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Meet Holly, That Awesome Wu-Tang Clan ASL Interpreter From Bonnaroo

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By Eric Sundermann

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Earlier this week, a video emerged online of an ASL interpreter going HAM during Wu-Tang Clan's set. The video got picked up by Gawker, Stereogum, and all sorts of other Important Internet Blogs, celebrating this woman who is 100% dedicated to her craft—so much so that she's almost more fun to watch than Wu-Tang themselves. 

This woman's name is Holly Maniatty, and she has been a certified (CI/CT, NIC: Master) interpreter for 13 years. This was her sixth (or seventh) Bonnaroo, but her first time as a meme. I called her up this afternoon and talked with her about what it's like to have the world watch you. Holly reminds us that success in this life is not necessarily dependent on what you do, but instead, how you do it.

Noisey: How does it feel to be a meme?
Holly Maniatty: I guess you're somewhat famous when people start making fun of you, right? [Laughs.]

I don't think people are making fun of you! I watched it and thought it was awesome.
It's a little overwhelming because I don't think of myself as in front of people. I guess I am in front of a lot of people but I'm always so absorbed in doing a good job—it's just about the deaf patrons who are there. I hope it spreads the word that Bonnaroo has an accessible festival and amazing interpreters that come from all over the country. Plus, a lot of people have the idea that rap music cannot be interpreted. But it can be done. It's a lot of work, but it can be done.

What exactly is your job and how are you tied to Bonnaroo?
I do lots of different festivals and concerts. I've worked for the Bonnaroo festival for six or seven years. They have an entire access team which provides access for anyone with a disability. That includes a team of sign language interpreters who come from all over the country. 

Are there different levels of interpreters? Are there "headliners" or "second stagers" or whatever?
The way that we do it is we wait for patrons to request a show that they would like to go see and then from there we coordinate it through the team based on skill level, or if one person has a specific genre they are good at. For example, rap and hip-hop has become my own little niche. We farm it out that way. Some people are super awesome at folk or emo, whatever kind of genre they have. Or if someone has a lot of experience with one specific performer and they know their entire canon of work, then they're obviously a natural choice to do that concert.

What sort of preparation goes into this? 
I can tell you how I prepare for concerts. It's different for every interpreter, but I happen to totally dig Wu-Tang. I spent about 50-80 hours studying their music, going online and watching interviews with them, and reading every possible thing I could about their background and where they're from and all that kind of stuff to get to know them as intimately as performers as I can. There were multiple interpreters working that show because there are so many of them. I would take on person and the other would take one and we go back and forth.

Raekwon doesn’t sound like Ghostface.
No, he doesn't. [Laughs]

How do you do illustrate flow?
One thing that myself and the other girl in the video, Jenn Abbott, is that we do a lot of research. We watch a lot of videos on them performing live. We do a lot of research on where they came from and in the process of that, learning where they move on stage, and how they hold their body, how they hit a beat really hard, or a word of a song really hard, and how they annunciate their body. We do a lot of that and you know a lot of listening to the music and a lot of research where they came from.

So, if they’re from New York City, we try to use directional signs from specific areas where they are from, so it’s a genuine experience for them to have. There’s a bunch of different signs for ‘gang’ or ‘brother’ or ‘brotha,’ you know? It’s a lot about your body, the persona, and the gesticulation of the persona in your work. Like during "Bring Da Ruckus," he was hunched over and internally bringing it in and that’s how I was signing. If you were looking at me, I should mimicking the same body posture as he does.

So you are, in essence, trying to become Ghostface.
You know that moment in the movie Ghost when someone jumps into Whoopi Goldberg's body? Like that’s the kind of moment you want. They breathe into you and you’re supposed to look like them. That’s what we strive for.

That’s great. So which members of Wu-Tang were you doing?
Well, we started off doing Method Man and Ghostface Killah and then she was doing Raekwon and then they all just started jumping in. So what we were doing was switching on and off based on who was performing, so when someone went on for one stanza and she would take the next. We would go back and forth so that deaf people could know that different people were talking. 

Is it exhausting?
Oh my gosh, I was so tired from that show.

Just seeing Wu-Tang in concert is an exhausting experience. Was that the most exhausted you've been after a show?
Yeah, that show and the Beastie Boys. I did The Beastie Boys—their very last performance—at Bonnaroo. That was my first show there. And with the Beastie Boys, you have a commitment to bring it.  And that’s what I felt like about Wu-Tang. Like if they don’t tour again—if this one of their last 5, 10 concerts they do—you've really got to make sure that the deaf people are having a "this is happening right now" kind of experience.

Yeah, I was really tired.

How long have you been doing this?
I’ve been an interpreter for 13 years, and I’ve been a performance interpreter for 10 of the 13. 

Did you just naturally get into it? Like I’m a writer but I’m attracted to music so I ended up writing about music. Were you attracted to music so that is why you went into the performance area?
I almost kind of have a knack for language and music is something that just sticks into my brain easily. It’s a little Rain Man-ish, but I just tend to remember lyrics and how the music goes, and understand what it means really quickly. It's just a natural progression for me—once I was a certified interpreter and enough experience to move into the performance interpreting. It's such a challenge because you have to do all the research and figure out what they’re talking about and put it all into sign language, and make it look as amusing as it sounds. Rappers are using metaphors all the time, so you have to create that moment metaphor, and you know when the Beastie Boys drop that beat, you have to drop that beat at the same time. It’s a big challenge, and I love challenges, and I love music so it sort of works together.

What if Ghostface grabs the mic and he just starts to freestyle?
Then you freestyle too! That’s where research comes into play because you know if he’s talking about the south side and you think he’s from Cleveland, that’s a different kind of south side as LA or NYC. You have to know where they’re from and tune into that. I’m not really sure why exactly, but I’m kind of able to very rapidly process rap and hip hop, it’s just kind of my thing and I love it.

So you’re a big hip-hop fan?
Oh yes, absolutely.

Who's your favorite member of Wu-Tang?
I don’t know. Since Method Man came over and gave me a hug, I think he might be. I’ve always loved Ghostface—there’s just something about him. I’d say one of them.

Do you have a favorite Wu-Tang song?
I really love "Bring Da Ruckus." I love it. I love that song, I run to it all the time. I run down the road, rapping to myself.  Which is a weird thing to see in Maine. I’m from Portland, Maine.  People look around and they’re like “What’s going on with this girl?”

It must feel great to represent some of your favorite artists for deaf people.
It’s absolutely an honor. When I found out that that was the Beastie Boys last show I was like, "Wow, what an opportunity to interpret their very last show," and I saw a very small, tiny part of Bonnaroo. It was a huge production but it was so meaningful, I’ve listened to them for years and years and just to be a part of that moment for a deaf person was awesome for me.

Is it weird to do interpretation for stuff that might make you uncomfortable? 
Yeah. At one point I was interpreting for Tenacious D, Jack Black's band, and he was singing that song "Fuck Me Gently." I was like, I cannot believe I’m signing this in front of 10,000 people.  But you know, it's something he wanted to sing about. It's Jack Black and you just do it.

There’s been some discussion about me signing the ‘N’ word, but that’s the word [Wu-Tang] uses and they have the rights to use it or not to use it. I wanted to make sure that the patrons can make their own political opinion, either being "okay, cool," or be offended by it. To steal that opportunity from them is not the role of an interpreter. You know when you go to a concert and you’re like, who are these performers? And then you’re like,  oh my god, they’re awesome! That’s the kind of experience you want [deaf people] to have.

How many deaf people come to Bonnaroo?
Well, there’s usually a group. One year we had 12 or 13 people. That doesn’t sound like a lot but for every performance they want to see, we have at least two interpreters there. So if there’s a group of five or six people but they want to go to three different shows, that’s six different people at a time. It takes quite a lot of coordination and the team that I work is really good at covering even last minute requests. It's great. It’s a really good thing and it grows every year and new people come every year because they hear about the interpreters, so I’m just really excited that this press will get some more people to come because we do have a very talented team of people. 

Do you get to meet the performers? Like what if you interpreted for Paul McCartney?
Oh, I don’t think anyone can get near Sir Paul McCartney. The only way I met Method Man is because he came down the platform and gave me a hug, so as interpreters we have to stay professional even if we get excited about seeing people. If they invite us back—I've had a couple musicians invite me back because they wanted to meet me—of course we’ll go back, but you know they’re doing a job, too and its important that we respect that and not be all groupie on them.

 

Eric Sundermann is amazed by Holly. He's on Twitter — @ericsundy

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