For the deaf, ASL interpreters help translate the intimacy of live music

While interpreters connect the deaf and hearing worlds onstage, the interpretation takes center stage.

Katie Lauer

When Shawn Vriezen interpreted the national anthem for the Minnesota Wild Stadium Series hockey game against the Chicago Blackhawks last February, his hands shown in stark contrast against his black shirt as he signed the patriotic lyrics in his native American Sign Language.

“I was able to really show [the words] in ASL and have the rockets going up and everything,” Vriezen said. “It all seemed perfectly timed, providing me with a moment of awe. It felt to me as if my signs were controlling the fireworks.”

Vriezen is a Certified Deaf Interpreter. He interprets for concerts and live performances, but music is just one of his many specialties. His job, he said, is to connect the deaf and hearing worlds.

“There’s always going to be that gap,” Vriezen said. “A CDI’s got a big responsibility in terms of creating that bridge and decreasing the gap that exists.”

Vriezen was the first CDI to interpret music in Minnesota. With the help of a hearing interpreter teammate, monitors, headphones and extensive music research prior to the event, he can fully share the music’s story.

A metal music fan, Vriezen said his deafness provides an advantage when translating what’s happening on stage.

What the audience wants

“Why do this for deaf people? It’s a challenge. It’s not a linear translation, because with music you’ve got a melody that’s woven in between the words,” Vriezen said. “So it’s trying to figure out what that looks like in a visual language, making sure that the flow is there and the intent is there; there are a lot of pieces to it.”

Vriezen said he has a good understanding of what deaf concertgoers want from an interpreter. But what is it that they want?

Betty Miller, having grown up with music, is one audience member who knows the answer.

“I love music, and I love seeing [artists] live,” Miller said. “It’s a completely different environment and a unique experience.”

Miller estimates that she’s been to over 500 shows in her lifetime and attends 10 to 12 a year. A lover of Journey, Duran Duran and Adele — whom she’s seen twice — she said she mainly focuses on the action onstage but relies on the interpreter for instrumental and vocal translation.

Miller believes good interpreters are those who first take the time to make the full translation from English into ASL.

ASL is a completely different and unique language from English, and it has its own set of rules in syntax and structure when conveying information visually. Because of this, ideas can be expressed differently than in spoken English; it’s the interpreter’s role to facilitate this communication.

“They need to be translating it into ASL conceptually,” Miller said. “If someone says, ‘Hungry like the wolf,’ and the interpreter signs those words, it doesn’t match what the song actually means.”

In addition to portraying the emotion of a song and the correct ASL meanings, she said there are cultural meanings and messages in the music that they need to be aware of.

Additionally, interpreters must be able to fully communicate what is happening musically. If the piano player is really good or if there’s a high-pitched guitar solo, Miller wants the interpreter to tell her exactly that.

“I’d rather she tell me it’s a high note rather than look like she’s constipated or something,” she joked.

At the end of the day, Miller doesn’t want to miss anything or have the music get lost in translation. She wants the full concert experience.

“When I’m paying $300 for a show, I’m going to be really picky about my interpreters,” Miller said. “High-ticket prices mean high expectations.”

Vriezen said these many expectations and preferences are elements he can fully understand as a CDI.

“Being a deaf person myself, I know that we’re not all the same,” Vriezen said. “We all have different backgrounds. There’s no one-size-fits-all for deaf people that might be in the audience.”

A controversy of focus and function

Despite his placement on stage, Vriezen said the interpreter isn’t a show’s focal point — the signed interpretation and intended audience are.

While he said it’s not about the individuals themselves, popular articles and videos circulating online have increased interest in interpreters. One such is Amber Galloway Gallego, who has interpreted for big names like Kendrick Lamar and the Red Hot Chili Peppers.

While fame may bring more visibility to the service of interpreting, Vriezen said it also brings controversy, tokenism and questions that lack obvious right answers.

“I think a lot of the fascination comes from the interpretation itself, so people are drawn to seeing the ASL, whoever [the interpreter] is,” he said. “It ignores the deaf people obviously and focuses on the hearing interpreter only.”

Vriezen said that while hearing interpreters do a great job, the community needs to figure out the right balance and partnership.

Miller agrees.

“When people focus on the interpreter, they tend to think that the interpreters are ‘God’s gift from heaven’ for the ‘poor deaf people,’” she said. “But the interpreter is only there because we requested the interpreting services, and we want access.”

Miller said that because of the misdirection, deaf people become invisible, and their culture becomes appropriated.

“[The interpreters] are just relaying information to us,” she said. “That’s all they’re doing — their job. So when people go fawn over the interpreters, they’re really just ignoring the reason they’re there, which is to serve the deaf community.”

While it drives Miller “nuts,” this misunderstanding and lack of knowledge won’t drive her away from the live shows she loves.

“People think the deaf can’t go to concerts,” she said. “But I’m one of those weirdos who go.”