Interpreting music into American Sign Language

Here and Now

This story was originally covered by PRI’s Here and Now. For more, listen to the audio above.

How can the essence of music be translated for someone who can’t hear? American Sign Language interpreter Aaron Malgeri has an answer. As an interpreter for deaf concertgoers at shows by performers like Areosmith, Bob Dylan, The Indigo Girls and Crosby, Stills and Nash, Malgeri is responsible for much more than just translating the lyrics. Along with the words of the song, he conveys the emotion, rhythm, metaphors and symbolism of the music.

Like any other language, American Sign Language is complex. It has a unique grammatical structure, regional dialects and its own history of poetry. It can take Malgeri weeks to decide on the best way to interpret a song. He has to understand the intention behind the words before he can translate the piece.

He explains how he incorporates the mood of a song and a rock star’s performance into his translation:

Just like we have tone of voice in English, you can sign the same thing three different ways — a thousand different ways — with different emotion. So whatever I’m getting and feeling from the stage, is what I try to incorporate in my interpretation

Using the example of Aerosmith’s “Dream On,” Malgeri describes how tone can be expressed in sign:

He starts out very quiet and thoughtful, and then it all raises up, and so my body language is going to get larger, my signs will get larger. And there’s a lot more drama in that part of the song. So by the time that I’m signing the chorus, “Dream On,” my hands are much wider than my shoulders, I’ve raised it up a little bit, and that sort of energy and emotion is all on my face as well. Sign language isn’t just the hands. So I may be signing something, but a person is going to read how emphatic I am, for example, based on my facial expression.

The job of translating music for the deaf is a controversial one, but the Boston based interpreter believes the task is achievable.

There’s lots of arguments. Some people will say if you can’t hear the music, you cannot create some other visual form of it that’s equivalent. And other people will say, well yeah, but I can still get a sense of the mood and a sense of the emotion. And so that’s what we do everyday.


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