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Backstage with Holly Maniatty, the internet’s favourite interpreter

Holly Maniatty is used to going viral. But, she tells IQ, her signing is part of something bigger: the fight to improve accessibility for deaf live music fans

By Jon Chapple on 31 Jul 2018

Holly Maniatty

image © Holly Maniatty

If you’ve ever stumbled on a viral video interpreter captivating a concert audience with a barrage of animated, quick-fire sign language, you’re likely already familiar with the work of Holly Maniatty.

Maniatty has been working as an American sign language (ASL) interpreter since 2000, and now specialises in signing for concerts and festivals, making shows by the likes of Jay-Z, Bruce Springsteen, Marilyn Manson, Kanye West, U2 and Eminem accessible to hearing-impaired concertgoers, and winning her a legion of fans – deaf and hearing alike – in the process.

Whether it’s ‘slaying it’ with Eminem, dancing with Waka Flocka Flame or bringing da ruckus with Wu-Tang Clan, Maniatty’s joyous, ebullient brand of signing has made her an internet star and one of the most in-demand ASL interpreters in the US.

The role of the interpreter, Maniatty (pictured) explains, goes far beyond memorising the words and translating them into ASL – her job, she tells IQ, is to “make every moment of the performance accessible. That means the music, the lyrics, the crowd, the emcee – everything.”

“For me that is a process that involves a lot of prep work,” she continues. “Depending on the artist, it can range anywhere from ten to 50 hours for a 45-minute performance. This includes research about the artist, the lyrical references, their influences, the musical story and authors. It’s a multi-layered process to give [fans] access to the musician.”

As the name suggests, ASL is a language in its own right, with its own grammar, syntax and structure unrelated to English. (ASL and British Sign Language, for example, are mutually unintelligible, despite both countries using English as a spoken language.) Accordingly, says Maniatty, concert interpreters focus on the meaning of the lyrics, “as interpreting is a meaning-for-meaning process.

“I hope this brings access to shows into the forefront of people’s minds”

“There are many equivalencies between ASL and English – but far more that are not equivalent. For example, there may be one phrase with five words in English that requires three signs, and conversely three English words may require ten signs to achieve an equivalency.”

In preparation for her interpretation of Eminem’s recent performance at Firefly Music Festival (which Mashable says “stole the show” during ‘Rap God’), Maniatty says she “worked on memorising both the musical story and the lyrics”. “One really great thing about Eminem is that his personal story, background and musical roots are really well known,” she explains, “as is his genius use of language to engage and entertain.

“These are huge challenges for an interpreter, but also an opportunity to use ASL at its fullest. ASL is a rich and complex language that has so many linguistic opportunities through the use of poetic and storytelling techniques, and this makes it a great marriage with music, and specifically hip hop.

“‘Rap God’ is very lyrically intense – the middle section where he raps very rapidly is also a challenge. I worked on that section of the song for a good five to eight hours, and then built the interpretation out from there.”

Maniatty says the demand for interpreters at concerts is still growing, driven by an increased awareness of their availability among deaf concertgoers. With the prevalence of social media, she explains, “people are more aware, instantaneously, of what is happening, or has happened, around the world. So as interpreters became more available for events and concerts, patrons became more aware and started requesting interpreters.”

“YouTube, and other user-sourced video sites,” she adds, “have made this a viral phenomenon – it is wonderful to get the word out and raise awareness.”

“ASL is a rich and complex language that has so many linguistic opportunities”

As the number of deaf people attending concerts increases, Maniatty says she hopes her online popularity, as well as that of other interpreters, will drive home the message that promoters must be serious about making their shows accessible.

“It comes back to what music and festivals and events are really all about: lots of different kinds of people connecting for the same performance or moment,” she explains. “I think that people see an interpreter and it kind of blows their mind that there are people that use ASL connecting to something that they love as well.

“Ultimately, I hope that it brings awareness to other patrons, producers and, especially, musicians that deaf people want access to their shows. Often patrons have to spend a lot of time emailing and calling and trying to get a hold of someone to request an interpreter. They then have to wait and see if the interpreter is qualified and certified and can do this kind of work well. Other patrons don’t have to do that – they just buy a ticket and show up. So, I hope that this brings access to shows into the forefront of people’s minds.”

“Beyond that, I hope that people take that image of an interpreter back to their everyday lives,” she adds. “Maybe they are a nurse, or a lawyer, or any other profession, and they come in contact with a deaf customer or patient and remember seeing an interpreter, and then provide access to the deaf person.

“Deaf people are still having to fight on a daily basis to get interpreters for doctor’s appointments, courts, et cetera. So hopefully this makes it a little easier, and makes equal access the norm.”

 


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