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What sign-language interpreters make of the likes of Lady Gaga and Bon Jovi

By Monica Hesse
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 2, 2011; 9:13 AM

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.

Going to a concert is partly about hearing the songs. It is equally about the costumes, the spectacle, the pulsing, the convulsing - the sticky, claustrophobic mass of humanity. When you consider this, it makes perfect sense that deaf people go to concerts.

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.

Thus, if the sentence is translated word-for-word from English to its corresponding signs, the resulting phrase could come across as something like, "I want to ride on the twig of John Travolta's dance moves."

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.

"So," Randolph says, " 'There's only pictures hung in the shadows left there to look at you.' Is that literal? Am I literally picturing someone in a den," surrounded by portraits?

"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.

"David Bowie, Led Zeppelin . . ." Suzy Rosen Singleton is rattling off her favorite concerts.

"Madonna," adds her friend, Charmaine Hlibok. "AC/DC."

Oya restaurant is noisy on a Thursday night, but Rosen Singleton and Hlibok, who are deaf, communicate by signing or reading lips anyway. Lady Gaga's Monster Ball show starts in three hours at Verizon Center. The two women's children cannot believe their moms are going.

Before the Americans With Disabilities Act in 1992 began requiring performing arts venues to provide interpreters on request, "I would make up my own words," says Rosen Singleton, who works as Gallaudet University's ombudsman. Interpreters, she says, "are now critical to my enjoyment."

But not every interpreter is cut out for concert work, and not everyone wants to do it. It's exhausting, both mentally and physically, which is why interpreters are usually assigned to events in pairs. It's taxing to provide meaning, convey emotion, and keep the beat at the same time.

And also, Hlibok says, "they have to be invisible to us."

This is a paradoxical requirement for someone whom she will spend two to three hours looking at. But what she means is the interpreter has to tread the fine line between acting as a conduit for the song and mistakenly believing they are the entertainment. The less successful ones, she says, "think they're the character. They get carried away."

What most non-signers don't realize is that sign language is not an exact science, a one-plus-one-equals. The same sentence, given to three different interpreters, might result in three different interpretations.

What most non-signers further don't realize is that "sign language" is actually an imprecise descriptor, and whatever any one interpreter is doing at any given moment might be a blend of multiple approaches.

American Sign Language is, as it sounds, its own language, with its own grammatical structure and particular nuances. Its roots are actually not in English, but in French - the language originated when Thomas Gallaudet traveled to Europe in 1815 seeking methods for teaching deaf children.

Signed English is, as it sounds, a more literal translation of spoken English, mimicking word order and grammar.

Some people think ASL works better for songs. It's faster, more expressive. It's able to convey emotions and tonal inflections that wouldn't be readily apparent to a non-hearing audience member. When Lady Gaga goes "Rah rah rah ah ah, ro ma, ro ma ma," a proponent of ASL might decide that the important thing to convey would be the raw, flirtatious tone rather than the literal words, which, after all, make no sense.

A strict follower of Signed English, on the other hand, might decide to spell out every R, O, M and A, deciding that Lady Gaga should be equal-opportunity nonsensical.

The line is between being visible and invisible, but it's also about figuring what it truly means to interpret something. It's about human perception and human fallibility, about the difference between aiding someone and patronizing them. It's about the search for a definite truth within an art form that is meant to be ambiguous.

"For my very first show, I spent weeks creating this perfect, beautiful ASL interpretation," says Hunt, Ison's interpreting parter for Lady Gaga. "Then I got there and the client said, 'I really just want to know the words.' " She pauses. "It totally changed my approach." Hunt is currently pursuing her PhD in interpreting at Gallaudet; she has studied the field since, as an undergraduate, she received dispensation to be one of Gallaudet's few hearing students.

"I could literally sign the words 'broken arrow,' " says Randolph, in reference to another set of elusive Bon Jovi lyrics. But that translation wouldn't make sense. "It wouldn't be interpreting. It would just be spitting back words."

She made an exception when she interpreted an R.E.M. concert a few years back. "Because," she explains, "we really didn't know what any of it meant."

This is what Ison has decided it looks like, to take a ride on a disco stick:

It looks like a left index finger rising slightly toward the sky, and right index and middle fingers coming down to curve around it and jounce up and down.

It's a sign that can't be exactly translated into English, but if you watch her do it, you get the gist that whatever she is doing with her hands is a wee bit naughty. She has decided to mouth Lady Gaga's words along with the signs, allowing Rosen Singleton, Hlibok and their friend Trina Schooley to follow along in more than one way.

(Randolph, meanwhile, has decided that Bon Jovi's pictures hanging in the shadows should be literal pictures.)

A few days after the concert, Ison shares a link to a video she made of herself at the concert to help her review her own performance.

"Love Game" is a fast-paced song, with lyrics spoken in a relentless monotone, leaving little room to catch breath or pause fingers. When Ison signs it, her hands flutter in front of her face and chest, the song ending with a triumphant "Game!"

Then, off-screen on the stage, Gaga produces a giant phallic torch, which she begins to stroke.

"I don't know if you heard," Gaga purrs, "but I have a pretty tremendous [expletive]."

In the video, Ison does a double take, making sure she has heard correctly, before signing the lewd man-parts term.

Then she shrugs and finger-spells the word, just to be on the safe side.

In the sense that nobody will ever really understand Lady Gaga, Ison has done the best she can.

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