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Transcript of the Interview with Holly Maniatty, Interpreter for Wu-Tang Clan

This podcast is made possible by contributors, who can contribute now at thestory.org, and in collaboration with Burt’s Bees, Red Hat, and the Red Woods Group Foundation, who believe if we can work together we can strengthen communities for a better tomorrow.

Sean Cole: I’m Sean Cole in for Dick Gordon. This is The Story. I’m a big Wu-Tang Clan fan. I think they might be the single greatest rap collective of all time, and I’m not alone in that. The RZA, the GZA, Ghostface Killa, Method Man, Raekwon, and the rest of them have been a force to reckon with in hip hop for 20 years, on and off, both as a crew and in all kinds of offshoot and solo projects. So I was pretty excited to see even this short little video that’s going around the Internet of their set at Bonnaroo Music Festival this month. But people haven’t been watching that video because of Wu-Tang. In fact, no disrespect, their performance is the least interesting part of these 28 seconds.

[Musical interlude: Wu-Tang Clan, live clip from Bonarroo]

SC : If you look at the bottom right of the frame, you’ll see Holly Maniatty, Wu-Tang’s American Sign Language interpreter for the show. She does this for a lot of big-time music acts—Bruce Springsteen, the Beastie Boys—but when you watch her interpret Wu-Tang Clan, it’s like she’s a nine-man, seething, bumping, ruthless crew of rappers in one little body: hands flying around everywhere, tongue coming out, it’s almost a kind of focused possession.

Holly Maniatty: Yes, I definitely am an interpreter that believes that communication is not only language—it’s the way you move your body or the way that you don’t move your body. A lot of people have commented that I seem to have been putting my back into it while I was interpreting.

[Laughter]

HM: I know, I thought that was pretty funny. A lot of that was a percussive technique so that the bass could be more easily relayed to deaf patrons that were attending the show. When they felt that boom of the bass, they could also see it in my body while I was signing.

SC : Oh, I see

HM: Yes, so then it would be more analogous to the entire feel of the song.

SC: So that’s strategic as well as you just rockin’?

HM: Yes. It’s definitely strategic. I’ve been fortunate to have experiences to kind of work out the whole technique and now it comes pretty naturally to me, but it is definitely strategic, yes.

SC: But you’re clearly just feeling the music and enjoying it. I mean, you can’t fake enjoyment of music. You’re clearly having a lot of fun, and it seems as though the way that you sign for, say “Wu-Tang Clan,” is different from the way you would sign for, you know, “Secretary of State John Kerry,” or someone who isn’t quite as… I don’t know… expository.

HM: Yes, definitely. Each person and each performer, regardless of whether they are a musician or a politician or a doctor in a doctor’s appointment, they’ll have their prosity and their own way that they use language to communicate and it’s really important as an interpreter that you’re absorbing that through your interpreting approach but also the way that you are holding your body. A good example would be Eminem and Jay-Z. They are both very dynamic performers, but if you watch videos of them, they hold their bodies very differently and they perform differently, so I do a lot of studying the way in which the person holds their body, the way in which they move their body to the cadence of the music, the way in which that they gesticulate. Hip hop and rap artists have a lot of gesticulation while they are trying to punctuate specific words or a bar in a rap song. So I do a lot of studying of the movement of the artist and try to incorporate that as much as possible without it affecting the quality of the interpreting. You need to breath the performer into your interpreting when you’re approaching a musician.

SC : So what’s an example of how you would do a Jay-Z performance differently than you would an Eminem performance or a Wu-Tang performance?

HM: That’s a really great example. Eminem, for example, tends to be a little bit more hunched over; he kinda leans with his right shoulder into the microphone and hunches in, almost as though he is talking to himself a lot of time. He doesn’t gesticulate as much as Jay-Z does. Jay-Z tends to be a performer that kind of opens up his chest a lot and tends to hit the beat while he is gesticulating with the hand that is not holding the microphone. They look very different when they are on the stage, and on some level, as an interpreter, it’s important that you’re incorporating that body posture when you are interpreting because if you don’t match what the musician looks like, you haven’t hit that equivalent for the deaf patron. You want to look as much like the person as possible. For example, Method Man in Wu-Tang holds himself very differently than Ghost Face Killa, so the way in which they kind of bounce is very different. Method Man is a kinda a back-and-forth bouncer, whereas Ghost Face is kind of an in-place bouncer but with very small, understated movements. He gesticulates quite a bit when he wants to hit a word or phrase in a song, so it’s important that you incorporate that into your interpreting. Because that’s really who they are as a performer; they developed that over years and years and, on some level, you have to pay homage to the style in which they present their art to people.

SC: Could you just sort of back up for a second and map your path to that corner of the stage now that everyone has seen in this viral video? You know, how this whole thing became a thing?

HM: Well, I had been performance-interpreting for ten years. I got my start doing a Marilyn Manson show, which is a very interesting sashay into interpreting. I was working at an agency as a coordinator and the request came in and none of the interpreters wanted to touch it.

SC: Why?

HM: At that time, he had just come out with his second big hit. He was a very controversial performer. I still think he is and that’s kind of his whole shtick—he’s controversial on purpose. There was a lot of controversy surrounding him, and some of the costumes and the things that he did and did not wear while he was onstage. I think that people were a little scared. I think it was that naiveté of youth: I was like, “I’ll do it.” I started studying his music and got ready for the concert, and, you know, was up in front of 8,000 people, it was an arena. The deaf patrons had a great time. They were like, “Oh, my gosh, that’s so great, that is exactly what he is supposed to sound like and what he looks like.” I did a lot of studying of his movement in the videos, which is very choppy and, you know, not very lifelike. He tends to try to emulate weird movements, so I did a lot of studying of that and it was very effective. I was kind of hooked after that. I did everything and anything that I could to learn about music and interpreting. I ended up taking some classes at the University of Rochester. At that time, I was already a certified, working interpreter. I really felt like that experience of presenting music to deaf people was really important in my career, so I took a bunch of classes on ASL poetry techniques, and went back and re-studied the linguistics of the language that I was already productively using, and through that kind of basic discovery, I was able to learn poetry techniques and folklore techniques that I am able to incorporate into the interpretation. And that’s kind of where that idea of cadence and body movement came into play more clearly in my interpreting approach.

SC: It’s such a wonderfully sort of serious and clinical description of something, that when you watch you do it, it seems just so visceral and, you know, no holds barred. [Laughs]

HM: Well, I mean, I think that show was about 50 hours of preparation, studying the members and their history, and all of their music and where they’re from, and watching videos of them, so at that moment in time you have to really trust that the preparation, and the experience that you have is gonna take you there. I was fortunate that it did take me to a place where the patrons had a great experience and I think even Wu-Tang was really excited to have an interpreter there. Method Man came up and gave me a fist bump and a hug.

SC: Awww.

HM: Yeah, I thought that was really nice. It was also some kind of hip hop historical event because they hadn’t played together in a really long time. We had no idea who was going to be there at the show beforehand until they rolled up in a big stretch Navigator and got out and so we had no idea who was going to be there, so in the world of interpreting, it was a hard thing to prepare for.

SC: So you had no idea who of Wu-Tang was going to be there?

HM: Yeah, you know over the years they’ve had 40 members.

SC: Wow, that’s kind of daunting given that you are trying to emulate each one of them differently when they are up there.

HM: Yeah, I was a little nervous, I am not going to lie. I was really nervous and then just kinda had this moment when I was like “This is happening. This is going to happen. It’s going to rock.” And it did. I was really very pleased with it. [Laughs]

SC: And were you a fan of Wu-Tang already?

HM: Yeah, I think their music is really interesting. I think what they did for the industry is really interesting. I mean, they were some of the first rappers to create personas for themselves and have music pen names and stuff. I think that you need to give them their due because they did a lot for the industry. So, yeah, I’m definitely a fan. They are on my iPod. Not all their songs, but some of them.

SC: So with preparation, what are you doing? You say you are watching videos and sort of studying the artist, but you must need to be—if you don’t know them already just from being a fan—you must need to memorize pretty much every song that they do, right, in case they change it up and come out with a song that you’re not expecting?

HM: Yeah, what I usually do is study. I do a little history and background research on each one of the people. Where they grow up, for example, is really important because a lot of their childhood and childhood memories are incorporated into their music, regardless of the genre they are performing in. I do a little research on that and where they are currently residing, their political affiliations, if they are involved in any kind of nonprofit work because often that seeps into the music. Or any kind of comments between the songs, they’ll talk about things they’re involved in. And then from there, I usually make a list. Wu-Tang has over 100 and something songs, and so I come up with usually 50 songs that are the most likely to be played based on prior tours and prior performances, which was not possible for Wu-Tang because they had not played in such a long time, so their list was 75 songs long. Basically I just go through each song and if there is any kind of reference to a city or an area of the country, I try to make sure to make note of that use a sign that is dialectically appropriate to that area of the country or that area of the world

SC: Oh, so it’s a different sign for “brother” or something in one place versus another?

HM: Yeah, “brother” is a great example because “brother” could be their brother-gang member or brother-in-arms or it could be their actual familial brother, so that’s something you have to know, who are they actually talking about when they “brother.” And, on top of that, there are different signs: New York City, the New York metropolitan area, has a different sign for “brother” as in “friend,”—like “you’re my brotha,” they would say. So there’s a different sign for that than in Atlanta or LA.

SC: No kidding?

HM: Yeah, you know the same way English has colloquialisms. Up in Maine, people say things are “wicked far.”

SC: [Laughs] As they do in Boston.

HM: Yeah, you don’t really hear that in Iowa, so you have to think about that because it’s part of the experience when a patron goes to a show. Is that person is from LA or this person is from Boston or wherever they’re from—that that’s part of their experience, knowing that that artist perhaps comes from the same city they grew up in and that’s why they love them so much, so you have to think about that as you are preparing for the music.

SC: Coming up. ASL interpreter, Holly Maniatty, breaks down one of Wu-Tang’s lyrics for us and how she’d approach it in sign. I’m Sean Cole from APM, American Public Media. This is The Story.

[Musical interlude: Wu-Tang Clan “Method Man”]

SC: I’m Sean Cole, in for Dick Gordon. This is The Story. I’m talking with Holly Maniatty, who has achieved some Internet fame this week for this one video going around of her doing sign language interpretation for Wu-Tang Clan at Bonarroo Music Festival. It hit me close to home on a whole bunch of levels. I love Wu-Tang Clan. But also, I did some signing in high school in the theater department. The director assigned a speaking actor and a signing actor to each role, so the stage was kind of crowned. And I learned then that you don’t represent each and every world. You’re more conveying ideas. Whether you’re interpreting Molière, or, probably more challengingly, Wu-Tang, it’s all about what the speaker intends.

HM: If the intent of the speaker is to say that they were driving along in their Impala and all of a sudden they got pulled over for no reason, etc, you have to put out there that they were with their friends, they were in a car, they are driving their Impala, because that’s very important to them obviously, and the concept of the police officers pulling them over. In English and American Sign Language, there isn’t a one-to-one correlation of word-to-sign. Some phrases that are five words long are 20 signs and vice versa: three signs for 20 words. Depending on the luck of the draw, you have to figure out conceptually. I can’t just say, “I’m driving down the road.” That doesn’t make any sense to anybody, so you have to give the markers, like, “I’m in L.A., I’m driving past the music hall or driving down the stars on Hollywood Boulevard.” You have to put all of that context in there. In a particular clip that went viral, they were talking about being chased and being pulled over and then kind of having this battle in the street and they were going to win this battle, so to speak. Prior to that, there was a lot of set up, so it was pretty equal word-for-sign. But I had done quite a bit of set up prior to that.

SC: I notice in the clip when you sign “driving,” you kick back like you’re in a low rider. [Laughs]

HM: You know, I don’t really see Method Man up there by the steering wheel like a soccer momwhen he’s rolling down the street. [Laughs]

SC: No! You know, who knows though. I mean. we’re all getting on in years.

HM: Yeah, he could drive a Volvo now. Who knows? [Laughs]

[Musical interlude: Wu-Tang Clan, “C.R.E.A.M”]

SC: So if they’re going, “Cash rules everything around me, C.R.E.A.M, get the money, dolla dolla bill, y’all,” it’s not like “cash” is one [sign], “rules” is another, “everything” is another, necessarily. How would you do that one?

HM: Well, it’s interesting. In that situation, you’re obviously talking about cash ruling everything, and you have to put out there that you’re talking about a monetary thing. What I would do is kind of take on that persona as if you were the money ruling everything—as though a king were ruling a kingdom.

SC: Ohhh, as if you were the money. That’s so smart.

HM: You know those old propaganda posters and those old propaganda films from World War I and II, where people would come over Europe like this big monster? I always think of embodying those images of the war being a monster or Europe or whoever it was in those big propaganda photos, and those are important images when I’m thinking, “Do I become the money? Am I something ruled by the money?” You have to figure all that out before you are interpreting it.

SC: Speaking of language and doing word for word for word, obviously there’s a lot of… I sound so square asking the question in this way… there’s a lot of F-bombs in the lyrics. Are you interpreting that or that is considered sort of an interstitial word on the way to other words? How are you dealing with the swears?

HM: There’s that whole adage that the f-bomb can be used as every part of speech so it depends on how it’s being used. If someone is saying, “F that,” it’s pretty clear. Most of the time, especially in hip hop, inflammatory language is acceptable, so I think it’s really important that that language is there because it’s part of the journey. You know, in the American hip hop journey, it was okay to use words like that. Not only was it okay, it became popular because of that, so integrating that into the interpretation is really important. Obviously, American Sign Language has swears just like any other language has swears and I definitely use those in the interpretation when appropriate. As an interpreter, I don’t philosophically believe that it’s my role to censor an artist, so if they are gonna say something inflammatory…. Like Killer Mike, when I was doing his show, came down onto the platform—and he’s a very large gentleman, so I felt like a little tiny munchkin next to him—he just got on the platform and he just started spewing every swear that he could possibly think of. I think he was just trying to have a little tête-à-tête with me to see if I could keep up with him, and I did, and the deaf patrons loved it. They were like, “Oh my gosh, he’s aware of sign language now,” and that’s part of his concert-goers’ experience too. Yeah, it’s all there.

SC: He was trying to mess with you.

HM: Yes, he definitely was. That happens a lot. [Laughs]

SC: Oh, really?

HM: If you’re an interpreter, you’re putting yourself out there. You’re potentially in front of thousands of people, and you’re also in front of someone who is used to owning the stage and having everyone’s eyes, so when there’s kind of divided attention there, they want to see if they can mess with you. Bob Saget definitely took advantage of having an interpreter in the comedy tent when I was there.

SC: Bob Saget did?

HM: Yes. Oh, yes. He is quite a witty clever individual and thinks very quickly on his feet. I personally think he’s pretty funny, so that was fun. It was great. As an interpreter who does performance interpreting, regardless of if it’s music or political speeches or comedy or whatever, you really need to be able to process language quickly and be able to get down to what they’re talking about and the meaning of what they’re talking about. I think what is paramount to that is not being afraid to put it out there

SC : It’s interesting because with comedy its really all about timing. Of course, with music it’s about rhythm and timing, but with comedy it’s about timing in a different way. It must be difficult to convey a joke.

HM: It is, because you don’t really know where the joke is going. You can go down that path where you think it’s going—you know, A plus B equals C —but often that’s not the case with comedians. So you have to be really on it. You also have to have command of ASL in the aspects of grammar. ASL has a lot of interesting techniques—it’s a lot of movement with your hands but when you stop moving, it’s almost like punctuating something, so you have to have a command of that when you are doing comedy. You have to be able to change roles because there are a lot of “he told her and she told him” jokes, so you have to kind of go back and forth very quickly between those roles, but it has to be very clear. It is definitely a challenge. It does make an hour feel like four hours, but everyone’s laughing and having a good time.

SC : I’m talking to Holly Maniatty, sign language interpreter for Wu-Tang Clan at Bonnaro Music Festival this month. You’re listening to The Story. A video of Holly interpreting went viral and ended up on Jimmy Kimmel Live, which was fun, she said, but the real affirmation came from the people she was interpreting for.

HM: The patrons said after the show that they had come to the Killer Mike show and then they went to the Wu-Tang show and actually attended a couple other rap shows after that during the weekend, and they said that they had never really understood why people like hip hop so much and why they like rap so much and now they got it.

SC: Really?

HM: So I was a part of that experience of them going, “Oh, this is what everyone talks about and this is why everyone misses Tupac and this is why everyone wants Wu-Tang to get back together,” so I feel pretty confident in this situation that the goal was meet.

SC: The reason why I love it is because of the rhythm—because of the flow, the lyrics, too, but it’s really that mixture of what they’re saying and also the phrasing. I wonder if that’s something you can experience through hand pictures.

HM: I definitely think it is. I think that not every interpreter is capable of creating those moments, but I think there’s the potential for it to be there, and I think that ASL is such a rich and beautiful language. Deaf people use it in such beautiful ways every single day when they are doing anything in their lives. It’s a very expressive language and to have command of those tools is really important as an interpreter. I definitely think that it is possible; it’s something that I will constantly work on until the day that I retire, although I don’t know if I’ll ever retire. I think, too, something that is interesting about rap and hip hop—as I study it more, I see a lot of metaphorical language, I see a lot of wordplay, I see a lot of things that, just being a fan, I wasn’t aware of until I was actually studying it. I feel a great responsibility to make sure that’s relayed in the interpretation. All of that has to be in there for the patron to say, “Now I get it.” So I’m pretty sure that it was there for the Wu-Tang show.

SC: It’s funny because there is one sign that all Wu-Tang fans know and do, where they touch the two tips of their thumbs together and then spread the rest of their fingers to make a W, and sort of swing that around, which is an individual sign that they have created. Did you do that when you were out there, swing the W back and forth?

HM: Well, if they start doing it, then I’ll start doing it, but there is a sign for “Wu-Tang” in sign language—because you can’t do that every time that you are signing, stick your hands out in the air and make a W with your thumbs—which I used while I was interpreting and they were referring to themselves.

SC: What is it?

HM: It’s a bit hard to explain, but intertwine your middle finger and your ring finger, like the West Coast sign, and then put it on your shoulder. Well, if I’m right-handed, then it’s on my left shoulder.

SC: So you do the West Coast sign and then you cross over to the other shoulder?

HM: Yeah. The “W” obviously representing “Wu-Tang.”

SC: Are they nice? I could spend an hour-long interview just grilling you with geeky questions about hanging out with the RZA and the GZA.

HM: Oh, I was totally geeking out because I was so excited. We were all there, and they weren’t there yet, and I’m backstage trying to get some shade because it was like 100 degrees that day, and I’m under this one tree in the middle of the field, thinking, where is everybody? Are they coming? Is this not going to happen? And then they just rolled up, all pimped out, clean sneakers, and everyone else there is dirty because they have been at a festival for two days. They seemed really nice. Almost all the members came over and shook our hands afterward. Method Man was like, “That’s tight.” He kept saying, “That’s tight, that’s dope.” I was like, “Thanks.”

SC: God, I wish that Method Man would say that anything I do is dope. That’s amazing.

[Laughter]

HM: Yeah, I was pretty excited. I was a little star-struck. I mean, in the moment, I was like, “Yeah, hi, thanks so much,” and then I had to go back to interpreting because he was still rapping while he was coming over to me. Afterwards, when the show was over, I was like, “Oh my gosh, Method Man said I was dope.” It’s pretty cool, I gotta say.

SC: That is cool. And speaking of luminaries that you’ve meet, you actually danced with and hugged Bruce Springsteen and he came over and signed with you? I saw this on the Internet. I’m asking this as though it was a question but I know it’s true.

HM: Yes, I was at that the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, which has an awesome access program, much like Bonnaroo, and I was interpreting and he was doing a show.

[Musical interlude: Bruce Springsteen, “Dancing in the Dark”]

I just had this weird feeling when he got off the stage, like, “I know he’s going to come over here. I don’t know why.” Then he jumped off the stage and ran over. I was working with Edie Jackson, and we were both interpreting and he got up on the stage, and started dancing with us while he was still singing “Dancing in the Dark.” I taught him the signs for “Dancing in the Dark” and he signed it a couple of times, which was really great. There was an overwhelmingly warm response from the deaf community about how he was trying to sign and that he came over and gave us a hug. It was really interesting because I was on the platform, and I couldn’t really see what was going on behind me. There all these women having this Beatles-like reaction, screaming and crying in front of me. I was like, “What is going on?” Then he came over to me and these women were freaking out.

SC : They were having a girl connection.

HM: They were. It was a very Beatles-moment, still, like, “What is going on?,” because I was working and then all of a sudden I see him out of the corner of my eye. Then, I realized, “Oh, that’s what’s going on.”

SC: That’s exactly what’s going on. Bruce Springsteen is going on exactly behind me.

HM: Yes, and that was pretty cool. He was really cool. I’ve done a bunch of concerts with him and that was the first time that he came down and interacted with us directly.

SC: And it’s mostly volunteer?

HM: At Bonnaroo, it’s all volunteer. We pay our own way and we get there and then we do our work.

SC: That surprises me. I would expect this to not only pay but pay well since it’s such a specialized skill.

HM: I think that some festivals give you a flat rate fee per day. I know that we’ve spent the past five or six years really building the ASL program, being able to bring in people from all around the country that are the best at what we do, so I think the program is getting there. The Lumineers called one of our interpreters on the stage. Killer Mike, Billy Idol, his guitarist pulled his guitar over the interpreter and started playing the guitar over the interpreter while she was interpreting at the Billy Idol show.

SC: Awesome! That rules.

HM: I know, it was really cool. It was actually the interpreter who was doing Wu-Tang with me, Jenn Abbott, so that was a really great experience. There was lot of positive artist interaction this year. You know, maybe that’s where our team is going in the future, hopefully, because we do put in a lot of time and a lot of our own money and a lot of effort to make sure that this event is accessible and that, most importantly, Bonnaroo is represented well. I know that the promoters of Bonnaroo, Super Fly and other companies—we do a couple of events with them a year and they’re always really excited to have interpreters there. In the past, I’ve done the Life is Good Festival in Canton, Massachusetts, with them and had some amazing moments with the performers there. I think it was two years ago, I was interpreting for the Avett Brothers and their mega-hit, “The Ballad of Love and Hate.” I actually did that with another interpreter, simultaneously, because the song is written in two voices.

[Musical interlude: Avett Brothers, “The Ballad of Love and Hate”]

HM: I didn’t realize throughout the song that they all had come to our side of the stage and were watching us. At the end of the song, the audience was clapping and everyone was looking at us and I was like, “Why is everyone looking at us?” Then I realized that they were behind us, and one of the Avett Brothers said, “That’s exactly what our song looks like.”

SC: That’s so sweet.

HM: Yeah, you know, I was overcome because that’s what you strive for, that your interpretation looks like whatever they manifested when they were writing that music.

SC: Holly Maniatty. We have clips of her interpreting both Wu-Tang Clan and Bruce Springsteen, two very different things, on our website: The Story.org. I’m Sean Cole. From APM, American Public Media. This is The Story.

[Musical interlude: Wu-Tang Clan, “Protect Ya Neck”]

 

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