For ASL interpreters, signing music in a ‘borrowed’ language is about more than just translation
At the Jazz Aspen Snowmass Labor Day experience, headlining bands aren’t the only people perched above the crowd. The music festival also hires American Sign Language interpreters, located at stage left, to sign the songs for people who are deaf and hard of hearing.
But the job is about far more than just translation, and it sometimes revolves around logistics. About an hour before showtime, on day two of this year’s festival, interpreters Kirk Neuroth and Kali Janda are partly thinking about lyrics and musical motifs, and partly thinking about getting to a makeshift office backstage with time to spare before the band plays.
Neuroth evaluates: “You need to go to the printer, I need to go to the printer.”
Neuroth and Janda have just received the first two setlists of the day, for James Bay and The Brothers Osborne. They’ve already spent months preparing, looking at other sets the bands have performed on tour and practicing 30 or 40 tracks for each group, hoping that the dozen or so songs each band plays at the Labor Day Experience are ones they’ve already studied (and printed out).
There’s always curveballs, though: “Like, I don't know what two, three, four of the songs are, yet, … so we’ll get to work.” Neuroth says.
The Brothers Osborne’s setlist includes several songs Neuroth can’t find anywhere in their discography. It turns out a few are covers, which means a little extra research for Neuroth before showtime, since interpreting music is different than interpreting a conversation, he said. There are metaphors, broader themes, that require deeper thought. For example, if someone sings that they’re feeling “blue,” the interpreters might use the sign for “depressed,” rather than the color.
“It's not just a kind of verbatim word-for-word transcription, but there is a lot of processing for meaning — and also then thinking about ways to convey things artistically versus just an equivalent content, right?” Neuroth says.
This JAS Labor Day Experience venue is open access, which means people don’t have to request ASL interpretation. It’s already provided, for anyone who wants it.
Neuroth says that’s a plus, in some ways, because “open access” can make the experience feel more like “equal access.” People who aren’t deaf or hard of hearing don’t have to ask if the band is going to play, or if the mics will be turned on, when they show up to a concert — they get to just show up and enjoy the show.
“And the hope, then, is that deaf people have that same access, that same possibility of just showing up and having access,” he says.
But it’s also complicated, according to Neuroth, because different people have different interpretation needs.
“The language of deaf people in the deaf community, it can be varied, … so if you don't know who's there, it creates sort of a tricky dynamic to hope that you're anchoring your language output to something that's accessible to someone,” Neuroth says. “Whereas, if you meet someone that’s making a request, you can assess their language and interpret accordingly.”
Interpretation for live music is, by its nature, a highly visible job. It involves a lot of movement, right next to the band. And so it catches people’s attention, whether they know ASL or not.
It even got a shout-out from Dave Grohl during the Foo Fighters’ set. Billy Idol had played earlier that day, and Grohl joked that he wanted to see what the interpreters would do during a, er, sensual song like “Flesh for Fantasy.”
But Neuroth and Janda are very clear about their mission, which is not to be the star of the show.
“I borrowed a language from a Deaf community who I cherish,” Neuroth said. “And my work is to — my objective is always to do the very best job that I can do to offer access to them based on sort of the appropriation that I've done of their language and culture to some extent.”
Pamela Decker-Wright, a deaf professor at Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C. with a focus on linguistics. She uses sign language to communicate, so for an interview with Aspen Public Radio over Zoom, Neuroth offered to interpret, translating simultaneously as throughout our interview.
Decker-Wright became deaf when she was two, but she came from a musical family. And her mom was intent on still exposing her to the art, through drum class, dance school, music theory lessons, going to concerts and symphonies.
Decker-Wright says she would bring a balloon, or a cup, to feel the vibrations.
“Many deaf people do enjoy music, and the idea that, you know, all profoundly deaf people hear nothing isn't the case,” Decker-Wright says. “Bass oftentimes is something that can be felt and it can be more accessible then it seems.”
So Decker-Wright became fascinated with translation and interpretation of music, which she says she’d practice in college with some friends.
“We would practice the signs and the rhythms and the rhythm of the signs, and play with translations … and we started to talk about, what does deaf music look like from a deaf eye?” Decker-Wright said. “And over the last 10-15 years, there’s been a lot of dialogue.”
Decker-Wright says this is an interesting time of “negotiation” about who should decide how this service grows and evolves.
“There's a group of people who have a very strong perspective that … it needs to be owned by deaf musicians,” Decker-Wright says. “Deaf people want to develop what that looks like and grow that field. There is another group who says, you know, we still need to do it in a collaborative way with hearing interpreters.”
Decker-Wright says that as the field evolves, it’s leading to more variety in how people interpret music. And that’s exciting.
“We're starting to have preferences, right?” she says. “We finally have genres. Not just, you know, the music genre, but translational genres as well.”
Back at the festival, Neuroth and Janda are conscious of how their movement reflects the music they interpret. At the concert with James Bay, for instance, full of soulful rock and roll, Janda was matching the energy on stage — not dancing, per se, but definitely grooving along.
“You want to just match the vibe and the tempo and the message, without stealing from what’s happening on stage,” Janda says.
And in a venue that can hold 10,000 people, it’s sometimes hard to tell who’s watching, until they come up afterwards to say thanks, Janda says.
“There was a woman a few years ago, after the show ended, we were kind of back in the hotel area, getting back in our rooms, and she stopped us and was like, ‘Hey, I didn't expect to see you guys here. I'm hard of hearing, I watched the show, I got to really enjoy it. I’ve never seen a concert with interpreters, so that was really cool,’” Janda says. “She wasn’t up at the front and didn’t identify herself to us during the show. She was just somewhere out in the crowd and was able to experience the show with an interpreter without having to do any of the legwork to make it happen for her.”
Neuroth and Janda say that providing that kind of access is really the whole point. For them, this work isn’t a performance itself, but a way to give others a fuller experience of the show — signs for applause included.
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