What’s the sign for chillin’?
Does it vary from state to state? Is it different depending on who is doing the chillin’?
When you spend hundreds of hours preparing to translate a rap concert into American Sign Language, as Holly Maniatty of Falmouth does, these are things you think about.
At least, she does.
“Well, if a grandmother was chillin’, doing nothing, it would probably be this,” said Maniatty, holding her hands up fairly daintily, a pleasant grin on her face.
“But if it’s a member of (rap group) Wu-Tang Clan chillin’, it would be like this,” she said with an intense expression in her eyes and her hands held higher.
Maniatty, 33, interprets 30 to 40 live music concerts a year. It’s a passionate sideline to her main job as an ASL translator for a company that helps hearing-impaired people make phone calls.
Her speed and skill interpreting rap gained her worldwide Internet fame earlier this month when videos of her signing lyrics rapped by Wu-Tang Clan at the Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival in Tennessee went viral.
Clips of her signing at break-neck speed appeared on “Jimmy Kimmel Live” on ABC and on “Chelsea Lately” on the E! cable network.
In the videos, Maniatty’s hands, head and body move so fluidly, and so rapidly, that she looks like she’s dancing to the rap beats. But she makes it clear that while she loves rap music, she is definitely not dancing.
“Everything I do is very strategic, to convey the emotion, the beat,” said Maniatty, sitting outside a cafe last week near her South Portland office. “If the beat is ‘boom, chica boom,’ I might move one way, but then it might change and the moves are different. There was one line (at Bonnaroo) where they talked about getting pulled ‘waaaay over,’ so I leaned back to emphasize that.”
Maniatty’s passion for her profession has made her a sought-after ASL interpreter nationwide and earned praise from entertainers, audience members and her peers.
“One thing that makes Holly stand out among the group is her ability to keep calm and think quick,” said ASL interpreter Jenn Abbott of Long Island, N.Y., who signed alongside Maniatty at Bonnaroo. “She has such an amazing grasp and understanding of American Sign Language that the craziest of rap freestyles cause this switch to flip, and she’s so on point, it’s amazing.”
NO MUSIC OR LYRICS OFF LIMITS
Maniatty grew up in Newport, Vt., near the Canadian border, where her mother worked in advertising at the local newspaper.
As a youngster, she thought she’d grow up to be an artist. She loved visuals and working with her hands.
In high school, she was searching the website of the Rochester (N.Y.) Institute of Technology because she had heard about its graphic design programs, and came across information on its sign-language programs. Although she was never exposed to the idea before, she knew at that moment it was what she wanted to do.
Maniatty got a degree in American Sign Language and went on to get a National Interpreter Certification: Master classification, as well as a Certificate of Interpretation and Certificate of Transliteration.
She moved from Rochester to the Portland area in 2003 and has been here since.
Maniatty first got into interpreting at concerts — which she mostly does as a volunteer, without pay — in Rochester about 10 years ago. A deaf patron made a request (which is how most concerts come to have interpreters) for an interpreter at a Marilyn Manson concert.
Other interpreters turned it down. Maniatty, who loves all music and became a big rap fan in college, thought it would be fun to interpret the lyrics of the controversial rocker.
“He was very controversial at that time for what he was saying, for what he was wearing or not wearing on stage,” said Maniatty. “So I needed to research and study him.”
For some shows, especially rap, Maniatty has to translate profanity. As an interpreter, she takes pride in getting the full message to her patrons.
“It is not up to me to censor what is being said or sung,” she said. “Hip-hop is a place where profanity is OK, and it often punctuates a message. So I have to include it to interpret with integrity.”
Maniatty often interprets for the jam band Phish and will do so again in July in central Washington state. Those concerts are very different from a rap show, especially because Phish often fills big spans of time with instrumental improvs.
But Maniatty doesn’t feel it would be fair to take a break at those points just because no one is singing.
“I usually have one hand doing the guitar and one doing the bass so I can let people know what’s going on,” she said.
PHYSICALLY AND MENTALLY CHALLENGING
Doing sign language at concerts is so physically demanding, Maniatty works out regularly at the Portland gym CrossFit MF, where she gets a mix of training that helps with strength, aerobics and body control.
At Bonnaroo, where she’s been interpreting for six or seven years, she regularly does eight to 10 shows in a three- or four-day period. At an outdoor music festival in Portland last August featuring Mumford & Sons, she interpreted for all eight acts over a nine-hour period before more than 15,000 fans.
When doing the Wu-Tang show at Bonnaroo, she traded off signing duties with Abbott. Maniatty would sign for one rapper, then rest and take a breath while Abbott signed the words of the next rapper.
Although interpreting live music takes strength and stamina, the mental part of what Maniatty does is equally, if not more, important.
To prepare for Bonnaroo this year, she said she probably spent 300 hours watching videos and conducting research. She watches performers’ body languages and habits, and listens closely to cadence.
She also does a lot of research on lyrics and the meanings of words used in different contexts. Sometimes she contacts deaf people in different parts of the country to find out if there are regional differences in signs.
For example, in preparing to interpret for Killer Mike, an up-and-coming rapper from Atlanta who performed at Bonnaroo, Maniatty conducted research about signs for the word “brotha,” which is often used in rap to mean a good friend or buddy.
She found that in Atlanta a sign with that meaning would be made with two hands interlocked at the finger tips, forming a jointed fist touching the chest over the heart. But the sign in New York City for the same term would be one hand shaped in a fist, with the thumb touching the chest over the heart.
“Holly is so amazing with her understanding of music, she interprets as if she’s telling us a story,” wrote Aaron Ewing, 40, of Seattle, who is deaf and has seen Maniatty interpret at four concerts over the years. “She knows all the words. The audience really digs her awesome emotion.”
FUELED BY A PASSION FOR THE DEAF
Although the presence of interpreters at concerts is growing — especially as more music festivals pop up — most hearing people aren’t very familiar with the concept.
The publicity Maniatty got for her Bonnaroo video has caused a lot of hearing people to ask questions about interpreting at concerts, including why folks who can’t hear much, or at all, would want to go to a concert.
The answer is typically twofold. All deaf people can feel beats, and some can hear beats as well. And like most people who go to concerts and festivals, deaf people are also choosing to be with friends and share a visual and sensual experience they can’t get anywhere else, Maniatty said.
Maniatty sometimes gets concert translating gigs through a Massachusetts company called Everyone’s Invited, which specializes in accessibility at music festivals. Locally, she is one of several interpreters that Portland’s State Theatre uses for shows when a patron requests one.
Lauren Wayne, general manager of the State Theatre, praised Maniatty for her “professionalism and the fact that she cares about making sure the hearing-impaired enjoy live events just like everyone else.”
As she talked for this story, Maniatty usually signed at least part of most of her sentences. Force of habit, she says — but it’s also a testament to how much time and passion she expends on interpreting. (She is also passionate about referring to deaf people in print with a capital “D,” as in “Deaf,” but newspaper style calls for the word to start with a small “d.”)
Although she doesn’t make much money, if any, at concerts, interpreting is her profession, and she works hard to remain professional — even when she gets to share the spotlight with rappers and rockers whose music she loves.
“I can’t go up to them and say, ‘Oh I love your music so much,’ ” Maniatty said.
She has, however, had some pretty close contact with stars while interpreting. Method Man of Wu-Tang Clan gave her a hug during his performance at Bonnaroo.
And while interpreting for Bruce Springsteen in New Orleans last year, Maniatty taught The Boss the signs for “Dancing in the Dark,” the title of his 1984 hit.
“He was right near me, and I tapped him on the shoulder and showed him (the signs),” said Maniatty. “I heard from people who said, ‘Thanks for teaching The Boss to sign.’ “
Ray Routhier can be contacted at 791-6454 or at: