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.

Holly Maniatty signs at a Phish concert.
Holly Maniatty signs at a Phish concert.

Courtesy of Holly Maniatty

When Killer Mike took the stage last week at the Bonnaroo music festival, he spotted amid the crowd a white woman rapping along to his lyrics, shaking her body and contorting her face to the beat. The Atlanta rapper has his share of white, female fans, but he quickly realized this woman was different: Holly Maniatty wasn’t, in fact, a fan, but a sign language interpreter. Intrigued by her work, the rapper jumped down from the stage to the raised platform Maniatty shared with a colleague and started dancing with them. Curious just how far he could push his interpreter, he rapped every dirty word he could think of on the spot, picking up the speed of his flow to see if Maniatty could keep pace.

“You know—and everyone in the world knows—that's what you want to see,” Killer Mike told me over the phone. “You know when you're watching church on Sunday morning [on television] and that little lady is in the left corner of the screen signing? And you really wish you could just say something to get her to be like, ‘Woah, there is a sign for “motherfucker” ’?”

Maniatty is a self-described Vermont farm girl who holds degrees in both American Sign Language linguistics and brain science. But she said she’d also logged more than 50 hours of studying Killer Mike’s body of work before the show. She more than kept up.

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“I think [it was] a little tête-à-tête between the artist and interpreter,” Maniatty told me. “After, he told the crowd, ‘Yeahhh girl. I ain't never seen nothing like that. I've been all over the world, and all over this city, and all through these streets, I ain't never seen nothing like that.’ ”

Earlier this week, a clip of Maniatty signing at the Wu-Tang Clan's show at Bonnaroo surfaced and quickly went viral. Jimmy Kimmel showed the clip during his monologue. Like Killer Mike, many people had never seen a sign language interpreter translate hip-hop in real time. But Maniatty has been at this for 13 years, using her skills as an interpreter—and careful research of her subjects—to bring music to the deaf.

Growing up in Newport, Vt., just south of the Canadian border, Maniatty's only exposure to hip-hop was through MTV. She’d heard of Snoop Dogg, Puffy, and Biggie, but that was about the limit of her knowledge. She always had a knack for language, and on a whim, applied to the Rochester Institute of Technology's ASL program. Only one of two students who had no prior sign language experience, Maniatty graduated from the program after two years and later got her undergraduate degree from the University of Rochester. In college she was exposed to a wider range of hip-hop, hearing the Beastie Boys and Wu-Tang for the first time. She loved both.

Video of one Wu-Tang performance, courtesy of Dayna McKenzie and Corey Hughes:

Her break in the music business came when while working at an interpreting company based in Rochester, when all of her colleagues passed on a Marilyn Manson concert. “Nobody was willing to do it,” Maniatty told me over the phone Thursday afternoon, as her Wu-Tang video was going viral. “And it was quite a big sashay into concert interpreting because he's a show. He's a big show.”

The Manson job gave Maniatty a taste for concert work. A few years later, now working for an interpreting service in Portland, Maine, a colleague connected her to Everyone’s Invited, a production company that hires interpreters for festivals and events. According to company director Laura Grunfeld, the practice of including interpreters at concerts is becoming more common, though it is still something you primarily see at the larger festivals like Bonnaroo.

Maniatty soon was working the New Orleans Jazz Fest and Bonnaroo, sharing a stage with acts like Bruce Springsteen (who sang and signed “Dancing in the Dark” with her), U2, and even Bob Saget. She works an average of 60 events annually, paying her own way and usually getting a flat-rate fee.

It wasn't until 2009 when Maniatty worked her first big hip-hop show, interpreting for the Beastie Boys at the 2009 Bonnaroo, in what would prove to be their final show. She remembers telling a deaf fan from the Bronx, “Hi, I'm Holly, I'm from Maine and I'll be your interpreter.”

“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.

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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