Note: As is consistent with the written and culturally accepted standard, “Deaf” is used to refer to a community, while “deaf” is used to refer to a physiological state of being.
A few days ago, a good friend and fellow linguaphile posted a video on my Facebook wall of Shelby Mitchusson, a hearing American Sign Language (ASL) interpreter translating Eminem’s anthemic “Lose Yourself,” signing with dramatic facial expression and full body motion as she attempts to convey the essence of Slim Shady. The video now has more than 3 million views.
In the fall of 2013, Amber Galloway Gallego became a YouTube sensation after video of her signing a Kendrick Lamar concert also garnered millions of views. Countless articles (here, here, here, and here, to cite a few) lauded Gallego's signing as “epic” and called her “a true inspiration.” Of course, what she’s doing is a service to the Deaf community. Music is something that all people, regardless of their hearing status, should be able to appreciate and understand, and to convey the rhythm and spirit of Kendrick Lamar into a form of expression the deaf and hard of hearing can process is inherently valuable. Mitchusson and Gallego went viral because their videos are not simply a detached interpretation. They're excitingly interpretive.
But what are we really doing when we label ASL with words like "epic" or "cool"? We are exoticizing and trivializing it. ASL (and all sign languages—remember, there isn’t just one!) is a language every bit as much as English, with its own rules of grammar, its own syntax, morphology, phonology, and semantics. It is not “cool” or “interesting” or “awesome," but rather a practical and evolving way of communicating that deserves as much respect as any spoken language. To share a video of someone signing with the caption “look how cool this is!” perpetuates the misconception that sign languages are somehow different, a kind of sideshow novelty at which to marvel.
Any media attention at all to Deaf culture is important to the extent that it helps empower a group that is mostly clinicalized and marginalized. But when media focus on Gallego and Nelson Mandela’s memorial interpreter, both of whom are hearing, we are talking not about deaf people, culture, and language, but its appropriation at the hands, literally, of the hearing.
Too often, media coverage circumvents the Deaf narrative around deaf people and spins it into a story about a hearing person’s translation for the deaf. The interpretation becomes less an appreciation of sign language and all its grammatical complexities and more about theatrics. Gallego is the one on Jimmy Kimmel Live! competing in an ASL rap battle, and Deaf narrative becomes an exaltation of the hearing interpreter herself.
The point of interpreting is to mediate dialogue, and if that means that the interpreter can fade away, that’s okay. The Registry of Interpreting for the Deaf writes in its Standard Practice Paper on Interpreting for the Performing Arts: “Performance interpreting is not a vehicle for interpreters to become performers but rather a vehicle for the target audience members to enjoy the performance event.” But becoming a performer is precisely what many performance interpreters end up doing. Which is not to suggest that Mitchusson and Gallego stop signing songs, but that stagecraft not stand in for a more meaningful discussion about Deaf discrimination in America, about the influence of the cochlear implant, and about the silencing of minorities.
In 2012, a New York Times article investigated the development of new scientific signs by deaf scientists. Admirably, the author spoke with several deaf researchers, demonstrating to a (sadly) skeptical public that the deaf can achieve just as much as the hearing. Great. But then why did the Times hire a hearing interpreter to demonstrate the signs in an accompanying video, a task a deaf person easily could have, and should have, done? This small correction, filming and presenting a deaf person to the public instead of a hearing one, changes the reporting in a way that deaf people deserve.
Interpreters, including Gallego and Mitchusson, no doubt mean well and are strong allies of the Deaf community. I urge them, however, to leave more space for deaf people to represent their own languages. As for the link-sharer, stop posting videos that filter Deaf culture through the hearing. Let the voices of actual deaf people be heard.