Translating Rock Concerts For Those Who Can't Hear

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Aaron Malgeri interpreting a Grace Potter and the Nocturnals Concert. (Alissa Greenberg)
Aaron Malgeri interpreting a Grace Potter and the Nocturnals Concert. (Alissa Greenberg)

Interview Transcript

Here & Now Host Deborah Becker: First Aaron, how fun is your job?

Aaron Malgeri: It's a riot. It is so much fun to do, and not just the night of. Although that's where your energy is through the roof and that will carry me for days. When you come out of that venue, you're still floating. You've gotten all the energy from the room, from the fans, from the music. Yeah, I absolutely love it.

Becker: Well, Aerosmith, that was the first concert....

Malgeri: The very first one, yes.

Becker: And how do you translate "Dream On". That seems like a tough one.

Malgeri: He gives us some imagery that we can work with. He's got some lines in his face, some wrinkles, some experience there....

Music: (“Dream On” performed by Aerosmith)"Every time I look in the mirror, All these lines on my face getting clearer....."

Malgeri: You have to know what a person means. The words alone are not enough because it's not as though sign language is English represented on the hands. It's a completely different language. It has its own grammar and structure. And so if you have the meaning then you can think, ok now if I were to sign this, how would I express that? It's just a little more fun at a concert.

Music: (Aerosmith's "Dream On" fades back in) "Dream on, dream on, dream on... (screaming)"

Becker: So, the whole energy of the song changes there. How do you convey that and sort of the emotion of rock, really. That's got to be incredibly difficult. How do you do that?

Malgeri: I benefit so much from the energy from the stage. So a lot of times I don't have to think very hard about the energy that I'm getting, what they're conveying, because you can feel that. So that shapes how I sign. 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. So, 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.

Becker: You're assuming a lot of the theatrics of the show yourself, to be able to convey them when you sign. Yes?

Malgeri: Yes, and that's actually a tricky line. Because we don't want to steal the show from the stage. So in a venue where Aerosmith is playing, you can't but feel the energy coming from the stage, so even if I'm signing's still them, they're still the stars. But if it were a smaller, more acoustic club, and I was interpreting for somebody who was singing and sort of on a smaller scale... if I started signing that large, I would be taking away focus from them.

Becker: Did anyone ever say to know, we all can interpret songs differently. Did anyone ever say to you, 'you got it wrong. that's not what they meant by that particular song.'

Malgeri: hmm.....

Becker: Or did you ever feel as if maybe..... as the years went by, maybe you thought a song really meant something differently and you wondered if you should revise the way that you were interpreting.

Malgeri: That's one of the challenges. One of the other songs I had mentioned was Grace Potter and the Nocturnals' song, “Ah Mary.”
Host: Well, let's listen to that.

Music: (Grace Potter and the Nocturnals, “Ah Mary)
"She puts herself just a notch above human kind
Ah Mary
She'll bake you cookies then she'll burn your town
Ah Mary
Ashes Ashes but she won't fall down
She's the beat of my heart
She's the shot of a gun"

Malgeri: The challenge with this song was trying to keep the imagery and symbolism that's in the song. But if you look at the song as a whole, it seems on the surface to be talking about a person. But by the end of the song, you see that 'Ah Mary' becomes America. So there's all of these things about how this woman is behaving that you could extrapolate to a much larger scale...about our interaction with other countries around the world.

Becker: That's got be tough.

Malgeri: It's a lot of fun.

Becker: (laughs)

Malgeri: This is why I love my work.

Becker: Well let's pick another song that you've actually mentioned that we could bring up and you can explain you're interpreting. This is Helplessly Hoping” by Crosby, Stills and Nash. Let's listen.

Music: (Helplessly Hoping” performed by Crosby, Stills and Nash:)
"Helplessly hoping her harlequin hovers nearby
Awaiting a word..........."

Becker: How did you tackle the alliteration of that song?

Malgeri: There isn't exactly alliteration in sign language, but there are longstanding , handed down traditions of poetry. I took a couple of weeks trying to come up with a sign that would express this sort of longing this character has but to still show that the way the song is written is in a poetic structure. It's not just a story. The form is also important.

Becker: And speaking of a lot of symbolism and imagery, you've also done Bob Dylan. Now that's got to be another challenging concert to interpret for the audience.

Malgeri: Right, and actually one of the fans that night looked at me a little funny and said, don't you think that the deaf person you're working with is the only one whose going to know what Bob Dylan is saying.

Becker: (laughs)

Music: (Bob Dylan, “Like A Rolling Stone”)
Once upon a time you dressed so fine
You threw the bums a dime in your prime, didn't you ?
People'd call, say, "Beware doll, you're bound to fall"
You thought they were all kiddin' you

Becker: Would you say that over all, what you try to do is give the same kind of musical experience to a deaf concert goer as a non deaf concert goer. Or is that not the objective at all?

Malgeri: There are some people that I work with that who can hear the music, but can't hear the words. And so I don't have to give them much sense of how the music sounds, they've got that part. So I'm sort of filling in what's missing. There are some times when the person wants to know what the English words are in English word order, so that they can sing along. Which is a different sort of challenge than letting go of the English and thinking about the concepts and how you express that.

Becker: So what do you do during the guitar solos or the instrumentals?

Malgeri: Again, it's going to depend on whose there. One of the people that I've worked with most often, is such a fan...they already knows where that solo is going, and what I'm providing is more timing, because they are familiar with the song.

Becker: Do you sort of dance?..Or...

Malgeri: I can't help it.

Becker: (laughs.)

Malgeri: (laughs) I'm dancing anyway. Sometimes you will say, they're doing a guitar solo. Sometimes you might try to express sort of the mood of it, the tension in it. And 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.

Becker: Well, thanks very much for speaking with us.

Malgeri: It was great. Thanks for having me.

Becker: Aaron Malgeri is a freelance sign language interpreter based in Boston.

This segment aired on April 12, 2011.


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