The first question that interpreters get asked is, “But why would a deaf person go to a concert?” They think it’s a silly question, but everyone asks it.
But someone still needs to interpret the words.
|In the upstairs computer room of her house in Riverdale, Traci Ison ponders the metaphorical question that freaky teens and worried parents have been asking for two years, but this time in a very literal way. How do you interpret Lady Gaga?|
Here is the lyric:
“Come on now, this beat is sick. I wanna take a ride on your disco stick.”
Here is the problem:
1. There is no ideal translation for the word “disco” in this circumstance.
2. The word Ison might normally sign for “stick” generally refers to what would snap off of a tree branch.
Lady Gaga’s “Love Game” is metaphorical, but exactly how metaphorical is it? Is the tone coy? Callous? Flirty? Dirty?
There is the added complication that Lady Gaga sometimes makes her own gesture when she performs “Love Game,” and as it happens, that gesture does have a sign language translation.
“Lady Gaga’s gesture means masturbation,” Ison says matter-of-factly. (But doesn’t everything, with Lady Gaga?)
Ison has a smooth cap of blond hair, big eyes, a wide smile. She is a CODA – a Child of a Deaf Adult – and she is the interpreter who has been assigned to work Lady Gaga’s Monster Ball Tour at Verizon Center.
She has asked her interpreter friends how they would handle what shall now be referred to as the Disco Stick Problem. “One suggested I do this,” Ison says – mimicking an aggressive hip thrust. But that solution seemed more vulgar than the playful lyrics implied.
All of this would be easier if she knew more about her audience – how well they spoke American Sign Language, how well they spoke Gaga – but interpreters at performing arts gigs rarely know their audiences until they arrive at the show.
Ison rewinds the song on her iPod and listens again.
Over in Germantown, Jon Bon Jovi is presenting similar problems for Traci Randolph.
“The pictures in the shadows,” she says. “Do you think that’s literal?”
She is sitting at her dining-room table, Skyping with her interpreting partner, Liz Leitch, who lives in Richmond. Leitch will drive up to Washington for the Bon Jovi show a few days later. In front of Randolph: a pile of printouts containing the lyrics for everything the singer has been performing on his latest tour. After each stop, Randolph Googles his latest set list to see what he’s switched up. For weeks, she has been breathing Bon Jovi. When she is not working her day job, she is Livin’ on a Prayer. These puns invade her e-mails. She can’t help it.
“They could be memories,” Leitch offers.
Randolph experimentally tries out signs for “memories.” Would these be good memories? Bad ones? The song is, after all, called “Runaway.”
“Sometimes,” Randolph says, “I’ll do words on the mouth,” to provide the literal translation, but the signs paired with it will be more conceptual.
She is a fan of Bon Jovi. Has been listening to him for 20 years. The job of an interpreter, however, requires a whole other level of attention to detail – an intricate dissection of every single word, with the knowledge that the interpreter’s understandings of the song are going to inform or define other people’s understandings of the song.
It is entirely possible that no one has thought this much about “Runaway” since Bon Jovi wrote it 31 years ago.
Washington is kind of like a “mecca” for the deaf population, Janet Bailey says. “Because once they come to Gallaudet from Kansas, they’re probably not going back to Kansas.”
Bailey is the former president of the Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf, an Alexandria-based professional organization, and she now works as the group’s government affairs representative. She also, back in 1982, founded the first interpreting agency and began approaching area theaters about interpreting their shows. The Folger Theatre was the first, followed by Arena Stage.
Now, RID’s data say that there are about 120 interpreters in Washington. It doesn’t sound like a lot, but, when you compare it to the general population, it’s proportionally more than double New York state’s or California’s.
Last year, more than 1,100 would-be interpreters registered for their knowledge-based certfication exams nationwide, up from about 650 in 2006. (Interpreters have to pass the knowledge-based exams before the practical ones – and have up to five years to complete both – so numbers for the performance-based exams haven’t caught up.)
In late 2009, Randolph and Leitch, along with business partner Kevin Dyels, founded First Chair Interpreted Productions, an agency that focuses solely on interpreting for concerts and performing arts. They do about 50 events a year, including all the work for Verizon Center. First Chair booked Ison and another interpreter, Danielle Hunt, for the Gaga concert.
“You’ll hear me describe the difference between day work and night work,” Dyels says. Night work is the concerts, the plays, the stand-up comedy. When he, Randolph and Leitch look for interpreters for night work, they’re looking for people who have credentials, but they’re also looking for groupies.
“I’m qualified to interpret Bon Jovi,” Randolph says. “I wouldn’t be qualified for Linkin Park.”
Any interpreter planning to stand in front of an audience of Lady Gaga fans who love her enough to come to the concert wearing meat dresses should care very, very deeply about just what a disco stick is.
“I told Kevin that I would be doing this show,” Ison says. She needed to. Months in advance, as soon as she saw signs for the concert, she knew she and Lady Gaga were meant to be.