Meet Holly Maniatty, the Wu-Tang Clan’s Sign Language Interpreter

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June 21 2013 3:10 PM

How Do You Say Shaolin in Sign Language?

Meet the interpreter who has signed for the Wu-Tang Clan, Killer Mike, and the Beastie Boys.

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“He looked at me and said, 'What? You're going to be interpreting the show?' ” she says.

To prepare for the show, Maniatty says she logged more than 100 hours of research on the Beastie Boys, memorizing their lyrics and watching past shows. Her prep work also includes researching dialectal signs to ensure accuracy and authenticity. An Atlanta rapper will use different slang than a Queens one, and ASL speakers from different regions also use different signs, so knowing how a word like guns and brother are signed in a given region is crucial for authenticity.

Signing a rap show requires more than just literal translation. Maniatty has to describe events, interpret context, and tell a story. Often, she is speaking two languages simultaneously, one with her hands and one with her mouth, as she’ll sometimes rap along with the artists as well. When a rapper recently described a run-in with Tupac, Maniatty rapped along while making the sign for hologram, so deaf fans would know the reference was to Tupac’s holographic cameo at Coachella, not some figment of the rapper's imagination.

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Maniatty, a first-degree black belt in taekwondo, also conveys meaning with her body, attempting to give her signs the same impact as the rapper’s spoken words. Before interpreting Eminem, she watched videos of how he holds himself while performing, and tried to capture his motions in her work.

“He has a very specific body cadence,” she said, “and if you're able to mimic that, it almost looks like you are him. Jay-Z's got a big boisterous chest-out way to rap sometimes. So you have to watch the different performers and watch how they move the body because the more genuine you are to their way of presenting themselves as an artist, the more equal of an experience the deaf person is going to have.”

Of course, hip-hop is a highly improvisational art, and no amount of careful research can prepare an ASL interpreter for what might happen at a live show. “There are lots of times people freestyle; you have to go with the moment,” she said. “For some reason my brain is dialed into the hip-hop cadence and is able to process language really quickly.”

The rappers she works for seem to agree. At one point during Wu-Tang's performance of “Bring Da Ruckus,” Method Man came over to Maniatty, mid-signing, and gave her a hug and a fist bump. He had been looking at her every time he said “motherfuckin” during the song and wanted to see if she signed it and how. Maniatty told me she thought to herself, “Of course I'm gonna say it, you're saying it. Your words, not mine.”

This is also Maniatty’s approach to an even more delicate term: the N-word. It's a dilemma for interpreters, especially white ones. But Maniatty says she believes it's her job to best represent the musicians, and she always uses the sign for the term, and, though she tries to avoid it, will occasionally say it with her lips as well. “It's very clear it's the artists' words, not mine,” she reiterated.

Kat Murphy is a 30-year-old Memphis native who is hearing-impaired; she can hear beats but not words. Along with her boyfriend, Melvin, who is “profoundly deaf,” Murphy was at Bonnaroo and attended both the Wu-Tang and Killer Mike shows. She witnessed Maniatty's interactions with both rappers. “It was amazing,” she said. “She didn't skip a beat or allow it to sidetrack her” when Method Man came calling. Unfamiliar with Killer Mike before the show, she left thinking he “was the most deaf-friendly artist and he really incorporated the interpreters into his performance. We are his new fans.”

Until Bonnaroo, it never occurred to Killer Mike that he had deaf fans; he left the show “honored” to have someone like Maniatty interpreting him. “You wonder how they can even keep up,” he says. “That's an art form; that's more than just a technical skill.”

Maniatty's next big show is Phish in Seattle at the end of July. She's done more than 20 shows for them, but, unlike hip-hop shows, where there are usually two interpreters, she usually works these concerts solo. “With Phish,” she said, “there's so much jamming in songs, there's time to rest.”

Amy K. Nelson is a senior correspondent for SB Nation based in New York City. You can follow her on Twitter @AmyKNelson.

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