If you have a character who is mute and uses sign language, how would you write what they’re saying? I don’t know if it’s literary appropriate to use quotes or narrate.

Example. Jon looked at the group of people in front of him and began to sign. “This is an example of a Christmas tree.” Or Jon began to sign that what he was showing was an example of a Christmas tree.

5 Answers 5


Maybe something like

John signed, “The lights on the Christmas tree are very beautiful.”

Honestly, just replacing ‘said’ with ‘signed’ would be good. As long as the reader knows that the character is signing and not speaking, it’s good.


Similar to other answers, I tend to do any language that is not the language of my novel (read: English) as translations. Typically to denote a language barrier between speakers and non-speakers I will give the foreign language an additional puctution to denote it's translated to English such that for a character using sign language I would do something like:

"{Did anyone hear that?}" Bill said in sign language.

Why a sign language user would ask if anyone Heard something is beyond me, but there's an example (I also prefer to use the Less Than (<) and Greater Than (>) symbols but they signal quote boxes so its hard to escape them. More preference than any real grammar reason. They were used to similar effect in Animorphs and Comic books, which is where I got my inspiration for them.)

I will note that the translation is perfect English and not direct translation. Sign language tends to lose articles for words and many languages are not ordered like English (romance languages don't have a wrong order, but typically the verb is the last word in the Sentance. German is ordered stricter than English, and Japanese may use English loan words for more recent concepts).

I would also recommend re-framing from idioms or puns as they rarely translate well.

  • I believe Katawa Shoujo did the same thing, but with square brackets []. So +1, because this is what my answer would have been.
    – F1Krazy
    Dec 6, 2019 at 12:17
  • @F1Krazy: I know nothing about that as I'm not able to read Japanese and am not a big fan of Manga to boot. I got my idea from American Comics, which do something similar (with a notation in the panel as to the language spoken).
    – hszmv
    Dec 6, 2019 at 13:34
  • It's a visual novel, available in English (or it was, the website was down last I heard). One of the characters is deaf-mute.
    – F1Krazy
    Dec 6, 2019 at 13:42
  • Okay. I use <> because I'm a software engineer. Brackets ([]) and Curly Brackets ({}) do have grammatical use... and occasionally I'll have robots that will speak or think in those because it's "computer code". There's no "language" that really use the greater or less than as open-close punctuation so I feel it's the safest for literature.
    – hszmv
    Dec 6, 2019 at 13:59

While I like the answers provided, there is a context in which that doesn't work - fast paced conversation. Having one or more people signing and others using English to have an argument sounds like fun, but for normal conversation you can skip a few 'Harold said' by virtue of the fact that there are only two people in the conversation. If you have a similar scenario - one person who argues in English (we assume the mute person can either hear or lipread) and the second signing, then you can always use italics to indicate the signed dialog.

I've seen this used as a mechanism for non-vocalised thought;

"I don't like this situation at all, Pedro!" I'm going to get killed on this intersection; I just know it. Harold was starting to lose faith in his spirit guide...

Now, if you can use it for non-vocalised thought, it just seems that it would make for a great solution to a rapid-fire conversation including signage...

"No, Pedro! We can't just cross a busy street with our eyes shut!"
Of course we can - where's your sense of adventure?
"Back in the field we landed in after jumping out of that plane, just like my lunch!"
You know, I'm starting to lose faith in you as a spirit sidekick...

It still reads well, is fast paced, and has the added benefit that you don't have to throw in the occasional 'Harold said' so the reader can keep the pace of who's saying what.

  • Interesting idea. However, I would then not use italics for thoughts as that could be confusing.
    – Llewellyn
    Dec 6, 2019 at 18:37

I liked the ideas given so far. I would suggest that like any problems encountered while writing, solve this creatively. Making sure the mute person can be communicated with allows you to throw in a new character who translates for them. This translator may be a spouse, a child, a close friend. They may solve your problem but remember they too should have motivations and goals in the story.

this problem was solved pretty nicely in The Dragon Prince on Netflix where they had that red-headed soldier accompanying general Amaya and translating her. He was later imprisoned and had his own little mini-story.

Also, not having someone to translate the mute person would require you to explain why everyone who talks to them knows sign language.


This appears to be getting overly complicated.

"Said" and "spoke" have different meanings. Once you have established that John signs, the dialogue carries on as normal. This is why the 'said' tag is rarely sufficient.

"I really need to pee!" signed John.

"We gotta go," explained Bob.

"Have I offended somebody?" asked Dave.

"Right now!" insisted John.

"It's all good," said Bob. "We'll be right back after . . ."

John ran grabbed his crotch and hurtled toward the men's room.

Bob shrugged. "Budweiser, goes straight through you."

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.