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Interpreting Genius: A Conversation with Holly Maniatty

Holly Maniatty is moving faster than anyone in the Wu-Tang Clan. She bounces up and down, her whole body undulates, her hands fly as she signs, her eyes flare precisely, her mouth articulates the lyrics. She is in the front row at the Bonnaroo music festival in Manchester, Tennessee, where she’s interpreting the concert for Deaf fans. The other American Sign Language (ASL) interpreter at the show looks at her in awe. Maniatty doesn’t pause.

Maniatty, who grew up in rural Vermont and holds degrees in interpreting and ASL linguistics, is a sensation in the Deaf community and among hip-hop fans. When she interpreted a Killer Mike concert, also at Bonnaroo, the rapper was so impressed with her rapid movements and visible passion that he jumped off the stage and began dancing with her. With a smile, he rapped a series of nasty words and phrases. Maniatty kept up; the crowd went wild.

Maniatty is an in-demand ASL concert interpreter and has grown in fame, appearing on late night shows from Jimmy Kimmel to Jimmy Fallon. Her skill is hard-won; for a single concert, she often prepares for up to 40 hours, to understand every aspect of the musical group she’ll sign for. She wants to provide near-perfect information to her Deaf patrons, so she learns everything: the group’s entire backlist, where they grew up, what charities they give to. By knowing the group she’s interpreting, she can more precisely — and more quickly — interpret their performance.

Maniatty wants to use her profile to bring greater equality to Deaf people. “There’s this whole population of culture in America that sometimes is easily overlooked and not served,” she tells me. Likewise, she wants attention turned not toward her but toward the Deaf performers who are breaking stereotypes of what it means to be a performing artist and what it means to be Deaf. She mentions her great respect for Deaf performers like Sean Forbes, Dack Virnig, and Peter Cook.

Maniatty and I discussed the boundaries of language, the complexities of interpreting, and raising awareness for the Deaf community. Throughout it all, she was upbeat and energetic, stressing how grateful she is to get to do what she does. Deaf or hearing, it’s hard not to look forward to her next concert.

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How did you become interested in ASL?

I had ideas about going to art school and I really felt like I wanted to be an interpreter and I went for it wholeheartedly. I was very fortunate to be accepted to RIT (Rochester Institute of Technology). The National Technical Institute for the Deaf is there so they have a large population of Deaf students. I lived in a dorm with Deaf people and interacted with Deaf people, and most of my friends were Deaf, so I was really lucky to have that immersive experience, and because of that, I gained the language quickly. Since then, it’s really been one of the fulfilling things I could ever think of in life, really.

I worked for a short time as a staff interpreter at RIT and as a freelance interpreter, and just randomly was asked to do a concert. They were having a hard time finding an interpreter for it. I jumped in and found that I really loved the work because of the preparatory process: going through the music and analyzing the lyrics, and doing what an interpreter would call “text analysis” of the intent of the speaker and, hopefully, the received message of the person you’re interpreting for. I fell in love with that process.

That was in between my two degrees, and I went back to school to get a degree in ASL Linguistics because I felt like there was so much more that I needed to know about the language before I could really do this at the highest level. The University of Rochester has a fabulous program that includes linguistics classes, brain, and science classes, but also a lot of Deaf history, and Deaf folklore, and Deaf poetry. I was able to take those classes, and it really helped build my skill. From there, I just started doing shows and patrons liked the interpreting that I was able to offer, and they requested me to do shows.

Was that your big break?

After I moved to Portland, ME, I got involved in Bonnaroo and interpreted there, and, again, that was patron-driven: someone that I had interpreted for before asked if I was able to go to Bonnaroo, and I contacted the accessibility department there.

Starting at Bonnaroo was a big step for me because it wasn’t just one show a night. Over the course of a weekend, an interpreter at a festival can do fifteen to twenty shows in just three to four days. That was a big step for me and brought me to another level of being able to do a variety of music throughout one day. You could go from something that was more lyrical and folk all the way to something that someone would refer to as a hardcore rap show. It definitely stretched my skills, and I think built me up to be a better interpreter every single year that I did it. I just really enjoyed that.

There’s a fabulous team of interpreters that come from all over the country to do Bonnaroo so it was a great opportunity to learn from other professionals, and we had this great, little brain trust going on — learning from each other and working together and supporting each other through that process. It was one of the pivotal interpreting opportunities I had.

Where does your particular skill set lie?

That’s such an astute question. No one has ever asked me that. I think the things that most prepares me for this work is my ability to look at communication as a whole entity — almost this global package. I try to use as many different possible ways to communicate a message as possible. Obviously the sign language, but then there’s the poetic aspect of music that you’re always trying to relay and put that experience out there for a person that’s at a show.

I always go back to what I would term as “the old Deaf masters,” like Clayton Valliand Patrick Graybill and The National Theater for the Deaf and all those old things we watched on VHS tapes when I was in college — that’s how old I am. Going back to them and seeing how they creatively used their language and then incorporated that into the way you communicate as a human being. So accessing people’s visual representations of things — like if they’re talking about a political movement, what was the picture that went along with that political movement? Or what was the striking Pulitzer image that goes along with that, and trying to access that through the interpretation. I research how the performer moves, and I think that speaks a lot to how they feel about one particular song or album. You see the way they shift their body posture and even the way they’re projecting their voice can be different based on the album, which goes back to a time in their life.

The more you look at communication as a global thing — a global delivery as opposed to just looking at the language itself — you’re able to communicate things a lot more efficiently and a lot more effectively than if you were just kind of thinking, How can I translate this instrument to sign language? Music is about so many more things than that, and if you’re going from very rich and lush movement to ASL, which is also a very rich and lush medium, you want to take advantage of everything you have.

Is there something we can learn about translation from how you interpret ASL?

I do think that there are implications with any language — cultural implications. In Taiwan, February 14th is not Valentine’s Day; it was their February 14 Massacre so you couldn’t go from English to Taiwanese or whatever dialect you were using there and not understand the implication when somebody mentions February 14th. I think that in any language, you have to understand the cultural implications, and ASL is so deeply tied with American cultural experience.

I’ve learned, obviously, from my Deaf professors that you have to understand that cultural implication. I grew up near Canada in Northern Vermont, and on Quebec license plates, it says, “I will remember.” I never really understood that, and then I had a professor who was from France who explained to me the whole cultural implication of “I will remember,” as in Quebec will always remember their relationship as being kind of separate from Canada. So it’s interesting. If you delve into the culture of the language, you’ll have a more complete translation and one that moves people in the appropriate way.

What’s the most important part of interpreting music for Deaf patrons?

I think the most important thing is that they’re experiencing the same thing as somebody else is. They’re dropping with the beat at the same time; they’re having that emotional moment. I’ve interpreted shows before and almost everyone in the crowd is tearing up, and you want that for the patron that you’re interpreting for. Ultimately the goal is that they’re feeling the exact same thing as everybody else. When you hit that interpreting sweet spot, there’s nothing else like it. You’re just like, “Yes! Mission accomplished!”

Tell us about the connection you make with Deaf patrons.

I did a Beastie Boys concert, and the patrons were really excited about it, and I worked really hard to make sure the cultural references in Beastie Boys songs and the funny puns were tangible. There are moments when everyone’s like, “Oh no. He just didn’t say that” all at the same time, including the Deaf patrons. That’s what you go for. Those are the moments when the twenty to forty hours of preparation for the ninety-minute show are absolutely worth it.

I don’t know about you, but I definitely had experiences where I’m at a concert and I think a song means one thing, and then I’m in a crowd of people and we’re all kind of feeling the same thing, and then I see the performer and I’m like, “Oh, that’s what they meant?” I think people have those a-ha moments, and you want to provide an opportunity for someone to have that a-ha moment. They will never forget the moment they really understood what that song meant, or what it meant to the person that wrote it. That’s really the challenge. You’re just setting an opportunity before somebody, and they grasp it just like everybody else.

Why hip-hop?

It just became my thing over the last ten years of interpreting. The Beastie Boys concert was a huge education for me because I was like, “Yeah, I can do that.” And then I was like, “Wait a minute. What is this song about? Wait, who and what are they referencing?” I didn’t grow up in metro New York City so I didn’t know about the Pelham train so I had to look that up and I read all of that. And I mean that whole song has like seventeen different historical references about Manhattan in it and for someone who didn’t grow up there, that’s huge.

I ended up falling in love with the simplicity of hip-hop. It’s this really lush and diverse use of language. Everyone’s really excited about Hamilton because it’s telling a story in a more modern way, but hip-hop’s been doing that for a long time. They broke barriers. They broke social barriers, racial barriers standing for a long time. I think the masterful way that people use language in hip-hop songs is just amazing. It just fascinates me. I read everything I can about hip-hop culture. Every single time, in the same way that I feel like I learned something new about American Sign Language on a weekly basis, I’m learning something new about hip-hop on a weekly basis.

Hip-hop is often the place where the vernacular of American English is first stretched. Are you likewise trying to expand the possibilities of ASL?

I’m a second-language learner, so I will never use ASL to one hundred percent of its potential like a native user. I understand and respect that. ASL is so complex and has so many beautiful nuances. It really is a perfect medium to translate any kind of hip-hop, just the way in which you can communicate so many concepts very, very quickly. Many of the aspects of ASL are spatial. We use first-person perspective and storytelling mode. It’s literally the perfect medium to make this accessible in a different language.

To what extent is the body a vital interpreting tool?

I think it’s super important. In preparation for a show, you have to think about the lyrical story and the story of the person who wrote it, but you have to think about the musical story too. Jay Z, in 99 Problems, uses this really awesome technique where there’s this weird static noise behind the lyrics where he’s “becoming” the cop that pulls him over. The way in which people are mixing and DJs are mixing their songs with these acoustic effects is really relayed in your body and the way you’re positioning your body in interpreting, and I think that — as much as the words — is important. The context is important, and the beat is just as important. There are some songs you know in just the first three seconds, like It’s Tricky from Run DMC. And that’s really important. If you can make your body movements equally as iconic as the music that’s written, it just enhances the access to the concert and to the musician.

What’s the most creative you’ve ever had to be when signing a lyric?

I think one challenge was when we were doing a back-to-back concert with Eminem and Jay Z. They’re very different performers, with very different approaches to the way they deliver the same genre of music. You have to be able to show that. Eminem had done a lot of sampling of other R&B like Rihanna, so that was a big challenge — to be really visceral like him and then kind of emotional like her in the same song and just kind of switch back and forth between that based on the lyrics and the hook.

I think, too, ideally as an interpreter, you’re making yourself vulnerable to whatever emotion the music is about. So there are some songs that are emotional and you have to go there, and it’s a risk. You really go the whole way and try to make the interpretation as accessible as possible even if it’s emotionally risky for you and other people there.

What do you see as your contribution to the Deaf community at large?

I hope my contribution to the Deaf community is bringing a greater spotlight to their need for access to interpreting. Not just concert interpreting — any kind of interpreting. The Americans with Disabilities Act just had its birthday; it’s twenty years old and people still struggle on a daily basis to get interpreting services for basic things like doctor’s appointments and surgeries.

I hope that somebody hears about this crazy person doing whatever concert and then looks at my page and sees maybe something about a Deaf performer like Sean Forbes or Dack Virnig and then they check out Deaf performers and then they go to their page and say, “Oh wow, this Deaf person is posting that the EDHI law is up for renewal in the United States House and that’s for early detection of hearing loss in children so that there can be ASL services and early intervention services.” There’s this whole population in America that sometimes is easily overlooked and not served.

Interpreters have an inside look on people’s lives. It’s a huge privilege being in a partnership with the Deaf community and Deaf culture. I will continue interpreting. and I will continue trying to be an advocate for access for Deaf people.

This article originally appeared at Longreads.

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