within the artistic teams between deaf and hearing people. And as a literary translator, I am of course still involved in the translation process from French to sign language.

P.P.: So how do you create a bilingual stage production? What kind of plays do you choose? Would it be the same for you to translate Shakespeare or a contemporary author into sign language?

G.B.: I have only ever worked on contemporary plays. To translate a text, you have to find yourself drawn to its singularity, its physicality… And to translate it into sign language, you have to feel it in your body first, in order to be able to render your reading experience through your facial expressions and gestures. And this is what contemporary repertoire does to me. I must say I also feel more legitimate to translate recent texts, insofar as I am sure I will know the cultural background they emerged from. If I had to translate a classic, I would have to be helped in gathering material about its historical and literary context.

P.P.: Some would consider a literary text “sacred”, i.e. non-modifiable, almost untouchable. What degree of freedom do you have translating from the written words into sign language?

G.B.: I have never worked in collaboration with a contemporary author yet, so I have always had free reign. I would love to translate a play our company is about to produce alongside its actual writer. But it would require trust from them, and also a good measure of letting go.

P.P.: So how does the translation process go? Do you work alone?

G.B.: Every deaf actor who is going to act on stage – plus Anthony – takes part in the translation phase. I would usually have already achieved a pre-translation of the text to facilitate its understanding by the group, but we all get to grips with it together. It represents quite a lot of work, which usually takes us about a week. We are also used to juggling with the original dramatis personae, since there will regularly be less deaf artists than characters distributed to them. It can be a bit of a puzzle, but it challenges our creativity.  

P.P.: And then?

G.B.: And then, everyone has to learn their part. By this time, the stage production that will welcome us is already well advanced. Every hearing actor already knows their lines and their movements. Everyone knows what they are supposed to do, except the deaf actors. We come in when the show is almost ready; it is the principle of adaptation. You might think it can be frustrating, but it is not: the show is like a mostly written page, and there is a real creative interest in figuring how you will complete it. However, this process takes time, and we often lack of it.

“Sign language often indicates
dramatic turning points
more directly
than spoken language.”

P.P.: After the rehearsals with the whole production team, the show is finally on. When the public is composed of both hearing and deaf spectators, can you feel different audiences coexist? Like in any live event involving two languages – one coming first, and the other following with a short delay –, can you feel some sort of a two-wave effect in the audience ? And which reactions come first? Even if it comes second, isn’t sign language more direct – and thus producing a faster effect – than spoken words?

G.B.: I have experienced that it is not as definite as that. Sometimes, hearing spectators react to what the deaf actors are doing, and sometimes deaf spectators react to what the hearing actors are doing. Reactions among the audience are rather mixed. But you are right; sign language often indicates dramatic turning points more directly than spoken language, insofar as it shows with explicit gestures what the author initially aimed to get around to expressing.

P.P.: Well, our talk is coming to an end… Let me go back to the beginning, then. In the light of everything you have shared with me, what do you say we replace the word “handicap”, in relation to deafness, with the term “singularity”?

G.B.: It would be perfect, as it would imply that deafness holds a rich and diverse potential. It would connote something of a power; the power to invent, to create.


Cover Picture by Pauline Picot

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